GOP targets black vote

Kemp, empowerment issues could make GOP attractive to middle and working class blacks

Published August 20, 1996 12:08PM (EDT)

When Republicans issued their call for black support during last week's convention, they invariably invoked the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln. They need not have looked back nearly so far in history to find a time when the GOP commanded a majority of the black vote. Dwight Eisenhower took 60 percent of it in 1956, while Adlai Stevenson, whose eloquent liberalism went silent on the subject of civil rights, carried few states outside Dixie. Republicans in Congress favored the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 by a greater proportion than did their Democratic colleagues.

But one of the Republicans voting no was Sen. Barry Goldwater, and his candidacy stirred an inexorable migration of blacks into the Democratic camp. Ronald Reagan's famous optimism did not preclude his spinning tales of "welfare queens," and George Bush, a longtime champion of the United Negro College Fund, conflated crime and blackness in the Willie Horton commercial. An opinion poll conducted earlier in this campaign season estimated that the GOP would win but 6 percent of the black vote in the presidential election.

Now, with the selection of Jack Kemp as Bob Dole's running mate, some experts predict the party could double that percentage. Much more importantly, the presence of Kemp might force the Democrats into a battle for black hearts and minds, an intellectual contest that could only help both parties and black America itself. No public good has been served by the abdication of millions of black voters to a party that, in the person of Bill Clinton, has ignored and even humiliated them in the full knowledge that, speaking electorally, they have nowhere else to go.

Has anyone forgotten that in the midst of the Gennifer Flowers "bimbo eruption" during the 1992 New Hampshire primary Clinton flew back to Arkansas to execute a black convicted murderer who was already brain-damaged? Or that he deliberately misconstrued a months-old interview with Sistah Souljah in the Washington Post to find an excuse for publicly embarrassing Jesse Jackson? The Clinton strategy of attracting Reagan Democrats relied heavily on such pieces of political theater.

Perhaps this year black voters, and all Americans who care about issues of race and poverty, will profit from a genuine debate. A self-proclaimed "bleeding heart conservative," Kemp has combined passion about the inner cities with advocacy of financial incentives and Judeo-Christian values that may well find willing ears among blacks. His abrupt about-face on affirmative action, a program he supported until last week, does hurt him; but many centrist Democrats already hold the identical position.

The Clinton administration has already adopted one of Kemp's favorite ideas, enterprise zones. Two other Kemp strategies, school choice and tenant ownership of public housing, will likely prove even more appealing to a broad band of the black electorate. The combination of self-help and social conservatism underlying both proposals taps into deep reservoirs of black sentiment.

One logical audience contains blacks of West Indian heritage, as represented by Gen. Colin Powell. Having come to the United States as immigrants rather than slaves, these blacks share with white ethnics an emphasis on upward mobility, personal propriety and home ownership (or "buying house," as the phrase goes). Nowhere is the potential appeal of Kemp greater than in black churches. It seemed no coincidence that Congressman J.C. Watts, a third-generation minister, established such rapport when he spoke to convention delegates who were heavily drawn from the Christian Coalition.

God-talk is a language that crosses racial lines, and what works for the liberals of the National Council of Churches has begun to work for the Christian Right, too. The West Coast leader of the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority was a renowned black pastor in Los Angeles, the Reverend E.V. Hill. William Bennett has successfully collaborated with a black woman, C. Delores Tucker, in his campaign against gangsta rap. Even in that bastion of liberalism, New York City, the Christian Coalition made common cause with many black and Hispanic congregations in its successful campaign to bar an elementary-school curriculum teaching tolerance for gay lifestyles.

The black churches are also likely to look favorably upon Kemp's proposals on schools and housing. Innumerable churches operate their own elementary schools as alternatives to the inner cities' beleaguered public schools. These days, the high school of choice for the black working class is often a Catholic one. Bishop Loughlin High School in Brooklyn, nearly all-white when New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani graduated 30 years ago, now is overwhelmingly black and Hispanic. And for the bus drivers and nurse's aides of the black working class, struggling mightily to pay $2,000 or so in annual tuition, a school voucher of even a few hundred dollars would hold enormous appeal.

Bob Dole surely touched some black nerves in his acceptance speech when he assailed Bill Clinton for opposing school choice while paying $10,000 a year to ensconce Chelsea in the rarefied air of Sidwell Friends. Clinton may owe teachers' unions loyalty, but black parents, who often warred against those unions for control of ghetto schools in the 1960s, are bound by no such constraints. It is revealing that a black state legislator from Milwaukee's slums, Polly Williams, united with Wisconsin's conservative governor, Tommy Thompson, to pioneer a voucher program. In New York City, a coalition of black and Hispanic churches created an alternative high school within the public-school system through an alliance with the Manhattan Institute, a neoconservative think tank.

As with schools, black churches have created their own dramatic alternatives to public housing. The affiliates of the Industrial Areas Foundation in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Southern California -- all of which draw members primarily from black and Hispanic congregations -- have erected thousands of low-cost, owner-occupied row houses in the Nehemiah program. Nehemiah operates from the conservative premise that people take care of what they own better than what they rent, particularly if the landlord is a bureaucracy. In Brooklyn, nearly half the Nehemiah homeowners have come out of the projects.

"Never do for anyone what they can do for themselves," holds the Industrial Areas Foundation's "Iron Rule." What the foundation's groups have asked for in Nehemiah is not government largesse of the welfare-state variety but rather incentives that fit easily into the Kemp scheme, such as the title for vacant public land, government-backed low-interest mortgages and tax abatements.

"No permanent friends," goes another of the foundation's slogans, "and no permanent enemies." With Jack Kemp on the stump, black voters could live by those words for the first time in 30 or 40 years.

This is the second of three articles on the Republicans and Democrats by Samuel G. Freedman. A former New York Times reporter, Freedman is the author of "Upon This Rock: the Miracles of a Black Church" and "Small Victories: The Real World of a Teacher, Her Students and Their High School," which was a National Book Award finalist. His latest book, "The Inheritance: How Three Families and America Moved From Roosevelt to Reagan and Beyond," (Simon & Schuster) will be published in September.

Quote of the day

Royal coffee mugs, anyone?

On the reforms proposed by the British royal family's "Way Ahead" planning committee, which reportedly include an end to public subsidy of the Windsors:

"What they are doing is what so many other institutions have been doing since the arrival of Mrs. Thatcher. This is the biggest privatization of them all... This would make them more like any other noble family, living off its estates... It is going to have to flog itself very hard."

-- Dr. David Starkey, lecturer in history at the London School of Economics, quoted in today's Electronic Daily Telegraph

By Samuel G. Freedman

Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, has written for Salon since 1996. His new book, “Breaking The Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights,” will be published in August 2013.

MORE FROM Samuel G. Freedman

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