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Racial Flap Still Roiling State GOP

January 31, 2003|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

As the only African American among California Republican Party leaders, Shannon Reeves sets his brethren squirming when he shouts about racism in its upper ranks.

"We can't just sweep it under the rug," Reeves told party loyalists Saturday at a San Bernardino dinner.

For weeks, fellow Republicans have urged him to keep quiet about his charges of bigotry in the state GOP boardroom. Reeves has refused.

The dispute has not only embarrassed California Republicans; it has also clashed with efforts by President Bush to shed the party's reputation for exploiting racial divisions. And it has served as a reminder that Bush and the party -- both nationally and in California -- continue to send mixed signals on race, particularly toward African Americans.

Last month, Bush was instrumental in driving Trent Lott of Mississippi from his post as Senate majority leader after Lott praised Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist bid for president.

But within weeks, Bush renominated Lott ally Charles W. Pickering Jr. of Mississippi for a judgeship despite the concerns of civil rights groups about his handling of a cross-burning case. Days later, Bush called on the Supreme Court to strike down the University of Michigan's affirmative action program.

Whatever the merits of those moves, they led civil rights activists to recall that in the 2000 presidential race, Bush campaigned at Bob Jones University, where interracial dating was banned, and declined to take a stand on statehouse displays of the Confederate flag. As president, they noted, Bush has carried on the White House tradition of laying wreaths at the Confederate Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery.

Julian Bond, chairman of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, said Bush -- like Lott and other Republicans -- was "mouthing the language of inclusion" while sanctioning voter bigotry with "a wink and a nod."

In California, state party Vice Chairman Bill Back apologized this month for disseminating an essay on the theoretical benefits of a Confederate victory in the Civil War. But a few days later, fellow state party board member Randy Ridgel endorsed the essay. Freed slaves, Ridgel wrote, were better off before emancipation because "most of the poor devils had no experience fending for themselves."

Bush advisors have declined to discuss the California dispute, but defend the president and the party on race relations. They say Bush's school reforms and other policies benefit minority groups. They also point to his racially diverse administration, with African Americans -- among them Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and national security advisor Condoleezza Rice -- in top jobs.

"He wants a diverse group of people advising him, and that's what he has," said Mindy Tucker, communications director at the Republican National Committee. "He also doesn't believe in quotas. He believes in a colorblind society."

Democrats, she added, "accuse Republicans of being racist as a political strategy, but that in itself is divisive and does nothing to move the country forward."

In California, as in the rest of the country, Bush's political operatives often have described him as "a person of inclusion," a potentially appealing message in a state where whites are no longer a majority. In April, Bush underscored the point by paying a visit to South-Central on the 10th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots.

But now, the racial turmoil on the state GOP board is undermining the image that Bush has sought to project for himself and, by extension, his party.

"What this whole episode demonstrates is that there continues to be a tremendous degree of insensitivity among Republican leaders about how to handle race issues," said Sacramento GOP strategist Kevin Spillane.

The trouble has been building for weeks. It started with the Jan. 4 disclosure that Back, a candidate for state party chairman, had distributed the Civil War essay in 1999.

Reeves, the party secretary, responded with an open letter saying Republicans use African Americans like him as "window dressing" to prove the party is not racist when its leaders "act otherwise." He said he was "sick and tired of being embarrassed" by Republicans who stump at Bob Jones University and "reminisce about segregationist campaigns." He recalled that white delegates to the 2000 Republican National Convention had asked him six times to carry their luggage or get them a taxi.

In California, he said, Back had spread "bigoted propaganda" that trivialized slavery.

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