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Eye on the News

Charles Upton Sahm
Bush and Blacks
The message—both in words and action—is clear, consistent, and stirring.
21 July 2004

“We’ve got a president that’s prepared to take us back to the days of Jim Crow segregation and dominance,” says NAACP president Kweisi Mfume. Republicans’ “idea of equal rights is the American flag and Confederate swastika flying side by side,” says NAACP chairman Julian Bond. And the leaders of this supposedly nonpartisan organization are surprised President Bush declined to attend their convention last week?

Instead, tomorrow the president will address the National Urban League, a black organization whose mainstream leadership is focused on ideas for improving life in inner cities rather than on politics and racial demagoguery. The president will have a lot to talk about. Issues number one and two on his domestic agenda have been education reform and his faith-based initiative, both specifically targeted to help inner city minority residents, and both implemented by two accomplished African-American cabinet members, education secretary Rod Paige and HUD secretary Alphonso Jackson.

During his 2000 campaign, George Bush spoke often and eloquently about the need to improve education, particularly for minorities, who he said too often suffer from “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” The day after his inauguration, President Bush brought together a renowned group of education experts who began to craft the No Child Left Behind Act, which Congress passed a few months later with overwhelming bipartisan support. This landmark legislation, which increased federal education funding by nearly 50 percent, has brought elements of accountability and competition into the equation for the first time.

President Bush has also strongly supported school choice programs aimed at helping to liberate African-American children from dysfunctional urban public schools—the last civil-rights battle. This year he joined forces with Washington D.C.’s black Democratic mayor, Anthony Williams, to win passage of the first federally funded voucher program, which will provide $7,500 each to poor minority children in the nation’s capital, giving them some of the same educational options that their wealthier neighbors enjoy.

In January 2001, President Bush, surrounded by two dozen black ministers, fulfilled another “compassionate conservative” campaign promise by creating the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, making it easier for inner-city black churches to receive public support for providing social services. By all accounts, this initiative is particularly close to the president’s heart: he knows from personal experience how faith and compassion can empower individuals to turn their lives around.

The Bush administration has also tried hard to help lift Africa out of its deepening misery. Last year, the president pledged $15 billion—a twenty-fold increase from Clinton-era funding levels—to help stem the AIDS pandemic sweeping the continent, and he has sent troops and diplomatic envoys to try to quell violence in Liberia and Sudan. The administration has also launched the Millennial Challenge program, which seeks to make sure that our foreign aid is not misused and that governments that receive it abide by certain human rights standards. Musician and longtime African-relief activist Bob Geldof recently acknowledged, “The Bush administration is the most radical—in a positive sense—in its approach to Africa since Kennedy.”

The speech President Bush gave last summer on Goree Island, Senegal—the point of embarkation for millions of African slaves—also shows the vision and understanding he brings to the vexed issue of race in America. The media fawned over President Clinton, when, during his 1998 trip to Africa, he offered these carefully parsed words: “Going back to the time before we were even a nation, European Americans received the fruits of the slave trade, and we were wrong in that.” However, President Bush attracted scant attention when he used deeply religious and moral language to condemn roundly “the evils of slavery” as “one of the greatest crimes of history” in a remarkably eloquent address. In paragraph after paragraph he graphically details the horrors of slavery and its corrupting influence on our country: “Small men took on the powers and airs of tyrants and masters. . . . Christian men and women became blind to the clearest commands of their faith and added hypocrisy to injustice. A republic founded on equality became a prison for millions.”

In this moving speech, the president does not condescend to treat blacks solely as victims but, in words reminiscent of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural’s meditation on God’s purpose, offers an empowering message that puts their trials in the context of the overall struggle for human liberty. Invoking the contributions of abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, he says: “Their moral vision caused Americans to examine our hearts, to correct our Constitution, and to teach our children the dignity and equality of every person of every race. By a plan known only to Providence, the stolen sons and daughters of Africa helped to awaken the conscience of America. The very people traded into slavery helped to set America free.”

The address goes on to salute more recent civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King and to note optimistically that, while the country still has a way to go, it moves ever closer to its founding promise of equal citizenship for all Americans: “My nation’s journey toward justice has not been easy and it is not over. The racial bigotry fed by slavery did not end with slavery or with segregation. And many of the issues that still trouble America have roots in the bitter experience of other times. But however long the journey, our destination is set: liberty and justice for all.”

President Bush clearly understands and shares Martin Luther King’s dream of a colorblind society where individuals are “judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” To take one small example: he never mentions the skin color of two of the most prominent members of his administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, even though he might score political points by doing so.

It should be an interesting speech tomorrow. Americans of all hues should take notice.

Charles Sahm directs a Latin American police reform program for the Manhattan Institute.

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