As political junkies gobbled up Nov. 7 exit poll data like a kid gobbles ice cream, one stat particularly brought grins to Democratic faces: Nearly nine of 10 African Americans polled said they had punched their presidential ballots for Albert Gore. The black vote in the 2000 presidential election was one of the most monolithic-and most powerful-voting blocs in American electoral history. Even racial panderer-extraordinaire Bill Clinton didn't attract such numbers.
The obvious question is, why? George W. Bush, at first by spreading the message of "compassionate conservatism," then by showcasing racial inclusion at the GOP convention, had, it seemed, succeeded in softening his party's whitebread image. Strategists felt that his message of extending education opportunities to the poor "resonated" with minority groups, and that his Texas record with Latinos added credibility to his promises. But the election is over, the numbers are in, and for Republicans, the head-scratching has begun: Why did Mr. Bush, arguably the most racially sensitive GOP presidential candidate to run since the civil-rights movement, fail so spectacularly with black America? And what can be done to fix the problem?
Shelby Steele of Stanford University's Hoover Institution argues that the 2000 black vote is evidence of a "hardening" of "identity politics," where people pursue self-interests through their race, ethnicity, or gender, rather than through personal accomplishment. "The Democratic Party is very good at giving each identity group, whether it's blacks or the elderly or single mothers, something that's attractive," said Mr. Steele, who specializes in the study of race relations. "Democrats continue to say to black Americans, 'This separate identity is the source of your power, rather than your citizenship, your individual talents, and abilities. What's really important about you is your separate identity, your entitlement, your victimization.' [Democrats] play to the darkest fears that blacks have in order to get the vote."
Case in point: the infamous and widely criticized television advertisement that dramatized the 1998 Texas dragging death of James Byrd. Sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the spot questioned Mr. Bush's commitment to African Americans by pointing out that he opposes hate crimes legislation-this despite the fact that two of Mr. Byrd's killers now face execution under Mr. Bush's justice department.
But fear isn't the only factor. Kay Coles James, a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and recent dean of the School of Government at Regent University, said the isolation of many black Americans from their white counterparts-and Democrats' exploitation of that-also figures heavily in the problem. Mrs. James recently spoke with an African-American graduate student who argued that "white conservatives are all racists!" but had no personal knowledge of any. He attends an all-black church, lives in an all-black neighborhood, and "has no basis for [his anger] other than what he reads in the major media," Mrs. James noted.
Lack of personal contact plus media bias make a combination hard to fight. Mrs. James contends that it's time to stop griping about the media's leftward list and start educating African Americans about the Republican message-a few at a time, if necessary: "It's a job for those of us who are African American and part of the Republican party to go into our own communities and discuss the issues."
For its part, she said, the GOP ought to exploit the media's power to project "symbols" to the American public: Republicans should heavily promote the appointment of African Americans in a Republican administration and take advantage of photo ops that show white Republicans with blacks. Jesse Jackson at the Democratic convention urged his listeners to "stay out the Bushes," but Mrs. James wants the GOP to stay the course that Mr. Bush promotes in Texas and displayed at the Republican convention, until more black Americans are ready to take a closer look at what they have disdained from afar.