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Blacks Shift Attention from Trent Lott to the Republican Party

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Washington (NNPA)

By George E. Curry and Hazel Trice Edney
NNPA News Service

Now that the Republican Party has prevented Sen. Trent Lott from becoming a “Bull” Connor-like symbol for Democratic opponents, the party’s challenge now is to figure out how to become more progressive on racial issues without alienating its support among White conservatives, political analysts and civil rights leaders believe.

“The Republican Party’s civil rights problem is far broader and deeper than Trent Lott,” says Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way. “It was important to the nation that Lott be replaced as majority leader.

It is more important that the White House and GOP leaders make a break not only with the segregationist past but with their policies and actions that continue to undermine civil rights protections in America today.”

Lott, the Senate Majority Leader for 18 months until Democrats gained control of the chamber, was scheduled to resume that post when Congress reconvenes next month. On Friday, however, the Mississippi Republican, facing growing opposition from within his party, announced that he will not seek the role.

Before his announcement, Lott was quickly becoming the poster boy for Democrats eager to paint Republicans as insensitive on racial issues. If Lott had retained the leadership position, he might have symbolized White racism in the same way T. Eugene “Bull” Connor, the former commissioner of public safety in Birmingham, Ala., came to represent evil.

Connor inadvertently galvanized national support for civil rights in 1963 by having firemen and police officers turn on water hoses and allow police dogs to attack Black demonstrators, some of them children. Televising that raw brutality helped speed passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

With Lott having sidestepped that unwanted fate, the focus has shifted to the Republican Party rather than its would-be Senate leader.
“Race has been the subtext to the rise of the Republican Party,” says Faye M. Anderson, a former chair for the Republican National Committee’s New Majority Council, an outreach project. “And the fallout from Trent Lott’s slip of the tongue is to expose what the party would rather not expose.”

What’s being exposed is that Lott rose to a top leadership position by advocating insensitive racial policies, such as opposition to affirmative action, a stance of the Republican Party and George W. Bush.
His likely successor as majority leader, Bill Frist of Tennessee, has earned an F on each NAACP report card issued since he was first elected in 1994.

Like Lott, he voted to ban affirmative action programs that would use legislative branch funds, voted against the Hate Crimes Expansion Act of 2000 and against an amendment in 1998 to preserve the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Program. Frist voted for the confirmations of John Ashcroft as attorney general in 2001 and Far-Right jurist Dennis Shedd earlier this year to the U.S. Circuit Court.

In his rebuke of Lott, the president rejected the Mississippi lawmaker’s assertion that the country would have been better off if then-segregationist Strom Thurmond had been elected president in 1948.

“Every day our nation was segregated was a day that America was unfaithful to our founding ideals,” Bush told a predominantly Black audience in Philadelphia. “And the founding ideals of our nation and, in fact, the founding ideals of the political party I represent was, and remains today, the equal dignity and equal rights of every American.”

In trying to woo African-American voters, Bush advisers like to say that the Republican Party is the party of Lincoln. In reality, it’s not even the party of Ford. It’s more a party of the Edsel, a much-hyped automobile that was discontinued in 1959 shortly after it was introduced to the public.

The NAACP’s most recent report card shows that all 49 Republicans in the Senate received failing grades on issues considered important to African-Americans. Of all of the Republican members in the House and Senate, just one—outgoing Congressman Gary Condit of California—received a grade as high as a D.

Yet, Republicans hope to expand their base between now and the next presidential election in 2004 by proposing faith-based initiatives, private and parochial school vouchers and tax cuts that have largely gone to the wealthy.

How the Bush administration deals with two affirmative action cases now before the U.S. Supreme Court may directly impact its future ability to attract Black voters.

The two cases, scheduled to be argued in May, involve challenges to affirmative action programs administered by the University of Michigan’s Law School and an undergraduate division of the university.
According to published reports, Bush advisers are divided over whether the administration should argue on the side of the university or the White plaintiffs who brought the cases charging that the university violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution.

Arthur Fletcher Jr., former assistant secretary of labor in the Nixon administration, thinks his party has made a mistake by opposing affirmative action. Although the term “affirmative action” was first used in a presidential executive order signed by John F. Kennedy, it was Nixon who, at Fletcher’s behest, strengthened the program by requiring goals and timetables.

“This gives the party an opportunity to clean up its record where things vital to African-Americans are concerned,” Fletcher says. “They tore the stadium down. They’re getting ready to build a new one. That stadium ought to be as inclusive as it can possibly be on our terms.”

While Fletcher is rooting for affirmative on one sideline, others—including some Black conservatives—are making a pitch to party leaders from another direction.
One of them, Phyllis Berry Myers, president and CEO of the Center for Black Leadership, a conservative group based in Washington, D.C., thinks the Bush administration has already made headway into the Black community.

She praises Bush’s support of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, his push to increase the rate of Black home ownership and efforts to provide more venture capital to African-Americans as examples of Republican sensitivity to issues important to African-Americans.

Whether those issues will resonate with Black voters is another matter.
One issue that perplexes GOP strategists is that even though the Black middle class is larger than it has ever been, Republicans are having difficulty appealing to Blacks.

Until the introduction of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, Blacks had voted for Republicans at the same rate they now support Democrats. In national elections, African-Americans reject Republican candidates at least by an 8-1 margin.

Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, executive director of the Black Leadership Forum, an umbrella group for the nation’s major civil rights organizations, predicts that the GOP will never recover until it starts supporting programs favored by most African-Americans.

“The top priorities of our agenda include a fair and equitable decision on Social Security benefits for people for whom this program is a safety net; allocations of sufficient resources for child care and job training to make our communities more competitive; a redirection of the drive to privatize so many resources…and a containment of the driving determination to appoint arch-conservative activists to the federal bench at all levels.”

The appointment of judges to the federal bench is a high priority of the Bush administration and its critics. And it appears highly unlikely that Bush will go back on his campaign pledge to appoint Supreme Court justices with views similar to Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, the court’s two most conservative members.

The Southern conservative movement took root in the scorched earth 1964 campaign of segregationist Barry Goldwater. It was broadened by Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” and really took wings under Ronald Regan, as Southern Democrats, who came into power, in part, by keeping Blacks away from the polls over the years, switched parties.

Thurmond and arch-segregationist Jesse Helms of North Carolina, both of whom are retiring this year, led the way as Republicans not only played the race card, but the whole deck.

In their book, “The Rise of Southern Republicans,” Earl and Merle Black observe: “With Goldwater’s campaign, the [GOP] attracted many racist Southern whites but permanently alienated African-American voters.”

They continued, “… Gradually, a new Southern politics emerged in which blacks and liberal to moderate whites anchored the Democratic Party while many conservatives and some moderate whites formed a growing Republican Party that owed little to Abraham Lincoln but much to Goldwater and even more to [Ronald] Reagan.”

J. Kenneth Blackwell, the Ohio secretary of state and a long-time Black Republican, feels the party has moved away from the long shadow of White supremacists.

“The reality is that more and more you have a new generation of elected officials,” he says. “You have [Lt. Gov.] Michael Steele in Maryland and [Lt. Gov.] Jeanette Bradley in Ohio. They speak up and they speak out on issues of justice and equality.”

The paramount question is whether George Bush and party leaders are listening. Is Bush truly a “compassionate conservative?” as he proclaims, or, as Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) says, compassionate toward conservatives.

The direction in which the party goes may well determine whether Republicans—who now control all three branches of government—will be able to maintain their edge.

“We know that Tent Lott is not the issue. They want to make him the fall guy so they can move on. But the problem is much broader than Trent Lott, says Faye Anderson, who quit the party two years ago over its refusal to directly address racism. “ Lott only personifies the fundamental problem.”

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