The White House has the power to save the civil rights establishment from irrelevance. But only if Republicans find the right way to approach black Americans -- a possibility made plausible by President Bush's strong ties to the Christian right -- forcing the black establishment to move away from the Democratic Party. The civil rights establishment, it must be noted, is not the civil rights movement. The movement was a loose confederation of organizations and volunteers that faced fierce opposition, some of it murderous. Its moral and legal victories set the stage for the civil rights establishment, mainly a few well-known organizations and some public personalities.
Establishment icons such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, for instance, have earned reputations and made careers out of racial injustice and resentment. Both are committed Democrats -- a no-no during the some of the most dramatic days of the civil rights movement, when its leaders realized that their constituency's problems transcended party affiliation. Color, they knew, would remain a concern, no matter which party controlled the White House.
Today, however, changing demographics are undercutting the civil rights establishment's power. People with no history of legalized discrimination and infused with that good old immigrant drive are arriving in this nation. And some of them are black people from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.
These new arrivals highlight a problem with one of the main legal remedies people have used to fight the legacy of segregation: affirmative action. This tactic was intended to help the descendants of slaves. But it is so loosely interpreted today that many blacks whose forebears were not American slaves demand and receive a boost from affirmative action.
Some savvy black Americans mutter about this but feel a highly publicized squabble with other nonwhites over affirmative action is too risky and might alienate unions.
Still, the abuse of affirmative action points up what lower-class black Americans need most. Over and over, from within and without, these Americans hear the call to emulate the zeal we customarily notice in immigrants, who seem devoted to education, hard work and family values. Substantial numbers of black people know that the federal government can only partly remedy the ills that hold the black lower class down: poor school performance, teenage pregnancy, drugs and gang violence.
This group includes members of many churches, entrepreneurs and impatient parents who've come to support school choice.
Any shrewd Republican can see that these people are potential GOP recruits. If they joined the Republican Party, the political game would dramatically change. That's one reason the Bush administration is reaching out to black religious groups, a number of which he invited to the White House after his reelection.
This invitation was a shot across the bow of the civil rights establishment. As a Christian, Bush seems to believe that he can create a new grass-roots black leadership similar to the one that preceded the civil rights movement, which was rooted in churches and often opposed the aggressive nonviolence that called out the dragon of racism. The president also must know that black Christians tend to be conservative on issues of personal liberty and might well support his attempt to amend the Constitution to outlaw same-sex marriage -- a possibility that has already stirred rumblings among gays who believe that black evangelicals are prepared to make them the new universal pariah.
Whether or not Bush's overtures to black church leaders are successful, conditions and goals are shifting on the horizon of color. If the civil rights establishment doesn't step away from its Democratic partisanship and make itself more open to the values of both political parties, its relevance will continue to erode.