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Blacks Have a Compassionate Friend in Bush

August 02, 2004|Charles Sahm | Charles Sahm works for the Manhattan Institute. A longer version of this article appears at city-journal.org.

The message -- both in words and action -- is clear, consistent and stirring. "We've got a president that's prepared to take us back to the days of Jim Crow segregation and dominance," says NAACP President Kweisi Mfume. Republicans' "idea of equal rights is the American flag and Confederate swastika flying side by side," says NAACP Chairman Julian Bond. And the leaders of this supposedly nonpartisan organization are surprised that President Bush declined to attend their convention last month?

Instead, the president chose to address the National Urban League, a black organization whose mainstream leadership is focused on ideas for improving life in inner cities rather than on politics and racial demagoguery.

The president used the occasion to announce an administration initiative to expand business ownership and entrepreneurship among minorities. The program will turn local offices of the Urban League into one-stop centers for business training, financing and contracting. Bush said he saw this program as part of his administration's efforts to create "an ownership society" that would give minorities a stake in America's future as owners of homes and small businesses.

This is just the latest example of the solid record the Bush administration has built on issues of concern to African Americans. Despite the criticism he's received on race-related issues from elements of the black leadership and from Democrats generally, the reality is that he has consistently championed initiatives focused on economic and social empowerment rather than further dependency on social welfare programs.

During his 2000 campaign, Bush spoke often and eloquently on the need to improve education, particularly for minorities, which he said too often suffer from "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

The day after his inauguration, Bush brought together a renowned group of education experts who began to craft the No Child Left Behind Act, which Congress passed a few months later with overwhelming bipartisan support. This landmark legislation, which increased federal education funding by nearly 50%, has brought elements of accountability and competition into the equation for the first time.

Bush has also strongly supported school-choice programs aimed at helping liberate African American children from dysfunctional urban public schools -- the last civil rights battle. This year he joined forces with Washington's black Democratic mayor, Anthony Williams, to win passage of the first federally funded voucher program, which will provide $7,500 each to poor minority children in the nation's capital, giving them some of the same educational options that their wealthier neighbors enjoy.

In January 2001, Bush, surrounded by two dozen black ministers, fulfilled another "compassionate conservative" campaign promise by creating the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, making it easier for inner-city black churches to receive public support for providing social services.

The administration has also tried hard to help lift Africa out of its deepening misery. Last year the president pledged $15 billion -- a twentyfold increase from Clinton-era funding levels -- to help stem the AIDS pandemic sweeping the continent, and Bush has sent troops and diplomatic envoys to try to quell violence in Liberia and Sudan.

The speech the president gave last summer on Goree Island, Senegal -- the point of embarkation for millions of African slaves -- helps explain the perspective he brings to the vexed issue of race in America. The media fawned over President Clinton, when, during his 1998 trip to Africa, he offered these carefully parsed words: "Going back to the time before we were even a nation, European Americans received the fruits of the slave trade, and we were wrong in that."

Bush, however, attracted scant attention when he used far stronger, deeply religious and moral language to condemn roundly "the evils of slavery" as "one of the greatest crimes of history" in a remarkably eloquent address. In paragraph after paragraph he graphically detailed the horrors of slavery and its corrupting influence on our country: "Small men took on the powers and airs of tyrants and masters....

"Christian men and women became blind to the clearest commands of their faith and added hypocrisy to injustice. A republic founded on equality became a prison for millions."

In this moving speech, the president did not condescend to treat blacks solely as victims but rather, in words reminiscent of Lincoln's second inaugural, offered an empowering message that put their trials in the context of the overall struggle for human liberty.

Invoking the contributions of abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, Bush said: "Their moral vision caused Americans to examine our hearts, to correct our Constitution, and to teach our children the dignity and equality of every person of every race. By a plan known only to Providence, the stolen sons and daughters of Africa helped to awaken the conscience of America. The very people traded into slavery helped to set America free."

Bush's vision for race relations moves us away from tired, divisive rhetoric and toward the goal of a shared society of American values and achievement. Americans of all hues should take notice.

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