Lost Amid the Chatter: The Race’s Race Problem

At some point in the great circle jerk which passed for a Presidential election, a friend of mine suggested that Al Gore and George W. Bush settle their dispute by having a duel. With any luck, he added, the bullets from both men’s pistols will find their marks.

The plus side, if there is one, of the interminable nonsense has been that so many Americans have reacted to the electoral spectacle with detached disengagement. For yet one more quadrennium, half of us went through the campaign so unfired up we found more interesting things to do on Election Day than drop folded pieces of paper into ballot boxes. Many who did vote apparently did so with such little conviction that they have been able to look on the post-election honking and braying with humorous equanimity.

Even so, there is a lot about this election to bother those of us who have kept ourselves above the partisan, spit-spewing theatrics of dyed-in-the wool D’s and R’s. Most worrisome are election returns showing that once again, the Republicans failed to attract any support from African-Americans. It will be some months until voting statistics get nailed down for good, but it already appears that the pachyderm party may have gotten 7 percent or less of the black vote. This is about as close to dead zero as a major political party can get.

Thus, for all practical purposes, the Republicans are almost as much an all-white party as the Democrats in the South were 40 or 50 years ago. But that was only the South; nationally, the Democrats were interracial. In the year 2000, African-Americans-north, south, east and west- have chosen the Democrats or rejected the Republicans almost unanimously. For the time being, at least, this is good for Democrats, but not for the nation.

You don’t have to be a Democrat to see that the Republicans, starting with the 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign, brought this situation down on themselves. Goldwater led the opposition to civil rights legislation in the mid-1960’s. Although much of what Goldwater and other Republicans said was dismissed as racist baloney, their predictions that these laws would lead to abuses such as racial quotas have proven true. Fine and good-but if you go back to the early 1960’s, you realize that African-Americans were excluded and exploited in every way that an underclass can be victimized by a master class.

Thus it was incumbent on the Republicans, after they had opposed the Democrats’ civil rights program, to come forward with one of their own which satisfied their own objections but also lifted blacks from the social and economic yoke under which they were living. The Republicans didn’t do this. They had no ideas or proposals for equalizing American society, so they became, in a symbolic way, the party of the past. And they remain so. They compounded that impression by what was called, 40 years ago, “the Southern strategy”-meaning the Republicans took over not only the small-government, local-government Jeffersonianism of the Southern Democrat Party, but also its accursed inheritance of white racism.

To this day they appear blind to real injustices, which destroys their claims to good faith when opposing Democrats’ sometimes fraudulent demands for privilege under the guise of righting non-existent racial wrongs. In this campaign, Mr. Bush showed that he wasn’t completely obtuse when it came to matters of race. He and his confreres went out of their way to make sure every platform on which he stood was festooned with a suitable number of black faces. Colin Powell and the few other prominent African-American Republicans were used to the nines. Far from impressing blacks (or liberal whites, for that matter), Mr. Bush’s efforts simply drew laughter and ridicule. They were too, too transparently obvious.

Like so many of his predecessor Republican Presidential candidates, Mr. Bush got through the whole campaign without offering a single proposal to offset his image as another country-club Republican who might let a black person in to play golf if his name were Tiger Woods.

Mr. Bush had, for example, the chance to bring up the question of the hundreds of thousands of black men in prison for non-violent drug offenses. Their incarceration is a national shame and an international scandal. Mr. Gore couldn’t touch the issue without running the risk of looking like a soft-on-crime Democrat, but George W. Bush, the governor with more than 200 executions to his (dare we say?) credit, is the one politician in America who could have talked about it without fear of losing a vote. He didn’t-and for one more election cycle, the Republicans got whiter than ever.

Mr. Bush did, however, make a huge play for the Hispanic vote. He spoke the language at every opportunity, with an accent that is hardly worse than his accent when he speaks English. To these un-Hispanic eyes, at least, he came across as a person who is at home with Spanish speakers, especially if they are of Mexican extraction-but Hispanics are not African-Americans, not blacks, not the same people at all, nor do they have the same place in American history, culture and myth. This is not meant to be unfriendly or demeaning, but in some sense if all the Hispanics in the United States vanished, America would still be America; but if all of a sudden there were no black people, America simply wouldn’t be America. They stand in the center; Hispanics, as yet, are on the side.

But there is more to this than Republican failure. The election returns suggest that propertied, upper-middle-class African-Americans, of whom there are more than a few, will no more vote Republican than the stereotyped welfare mother in the projects. For them, also, it seems the Republicans are white-so white, in fact, that racial considerations blot out property considerations. Some people have long thought that money would, in the end, trump black and white-that is, race and racism-but it’s beginning to seem that may not be so. Here we are, at the apogee of prosperity, with many thousands of black people getting rich and many more thousands getting comfortably wealthy, and the political party which is dedicated to just such people is still poison ivy to blacks with money.

I don’t pretend to know what African-American men and women think and feel, but I do know what outstanding African-Americans-the people who are called black leaders and important intellectuals-are saying. And what they are saying is that America is an irredeemably racist society, that, stripped of pretense, etc., it is no better now than it was 25 or 50 or 75 years ago. They seem to be saying, “Progress is an illusion, for the enduring fact is race, race, race- racism. It’s still Whitey Town U.S.A., regardless of what you hypocritical crackers may try to sell us.”

This American reality is one that African-Americans can see displayed and confirmed in our mass media. I’m not referring to the news media, which a diminishing fraction of the population read or view, but to movies and television. They are the major propaganda purveyors, and it is there-in the network series, on the silver screen, in the made-for-cable specials-that the lesson is repeated without letup: America, the despair of the free and the land of bigotry, oppression, deprivation of rights and injustice.

Judging from the ever-angry speech of black politicians and public figures, a condition of permanent resentment, of ill-concealed hostility to anything tabbed as “white stuff,” has settled over the African-American world. Thus, untold millions of African-Americans and white Americans have diametrically opposite takes on what this country’s recent history has been, what it is now and where it is tending.

The political consequences of this are obvious enough from the election returns, but more (and possibly much worse) is in the offing. The affirmative action–quota battle is anything but settled, so that, as it is played out in the work place, we shall see if it becomes a recruiting tool for Republicanism. There are other items-many other items-on various organizations’ agendas which have the potential for keeping the races separated and embittered. Leading African-American politicians seem to be readying themselves to submit to white America a bill for services rendered by their ancestors-that is, a claim for “reparations” (or for reparations without the quotation marks). You know how well that will go down with many segments of the white population.

Either way, anybody who reads these election returns with complacency is a fool.