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The New York Sun


Making Do With Table Scraps

July 27, 2006

By John H. McWhorter

Last weekend I was on a panel about blacks and voting. Predictably, much of the black audience got quite a thrill from assailing Republicans as racists.The whole idea of Republicans as bigots is hardly the open-and-shut case that many assume. This week in the Times Paul Krugman has it that black people see Republicans as anti-black because of things like resistance to the estate tax and raising the minimum wage. But things like this are more of interest to Krugman, other economists, and political junkies than the man on the street of any color. Even liberal black Newsweek writer Ellis Cose has said that "rage does not flow from dry numerical analyses of discrimination."

More to the point is the idea on the vine that the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina meant that "George Bush doesn't care about black people," as one of our bards of the moment couched it. However, the black community mantra "Know Your History" applies not only to the Scottsboro Boys, but to things like Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Ground zero this time was mostly white Homestead, Florida.Yet it was the same story—the days of inaction, people stranded in the steaming dark. Katrina was about incompetence, not bigotry.

Then there are allegations that Republicans have been suppressing the black vote. I suspect that only a certain unreachable fringe truly believe that such people are committed to a return to white supremacy, opposed to the black suffrage out of a conviction that we are an inferior race who ought have no place in the electoral process.

There is always the seamy side to an election, and the blunt truth is that for someone committed to shaving away Democratic votes by hook or by crook, sheer pragmatism dictates that there is no more dependable or efficient way to go at this than to target the black vote.This is because we are the Democrat's most dependable supporters, in contrast to Latinos and Asians who split their vote between Bush and Kerry more evenly.

Deliberately discouraging voters is disgusting. It should be aired, condemned, and prevented. But then, cynical operatives would have less reason to even try to get away with it if we split our vote more like other groups.

Still, nothing could budge many from a steadfast wariness based on any number of controversial timeline snippets: Reagan's "welfare queen" jokes, the Willie Horton ad, and so on. However, the idea that black people's wedge issue must be a party's "sensitivity" about race is a new one. Back in the day the assumption was that there was ample racism on both sides and that our job was to choose the party that was, nevertheless, most likely to address any of our concerns. By modern standards both Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were bigots. W.E.B. DuBois supported Wilson in 1912 as the lesser of two evils because Wilson promised to make federal patronage color-blind and to veto anti-black legislation.

Many will object that while that was the best they could do a century ago, today, we have the option of voting for the party that "isn't racist." But in doing that decade after decade, what do we get? In 2006, the "racist" Republicans are the party behind programs saving children from failing schools, assisting religious organizations (e.g. black churches) in turning around their neighborhoods (e.g. black inner cities), and maintaining welfare programs as focused on job training. A funny kind of racism, this, regardless of whatever Trent Lott once said after dinner one night. Naturally there have been snags in carrying these programs out, and none are magic bullets. But the Democrats did not create them. Often they have even opposed them.

And for what? Under Mr. Clinton, there was, we recall, the Conversation on Race. This would appear to have led to precisely nothing,especially given the conviction so regularly expressed by black commentators today that there still needs to be some kind of "conversation" on race in America.

If we are a strong people, it cannot be at the top of our list that a party's members be, to a man, paragons of racial enlightenment and goodwill. What should matter is proposals and policies designed to help the disadvantaged, and the assorted rituals of "acknowledgment" do not meet this standard.

Something paradoxical in black America is how gleeful people often are in talking about sad things. For example, another observation on voting that black audiences often applaud is that the Democrats exploit our vote. For those wondering why anyone would applaud such a glum observation, the applause is for the idea that we are getting one over on the Democrats by having figured out the exploitation in question.

But we aren't. The applause changes nothing.

Rather, instead of the spirited debates that the black community once had about which party to endorse and why, every four years almost everyone votes for whoever the Democrats happen to have settled upon. If the Democrat wins, we can't expect to be a priority since we were such a cheap date. And never mind if the Democrat loses. What the Bush administration has done nevertheless,then,is further evidence that the idea that real black people don't let their friends vote Republican is getting old.

That idea leaves black America politically powerless, making do with scraps from the table. It actually brings to mind the plantation that Mrs. Clinton "acknowledged" not long ago, as something about which even a well-heeled black audience presumably "know what that's like." Of course, unlike our slave ancestors we have our precious "acknowledgment." But in 2006, we sell ourselves short in pretending that this is enough.

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