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09/19/2004 Entry: "Earth to Henry Louis Gates Jr."

"The moment when the Republican Party lost black America can be given a date: Oct. 26, 1960. Martin Luther King Jr., arrested in Georgia during a sit-in, had been transferred to a maximum-security prison and sentenced to four months on the chain gang, without bail. As The Times reported, John F. Kennedy called Coretta King, expressing his concern. Richard Nixon didn't."
Swallowing the Elephant, by Henry Louis Gates Jr., NYT Op Ed, September 19, 2004

Earth to HL Gates Jr.: The "new" Southern Republicans are the "old" Dixiecrat party members with a new name and, as you might recall, the Dixiecrats were led by George Wallace who was no friend of African Americans. Why would sane African Americans join a party that mostly hates them? Talk about feeding the hand that bites you.

September 19, 2004
GUEST COLUMNIST
Swallowing the Elephant
By HENRY LOUIS GATES Jr.


The moment when the Republican Party lost black America can be given a date: Oct. 26, 1960. Martin Luther King Jr., arrested in Georgia during a sit-in, had been transferred to a maximum-security prison and sentenced to four months on the chain gang, without bail. As The Times reported, John F. Kennedy called Coretta King, expressing his concern. Richard Nixon didn't.

"It took courage to call my daughter-in-law at a time like this," King's father said about Kennedy at a church rally. "I've got all my votes and I've got a suitcase, and I'm going to take them up there and dump them in his lap." In 1956, Dwight Eisenhower had received nearly 40 percent of the black vote. (I myself sported an "I Like Ike" button in first grade.) In 1960, Nixon received 32 percent. A few years later, as the civil-rights era heated up and the G.O.P. pursued its "Southern strategy," blacks effectively became a one-party constituency.

But at what cost? Speaking to a National Urban League audience in July, President Bush quoted an Illinois legislator's piquant remark that "blacks are gagging on the donkey but not yet ready to swallow the elephant," and went on to pose a series of questions that black people themselves have been asking: "Does the Democrat party take African-American voters for granted? Is it a good thing for the African-American community to be represented mainly by one political party? How is it possible to gain political leverage if the party is never forced to compete?"

Of course, such questions have an unspoken corollary: Why support a party that has written you off?

Some black Republicans will tell you that however important the legal reforms of the civil-rights era had been 40 years ago, blacks today will be well served by the party of school reform and faith-based programs, the party of the so-called ownership society. "These are going to be the pillars of the black community," Condoleezza Rice told me. "In my little community in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 50's and 60's, there were black-owned businesses everywhere, and everybody owned their own homes. That made our community strong. We've got to get back to that."

Karl Rove, President Bush's chief political strategist, says the Republicans' low levels of black support are unhealthy for the party - once the party of Lincoln, after all - and for the African-American community. Part of what's gone wrong, he told me, is that Republicans don't advertise in black media markets. "If the conversation in the community is predominantly Democrat, and we don't make the argument on urban radio and we don't pay attention to the African-American newspapers, and if we don't campaign in the community, then why are we surprised when people don't hear our arguments and don't vote for our candidates?"

What's more, many blacks are evangelical Protestants, and tend to be more conservative than their white counterparts on "social" issues like gay rights and capital punishment. "The Democratic Party is not 90 percent more black friendly than we are," Rove exclaims.

Why, then, are blacks such down-the-line Democrats? My Harvard colleague Michael Dawson, a descendant of a black Democratic congressman from Chicago, agrees with Rove that black people are socially conservative. But the issues they vote on are racial and, especially, economic.

When it comes to race, he points out, parties have multilevel strategies. Republicans can appeal to white moderates by signaling a measure of compassion about problems of race. "On the other hand," Dawson observes, "you can go into places such as Florida and try systematically to disenfranchise poor black votes."

The real watershed, in his view, was the 1980 election. Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford tried to build up, and win over, a black middle class; the Reagan team figured they could do better by shutting out the black political establishment and mobilizing white conservatives. "Black elites were shocked to find out that with Reagan and his advisers, there were no longer 'good Negroes' and 'bad Negroes,' " Dawson says.

What the big-tent rhetoric ignores is that a more "black friendly" G.O.P. might pay a price in white support. "The Republicans would lose more white votes than they would gain black votes," Dawson says. And so blacks, as a one-party constituency in a two-party system, get sidelined.

It isn't that the candidates won't call. It's just that they're calling collect.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is a guest columnist through September. Thomas L. Friedman is on book leave.

 

 

 

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