(in Boston) - Can you tell me how to get to Mattapan?
The clerk at the Boston-area hotel's front desk stares back in disbelief. "You mean Mattapan? Do you have friends down there?"
No, just business.
It's a terrible area, he explains as he rummages for a map. It's low income, high crime, and-his third point has to remain unstated but perfectly understood. He finds the map at last but pauses before sketching out the route. "Are you sure you want to go to Mattapan?" he asks pointedly, offering one last chance for escape.
The reality of Mattapan is considerably different from the reputation, as it turns out. Sure, it lacks the Yankee gentility of the neighborhoods surrounding Boston Common, just up the road. But it's hardly Hell's Kitchen or Cabrini Green. Mattapan is a Boston neighborhood of row houses fashioned in both clapboard and shingle. Mom-and-pop businesses line the streets, next to storefront churches with names like Saints Memorial Evangelistic Center and Pentecost Church of the Holy Ghost. Not exactly the kind of place you fear for your life if you take a wrong turn.
New Cornerstone Exodus Church is basically a big frame house just off one of the main drags through town. The Sunday morning service starts at noon, and at 1:15 a four-piece band is still blasting out worship music. The 75 or so hearty souls who've fought their way through a spring snowstorm are on their feet, clapping, stomping, and waving their hands. When the pastor takes the pulpit at 1:30, a glass of orange juice by his side, the congregation listens as actively as it sang, punctuating the sermon with shouts of "Praise Jesus!" and "Tell us, pastor!"
Within the confines of New Cornerstone Exodus Church, Mattapan hardly seems destitute or crime-ridden. But the clerk's unspoken admonition was correct: Mattapan is overwhelmingly black. There are only three white faces in the crowd this morning. Maybe that explains the sense of disbelief that a conservatively dressed white man would want to go there.
For decades, the Republican Party hasn't wanted to "go there" either. Black America is widely considered the domain of the Democrats-a fact that has helped the GOP to attract millions of southern, white voters. In the old Confederacy, especially, racial polarization is one of the tenets of the so-called "southern strategy" that also emphasizes such laudable values as limited government and judicial restraint. That strategy has turned the South into solidly Republican territory, but a few leaders are beginning to look beyond the undeniable successes at the ballot box to ask a deeper question: What does racial polarization do to the soul of the party?
Not all Republicans are happy about this soul-searching, however, and those who would act as the conscience of the party may find themselves seared at the polls. That reaction, in turn, threatens the efforts of black conservatives to convince their fellow voters that the GOP is not hostile. For those who believe that social conservatives of all races can share a common political home, the challenge is great. But so is the potential payoff.
For six years, Bob Inglis has been the darling of the Republican Party in upstate South Carolina. In 1992 he scored a huge upset over a popular Democratic congresswoman and immediately became a rising star in the state GOP. Making good on his promise to serve no more than three terms in the House, he announced last year that he would challenge Fritz Hollings for the state's junior Senate seat. Barring a run by popular ex-governor Carroll Campbell, Mr. Inglis was considered the front-runner in the Republican primary to be held this June.
But then he took on the Southern strategy. Speaking at a historically black college in March 1997, Mr. Inglis said the strategy was morally wrong and ought to be abandoned. The outcry from his GOP colleagues was deafening. Wrapping themselves in the Confederate flag, critics charged him with disloyalty and even liberalism. Some wanted to ride him out of the party. Specifically to deny the nomination to anyone who would bad-mouth the southern strategy, Attorney General Charlie Condon threatened to enter the race.
He didn't, but even now, a year later, the wounds have not healed. Mr. Inglis says he can barely believe the reaction he gets during whispered conversations at party events and campaign fundraisers. "A lot of people tell me, 'Bob, listen, you don't get it. You don't get how important race is to politics. You are leaving support aside. You are going to lose the devotion of many people.'" Still, he professes not to be worried. The success of Promise Keepers, with its strong message of racial reconciliation, makes him think that at least the evangelical portion of his heavily religious district will respond to his emphasis. "There is this hope of reconciliation in Christ that makes me comfortable with where I am.... I think that race reconciliation is something we've got to be about."
But not all Republicans are eager to place racial reconciliation so high on the agenda.
Mr. Inglis is careful to allow that many defenders of the southern strategy are not being intentionally divisive on issues of race, but he believes that their rationalizations miss the point: Whether or not the strategy is racist in its intent, it is undeniably racist in its impact. Black voters, he says, feel unwelcome in the Republican Party because of the way images and issues are manipulated to reinforce negative stereotypes. For instance, GOP campaign ads discussing Medicaid, welfare, and crime almost always feature black faces, reinforcing the impression that black people are the main perpetrators of violence or the biggest drain on the treasury.
Ending affirmative action is another theme that plays especially well here, but Mr. Inglis has steadfastly resisted the suggestion that he make it a tenet of his campaign. Though he opposes affirmative action in principle and in his votes, he believes that leading with the issue would exploit voters' fears without making any positive contribution. Instead, he seeks to be biblical in his approach: "I think it is true that affirmative action is an un-American concept. But speaking the truth in love means making sure to not use a backlash against black South Carolinians for my political benefit in seeking an answer to that question."
It's a long way from the Bible Belt city of Greenville to the blue-blooded environs of Boston, but the Rev. Earl Jackson has a big stake of his own in the Inglis campaign. Mr. Jackson, pastor of Mattapan's New Cornerstone Exodus Church, is as lonely a voice in the black community as Mr. Inglis is among white southerners. Last year, he gained national attention as head of the Samaritan Project, the Christian Coalition's attempt to reach out to minority voters. After 12 months of effort, he was finding it slow going because "wrongly, the Coalition had been tainted by [liberal groups] as a racist organization with an anti-minority agenda. I was spending more time trying to overcome that reputation than dealing with the positive agenda I was trying to put forward."
That problem was solved on Christmas Eve when Mr. Jackson received a call informing him that the Coalition's financial woes necessitated defunding certain programs, including the Samaritan Project. Undaunted, Mr. Jackson decided to keep the organization alive and pursue his agenda without Christian Coalition support.
Even without the official tie, the Samaritan Project has faced tremendous skepticism among black voters. The problem, Mr. Jackson says, is "an emotional, instinctual distrust within the black community of what is perceived as right-wing. I don't think that separation is as vast as liberals would paint it, especially when you're talking about Christians, because Bible-believing Christians basically share a similar worldview." On issues like abortion, homosexuality, and personal responsibility, Mr. Jackson knows that the vast majority of the black community shares his conservative values. And yet the vast majority of black voters continue to vote for candidates who oppose their views on those very issues.
The irony is not lost on Mr. Jackson. "There is a kind of cognitive dissonance. They believe those things, but they are so steeped in racial politics that they end up choosing sides that are opposed to the things that they believe in. They end up associating themselves with Democrats who are opposed to almost everything the Bible teaches because they think they are more palatable on race."
Mr. Jackson is working hard to overcome that bias, but he sees too few white Republicans seriously striving for the same goal. He agrees with Bob Inglis that images and emphases are vital, since black resistance to the GOP is primarily emotional rather than purely rational. He cites a voter guide distributed in Austin, Texas, churches that used a black figure to represent the liberal position and a white figure to represent the conservative side. The message, he says, was clear: Black equals liberal equals bad; white equals conservative equals good.
President Clinton, by contrast, knows how to manipulate images in a way that earns him tremendous goodwill among black voters. Mr. Jackson says Republicans just don't understand the PR value of the president's recent 11-day tour of Africa. "The first president goes to Africa and he's seen treating Africans as equals. It doesn't do anything substantively to change the life of a single black American," he acknowledges, but it works wonders in terms of lifting their spirits. "That is the sort of communication that Republicans are going to have to learn if they're ever going to reach minorities in this country."
Beyond images, however, Mr. Jackson wants to see conservative leaders address the issues that particularly engage black people. They can-they should-offer different solutions, but they should at least let it be known that they're aware of the problems. Mr. Jackson, for instance, is resolutely opposed to affirmative action, but he was dismayed by the plunge in minority enrollments following California's recent decision to ban racial quotas in its state universities. Blacks around the country concluded that "the real agenda here is the re-segregation of America. We know that's not true, but when you see dramatically declining enrollments, someone has got to step up and say, 'This is a concern for us all, and if affirmative action is not the answer, fine, but we've got to take this seriously and advance some positive agenda for dealing with the problem.'"
Bob Inglis and Earl Jackson both recognize that they risk rejection by their own colleagues, but they are convinced that a historic realignment is possible, if only a few will have the courage to speak out. "There's not a rejection of the Republican message" among black voters, Mr. Inglis insists. "What there is, is a feeling of estrangement and non-acceptance." By overcoming that feeling, Mr. Inglis sees the opportunity to invent a "new southern strategy that incorporates all South Carolinians and all southerners."
Back in Boston, Mr. Jackson is even more optimistic. He sees white and black churches standing shoulder-to-shoulder on a whole range of social issues. The only division, he says, is blacks' emphasis on racial issues that often stops them from joining in the battle with cultural conservatives. "If that gap could ever be bridged, you'd have an absolutely unstoppable force for the transformation of this country."
That may not be much of an exaggeration, as events in Virginia have recently proved. In 1996 state senator Stephen Newman, a white Republican who represents the district that includes Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, joined with his black Democratic colleague Louise Lucas to push a bill retiring the state song, which had lyrics many regarded as racist. Last year the two unlikely allies teamed up again, this time on an issue of more serious consequence: passing a ban on partial-birth abortions. Meanwhile, Democratic Del. Donald McEachin, a black liberal, joined with white conservative Sen. Stephen Martin to introduce parental rights legislation that would guarantee the fundamental right of parents to "autonomy in child-rearing."
Both bills were drafted with the help of Michael Farris, president of the Home School Legal Defense Association. "We don't have a majority when we only deal with Republicans who vote right on social issues," Mr. Farris says of the political situation in Virginia. "When we realize that many in the black community share our moral and social views, we come a lot closer to a working majority." Besides agreement on such issues, Mr. Farris thinks the alliance works because "both constituencies get taken for granted by their respective party establishments." By coming together on social issues, both blacks and whites are able to flex their political muscle and show their independence from the party leadership.
Can the Virginia model work in upstate South Carolina or the suburbs of Boston? "I think that Virginia is cutting edge, but not isolated," Mr. Farris says. "There is nothing unique about Virginia politics that allowed us to get together there. I have every reason to believe that this is something that will be replicated elsewhere."
No one concerned about racial reconciliation harbors any illusions that it will be easy. Earl Jackson and Bob Inglis agree on the political potential of interracial cooperation, but neither man is sure how many others share that vision. "Don't let the giants stop you," Mr. Jackson admonishes at one point in his sermon-advice that applies equally well to his political project. "Can I get a witness here?" he urges when the congregation fails to respond to the point with sufficient enthusiasm. He's looking for a hearty "Amen," and he hopes the response will echo in the voting booth as well as the sanctuary.