Gov. George W. Bush did what he had to do at the NAACP convention in Baltimore. He deprived Vice President Al Gore of another opportunity to use race and "mean-spiritedness" as a weapon against him in the fall campaign. His speech was both self-deprecating and party-deprecating. Mr. Bush acknowledged that racism still exists in America and that "the party of Lincoln has not always carried the mantle of Lincoln." Neither has the Democratic Party, most of whose leadership in the South opposed civil rights legislation and one of whose governors (now senator), Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, ran a Confederate flag up the Statehouse flagpole in the early '60s. It was the sainted Bobby Kennedy who, while Attorney General, wiretapped Martin Luther King Jr. Still, Mr. Bush slipped in some code words that are distinctly Republican. "The purpose of prosperity," he said, "is to ensure that the American Dream touches every willing heart" (emphasis mine). He touted the growing black middle class, and he spoke of another kind of bigotry: "low expectations in education." Mr. Bush followed that with a plug for education choice so that parents might emancipate their children from failed inner-city government schools that currently serve as props for the unions and Democratic politicians interested only in power and privilege. Mr. Bush also took a slap at those who rely solely on government to advance the interests of African-Americans: "Instead of helping people cope with their need, we will help them move beyond it." Democrats don't want that to happen because minorities wouldn't depend on them and the party might lose some votes. Mr. Bush may have sounded to some like a Democrat when he proposed an "American Dream Down Payment Fund," which would match individual savings for the down payment on a home. But his objective is not to maintain people in their dependency. He wants to emancipate them. It is a subtle but important distinction. The country has changed during the near-century of the NAACP's existence, but the organization has stayed the same. It still preaches the gospel of victimhood and reliance on government, instead of self-reliance. One longed to hear the testimonies of Tiger Woods or Venus and Serena Williams-how they prospered not by focusing on the color of their skin but by the swing of a club or tennis racket in games that have been almost exclusively dominated by whites. In recent interviews, Mr. Woods and the Williams sisters spoke of persistence and never accepting defeat, of long hours and of fathers who loved and encouraged them. More than legislation, black families, like all families, need a father in the home. The politics of race gets the Democrats votes but does little for the people who need to be told that their salvation does not lie on the road to Washington. Race politics doesn't communicate that the poor among them can make it just as their middle- and upper-class black brothers and sisters have done-through hard work, intact families, and never accepting defeat as the final answer. In his book, One by One from the Inside Out, Prof. Glenn C. Loury (who is black) urges blacks to reject victim status and set out in a new direction. Mr. Loury insists that "many of the problems of contemporary black American life lie outside the reach of effective government action and require action that can only be undertaken by the black community itself." He calls on black Americans to adopt a renewed sense of responsibility and self-reliance, and he notes that the various civil rights programs, targeted to help the poor, mostly benefit the black middle class and help the poor not at all. George W. Bush can't say that, but he hinted at it in his Baltimore speech. He offered more opportunity but, to paraphrase John Kennedy, he basically asked people to think less about what government can do for them and more about what they can do for themselves. In other words, stop singing about overcoming and start following the example of others who overcame not just racism but poverty and class. Read that way it was a good speech.
-© 2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate