Erasing Trent Lott's Legacy

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I wish I could be a Republican. Seriously. Given my radical tendencies, of course, there's little chance that if I joined a party, it would be the G.O.P. Even so, I wish the Republicans would seize the opportunity presented to them by the Trent Lott fiasco to kick their 40-year addiction to race-baiting politics, make good on George W. Bush's promise to reach out to minorities and compel black voters like me to consider the G.O.P. I'm convinced that the Democratic Party's virtual monopoly on the black vote is bad for African Americans. It's the foundation of a demeaning form of political serfdom, a Plantation Politics that we will never be free of as long as Democrats take our votes for granted.

We've been trying to find a way out of this bind since the 1960s, when militants proposed the creation of a black third party that could deliver our votes to the party that offered us most. Nothing ever came of the idea, because the "party of Lincoln" was transforming itself into the party of Lott, Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, leaving self-respecting blacks no choice but to run to the Democrats. Yet the movement's battle cry--"We have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, only permanent interests"--is as valid today as it was then, even if the prospects for an independent black party are still unrealistic. If blacks are going to make political progress, it will be by balancing their votes between the two major parties — provided that Republicans get serious about all the post-Lott commitments they've made to racial equality.

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It's too bad that the G.O.P. may still be so hooked on appealing to white resentment that it won't change course, because a lot of blacks are fed up with the Democrats. Black turnout was low in some states during the midterm elections because few Democrats offered bold alternatives to Bush's economic and international policies. We noticed that it was Republican conservatives like Charles Krauthammer — not leading Democrats like Senate leader Tom Daschle — who offered unprompted condemnation of Lott's praise for Thurmond's Dixiecrat presidential campaign. Daschle initially accepted Lott's half-hearted apology, adopting a tougher stance only after an outcry from black politicians. His delayed reaction "was an example of the collegiality fostered by the good-ole-boy network in the Senate overcoming the ordinary sensitivities that these people should be expected to have," says Wade Henderson, head of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a coalition of civil rights organizations.

Many blacks have become disillusioned by the cynicism of the Democrats' quadrennial rallying of the black vote, which typically involves sending out Jesse Jackson to round us up and deliver us to the polling place — only to ignore some issues that matter to blacks until the next election. A case in point: a recent survey by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank based in Washington, shows that 60% of blacks support vouchers, but almost all prominent Democrats are staunchly opposed to them. They aren't even willing to find out whether giving black kids in lousy public schools the chance to attend private or parochial institutions could help close the academic gap between black and white students, the most urgent racial problem we're facing. The hostility to vouchers is usually phrased in sanctimonious rhetoric about preserving the public school system — often mouthed by Democrats, including Jackson, who sent their children to private schools.

That sort of hypocrisy helps explain why the Joint Center recently found that only 62% of blacks ages 18 to 35 identify themselves as Democrats, compared with more than 80% of blacks older than 35. So far, only 6% of younger blacks say they are Republicans, but those numbers could grow if Republicans made a real effort to expand their outreach. One step would be for Bill Frist, Lott's successor as Senate Republican leader, to sit down with Henderson and the Congressional Black Caucus to find areas of agreement. It's probably too much to expect the Republicans to abandon their opposition to affirmative action, but they might be willing to talk the President out of some ultraconservative judicial appointments. Even better, on the theory that confession is the first step to redemption, Bush could deliver a speech acknowledging the G.O.P.'s addiction to race-baiting politics and making it clear that such tactics will no longer be tolerated. The Republicans have perhaps their best opportunity in 40 years to earn black support. It would be a shame if they blew it.