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The Republican minority problem
By Robert S. Sargent, Jr.
From February 18, 2002 to February 21, 2002, the Washington Times ran a series of articles by Steve Miller on the changing economic status of blacks in America. He drew on two sources to document this: statistics from the 2000 census, and personal interviews. The purpose of the articles was to simply attempt to reverse the widely held view that blacks are living in poverty, victims of racism.
Mr. Miller points out that "Black medium household income grew 15 percent between 1989 and 1999, compared with 6 percent for white families. Median income for blacks grew to $30,439 from $22,974 in 1993, a 32 percent leap compared with the increase of 14 percent for whites during that period. The number of black-owned firms increased 26 percent from 1992 to 1997, compared with a 7 percent increase for U.S. firms overall."
The series of four articles are very interesting in the raw numbers from the census figures, and in the personal stories of successful blacks, but something struck me while reading this. If blacks are becoming more diversified in their economic situations, why aren't they more diversified politically? Over 90 per cent of blacks vote Democratic, and nothing seems to be changing that.
There is a recent book written by Debra Dickerson, an African-American, called An American Story. She begins by describing her family: "Fundamentalist Christians, they opposed abortion, supported capital (and corporal) punishment, kept hunting guns, disapproved of welfare recipients, unwed mothers, and those who didn't work." This sounds like a pretty right-wing family, but listen to her mother explaining politics to a young Debra: "Democrat is what you are. Democrats'll let the little man have something. Caint have much as the white man, naturally, but they will let us ordinary folk get somewhere. Republicans don't want nobody else to have nothin'." Here was a black family that had values associated with conservatives, but turned to the Democrats when they voted. Even if some minorities think Democratic policies are wrong, the perception is that they care, and Republicans don't.
For those blacks that are conservative, the Republicans have the issues, but they don't seem to know how to connect them issues with African-Americans and other minorities. For example: School vouchers. A recent report done by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies states that, "On the issue of school vouchers...blacks and Hispanics favor vouchers by solid majorities." If any party is seen to be associated with vouchers, it's the Republicans. Bush ran on it as part of his education package. But when I hear Republican leaders talk about vouchers, it sounds like they're trying to convince me instead of those who will be affected. They speak in terms of theories such as: vouchers will force public schools to compete for students, so in the long run we will see an improvement in all of our schools, and so on. This is fine, but why aren't they going into the inner city and telling parents, "If you vote for me, I'll work to get you vouchers that will help get your children out of bad schools and into good schools right now!"? (The fact that President Bush has already abandoned vouchers has to be seen as just another insincerity on the part of Republicans.)
To further illustrate the Republican's problem with minorities, let me quote from Hasting Wyman's Southern Political Report. In an effort to attract minorities, "...periodically, the GOP announces a 'big tent' strategy... Far too often, however, the GOP's well-intentioned expansion gets sidetracked when the party is tempted by the short-term gains of...polarization. In 1998, for example, the Georgia Republican Party made a major effort to appeal to black voters, who make up about one-fourth of the state's electorate, and recruited more than 20 African-Americans to run for office across the state. But the effort came to naught when Guy Millner, the GOP's gubernatorial nominee, decided to focus on Democratic ties to prominent black political leaders." Does the Republican Party get it?
You may ask, why should Republicans care about a group that hardly ever supports them? The same census that provided Steve Miller with his story has another story to tell: Our country is becoming more diverse with minorities an ever-larger proportion of our population. If the Republican Party doesn't start capturing African-Americans and other minorities, it will be doomed to be the minority party.
One hopeful note: A couple of weeks ago August 7, 2002, Mr. Miller, again in the Washington Times, had a column titled "Republicans push minority candidates." He wrote: "The Republican Party says it has the largest-ever field of non-incumbent minorities seeking top offices this fall." As David Bositis, executive director of the Center for Joint Political and Economic Studies notes, "Having candidates is different than having voters," but perhaps this is a start. The question now is, will the GOP again be "tempted by the short-term gains," and, once again, feed the perception that they don't care?
Robert S. Sargent, Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.
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