Black and Blue

 

July 24, 2006

By: Paul Krugman

According to the White House transcript, here’s how it went last week, when President Bush addressed the N.A.A.C.P. for the first time:

THE PRESIDENT: “I understand that many African-Americans distrust my political party.”

AUDIENCE: “Yes! (Applause.)”

But Mr. Bush didn’t talk about why African-Americans don’t trust his party, and black districts are always blue on election maps. So let me fill in the blanks.

First, G.O.P. policies consistently help those who are already doing extremely well, not those lagging behind — a group that includes the vast majority of African-Americans. And both the relative and absolute economic status of blacks, after improving substantially during the Clinton years, have worsened since 2000.

The G.O.P. obsession with helping the haves and have-mores, and lack of concern for everyone else, was evident even in Mr. Bush’s speech to the N.A.A.C.P. Mr. Bush never mentioned wages, which have been falling behind inflation for most workers. And he certainly didn’t mention the minimum wage, which disproportionately affects African-American workers, and which he has allowed to fall to its lowest real level since 1955.

Mr. Bush also never used the word “poverty,” a condition that afflicts almost one in four blacks.

But he found time to call for repeal of the estate tax, even though African-Americans are more than a thousand times as likely to live below the poverty line as they are to be rich enough to leave a taxable estate.

Economic issues alone, then, partially explain African-American disdain for the G.O.P.

But even more important is the way Republicans win elections.

The problem with policies that favor the economic elite is that by themselves they’re not a winning electoral strategy, because there aren’t enough elite voters. So how did the Republicans rise to their current position of political dominance? It’s hard to deny that barely concealed appeals to racism, which drove a wedge between blacks and relatively poor whites who share the same economic interests, played a crucial role.

Don’t forget that in 1980, the sainted Ronald Reagan began his presidential campaign with a speech on states’ rights in Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964.

These days the racist appeals have been toned down; Trent Lott was demoted, though not drummed out of the party, when he declared that if Strom Thurmond’s segregationist presidential campaign had succeeded “we wouldn’t have had all these problems.” Meanwhile, the G.O.P. has found other ways to obscure its economic elitism. The Bush administration has proved utterly incompetent in fighting terrorists, but it has skillfully exploited the terrorist threat for domestic political gain. And there are also the “values” issues: abortion, stem cells, gay marriage.

But the nasty racial roots of the G.O.P.’s triumph live on in public policy and election strategy.

A revelatory article in yesterday’s Boston Globe described how the Bush administration has politicized the Justice Department’s civil rights division, “filling the permanent ranks with lawyers who have strong conservative credentials but little experience in civil rights.”

Not surprisingly, there has been a shift in priorities: “The division is bringing fewer voting rights and employment cases involving systematic discrimination against African-Americans, and more alleging reverse discrimination against whites and religious discrimination against Christians.”

Above all, there’s the continuing effort of the G.O.P. to suppress black voting.

The Supreme Court probably wouldn’t have been able to put Mr. Bush in the White House in 2000 if the administration of his brother, the governor of Florida, hadn’t misidentified large numbers of African-Americans as felons ineligible to vote. In 2004, Ohio’s Republican secretary of state tried to impose a ludicrous rule on the paper weight of voter registration applications; last year, Georgia Republicans tried to impose an onerous “voter ID” rule. In each case, the obvious intent was to disenfranchise blacks.

And if the Republicans hold on to the House this fall, it will probably only be because of a redistricting plan in Texas that a panel of Justice Department lawyers unanimously concluded violated the Voting Rights Act — only to be overruled by their politically appointed superiors.

So yes, African-Americans distrust Mr. Bush’s party — with good reason.

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