Republicans Courting Black America — Again

With the deteriorating Washington, D.C., home of Frederick Douglass as a backdrop, GOP congressional leaders announced on May 8 legislation to provide almost $1 million of the $2 million sought to preserve the famed abolitionist’s historic residence — and launched a new campaign to expand the GOP’s base among African Americans. But Republicans may find it easier to restore the home of the 19th century champion of human rights and ally of Abraham Lincoln, than to bring back the support the GOP once enjoyed among blacks.

The Republican Party is still smarting from the Trent Lott debacle of last December when the then senate majority leader said that the country would have been better off if Strom Thurmond had been elected president in 1948. That year, Thurmond campaigned for the White House on a platform that called for preserving segregation. Since then, Republican leaders have been scrambling to find ways to deflect the perception that the GOP is an anti-civil rights party.

On the grounds of the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said that Douglass, an early Republican, “fought for human rights. The values and principles that Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln worked so hard for in the 1800s are the same values and principles that we are fighting for as a Republican Party today.” To illustrate the GOP’s sincerity, Hastert unveiled the Fulfilling America’s Promise initiative, a collection of legislative measures designed to “empower African Americans to achieve the American Dream.” The plan has three components: creating jobs and economic security, providing equal opportunity for quality education, and strengthening faith and families.

Some political observers are skeptical about how relevant this initiative is to the core concerns of black Americans. “This is another Republican attempt to repackage GOP ideological positions,” says Robert C. Smith, a political science professor at San Francisco State University. Indeed, half the items comprising the initiative are part of the massive Bush tax-cut plan. The other measures include the issue of school vouchers for students.

However beneficial these measures might be, recent policy stances of President George W. Bush and congressional Republicans may operate to cancel them out. President Bush has done little to address the growth of joblessness and, as promised, has named judges to the federal bench who are as conservative as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. In the face of strong support for affirmative action among a broad spectrum of black leaders, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, Bush has opposed affirmative action admissions programs at the University of Michigan. The Republican-controlled Congress has failed to pass legislation that would raise the minimum wage, extend healthcare to the working poor, or provide full funding to education programs.

If the GOP is to attract a greater number of African Americans to its ranks, it will have to neutralize its dubious record regarding support for black interests. That would not have been such a tall order in decades past.

After the Civil War, newly freed blacks flocked to the GOP because it was the party