Cover Story

Rebels yell

At the risk of losing a GOP primary election, a southern Republican eschews the race-conscious "southern strategy" and urges racial reconciliation. Meanwhile, a black pastor in Massachusetts cuts against the racial grain and urges political alliances with like-minded white conservatives.

Issue: "The politics of grace," April 25, 1998

(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.

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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."


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