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Armey Speaks for a GOP That Never Learns

February 28, 2001|EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON | Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of "The Disappearance of Black Leadership" (Middle Passage Press, 2000)

In a letter to NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) accused the organization of "racial McCarthyism." In particular, he cited an ad run by the National Voter Fund, an organization affiliated with the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, that attacked George W. Bush during the campaign for indifference to the Texas dragging murder of James Byrd Jr. by three white supremacists. Armey also accused the NAACP of inciting racially divisive protests over Florida voting irregularities. Armey asked Mfume for a meeting.

If Armey is serious about easing racial polarization, he could start by looking at his own party's shameful record on race.

In 1964, the Republican Party was practically defunct in five Deep South states. Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater set out to change that by riding the first tide of white backlash. He opposed the 1964 civil rights bill and championed states' rights--the major cover that Southern states used to disenfranchise African Americans. Goldwater got the GOP nomination--with the help of nearly every Southern delegate.

Despite his landslide loss to Lyndon B. Johnson, Goldwater planted the seeds of racial pandering that would be the centerpiece of the Republicans' "Southern strategy" in the coming decades. The strategy was simple: Court white voters, ignore blacks and do and say as little as possible about civil rights.

It's no surprise, then, that in 1968, Richard M. Nixon picked the hot-button issues of busing and quotas; adopted the policy of benign neglect; and subtly stoked white racial fears. As we now know from his White House tapes, Nixon routinely peppered his private talk with derogatory quips about blacks. In public, he enshrined in popular language such racially tinged code terms as "welfare cheats," "culturally deprived," "law and order" and "lack of family values." Everyone knew who he was talking about.

Ronald Reagan, in his turn, launched a major attack on affirmative action programs and gutted many social and education programs that benefited minorities. He refused to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus, attempted to reduce the power of the Civil Rights Commission over employment discrimination cases and opposed the extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. (Reagan's attorney general, Ed Meese, complained that the act discriminated against the South.)

In 1988, George Bush the elder took racial politics to a new low when he used Willie Horton against Michael Dukakis. Bush also branded a bill that would have made it easier to bring employment discrimination suits a "quotas" bill and vetoed it. He further infuriated blacks by appointing an arch-conservative African American, Clarence Thomas, to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Bush's and Reagan's thinly disguised racial salvos were too much even for Colin Powell. In his autobiography, "My American Journey," the general called Reagan "insensitive" on racial issues and tagged Bush's Horton stunt "a cheap shot."

In 1998, the Republican Party had a golden opportunity to denounce extremist, race-baiting groups when it was revealed that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi and Georgia Rep. Bob Barr had cozied up to the pro-segregation Council for Conservative Citizens. No leader in the party said a word.

As for the new President Bush, before, during and after his campaign, he repeatedly promised a total racial make-over of the Republican Party. His appointments of African Americans to top posts--including Condoleezza Rice as national security advisor, Powell as secretary of State and Rod Paige as secretary of Education--supposedly signals that he means what he says. But those appointments can't wipe away the rotten taste left when, during the campaign, Bush spoke at racially archaic Bob Jones University, or when he ducked the Confederate flag fight, or when he refused to support tougher hate crimes legislation. Not to mention the racially destructive battle he ignited by appointing ultra-conservative John Ashcroft as attorney general.

Undoubtedly there's more to Armey's extended hand to the NAACP than an urge for racial reconciliation. In 2004, more Republicans than Democrats are up for reelection in the Senate and the House. If Republicans want to keep their majorities, they will need black votes.

But it's no accident that blacks, despite their gripes about the Democratic Party, have given Democrats 80% to 90% of their vote since the Goldwater rebuff in 1964. Republicans have blown every chance to prove that they are not mortal enemies of civil rights.

Now that's something Armey should have addressed in his letter to the NAACP.

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