The Republican Party's relationship with black voters has been tenuous at best over the last 40 years. A fact that found perfect expression in the 2000 election, when 90 percent of black voters cast their ballots for Democratic challenger Al Gore. Even in Bush's home state of Texas, 95 percent of black voters supported Gore, despite the fact that Bush pursued American blacks with more avidity than any Republican candidate in recent memory did.
Plainly, minorities continue to have difficulty trusting Republican candidates - a hangover from the party's opposition to retain civil-rights initiatives and affirmative action. As America grows ever more diverse, the Republican national leadership realizes that unless they actively woo a larger percentage of the African-American and Hispanic vote, they will have difficulty remaining a stable governing party.
President Bush has tried to lay the groundwork for a genuine give-and-take between the GOP and the ethnic community. In practice, however, party leaders who are constrained by their own insular traditions muddle these outreach efforts. Exhibit A: the party's recent failure to support Minister Conrad Muhammad of New York.
Some brief background: In his angry youth, Muhammad aligned himself with Rev. Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, where he proceeded to pump his fists at the powers that be. Now, as a calm, articulate 37-year-old, he desperately wants to be a part of the power structure he once denounced. To this end, Muhammad has openly courted the Republican Party to back his bid to represent New York's 15th Congressional District in Harlem - an area that Muhammad feels is ripe for change.
As for his past, he says he has shed the vitriol of his youth and is prepared to change the dominant power structure by joining it. He cites Congressman Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) as an example. " (Rush) used to say, 'Off the pig,' meaning kill police officers. That was the language of the times, but I'm sure that Congressman Rush does not feel that way today. He is still fighting for his people, but he is doing it through the system. I have made a similar transition."
Muhammad's words echo the post-modern feminist writers who reasoned that when you stand outside the dominant sphere of influence and pump your fists at those in power, you could be easily discarded as irrational. Real change, they concluded, comes from within, by subtly altering stereotypes through personal interaction with "the powers that be."
Dubbed the "hip-hop minister" by the citizens of Harlem for his rousing sermons and community service, Muhammad currently serves as the executive director of CHHANGE (Conscious Hip-Hop Activism Necessary for Global Empowerment), an organization dedicated to correcting negative stereotypes in the media and pop culture. If elected, he could use that grassroots credibility to build bridges between the Republicans and black voters.
So why has the Republican leadership balked at the idea of supporting Muhammad, opting instead to back Independent Party veteran, Dr. Jesse Fields? The official party line is that Muhammad needs to build his resume and atone for past comments made during his tenure with the Nation of Islam.
"That's absurd," snorts Muhammad, noting that the Republican Party didn't hesitate to seek his support in getting other white, Republican candidates elected. "When I was running around here campaigning for Mike Bloomberg, and I was at the Republican convention during the last presidential race, when I endorsed Gov. Pataki while there was an African-American Democrat in the office, no one said anything about me needing to atone. And while the party said they wouldn't support me as a candidate, they wanted me to go out and get the governor elected and build the party. So I think it is hypocrisy."
And indeed, after conducting some research and polling, the GOP's national leadership concluded that there would likely be hell to pay if they backed a black man with strong views and a personal history that did not mesh with their own ideals. It is also worth noting that the Republican Party consists largely of those Southern politicians who, in the past, would have been opposed to civil rights legislation. Plainly, they have difficulty looking beyond their own tradition.
This is sad because Muhammad supports traditional Republican values of empowering small businesses and injecting market dynamics into the public school system. It is sad because he represents the Republican Party's best chance at supplanting Rep. Rangel.
It is sad because President Bush has made a genuine effort to build bridges to the ethnic community, to increase ethnic diversity within the GOP and to earn the like and trust of the African-American community. Most of all, it is sad because as America grows ever more diverse, the GOP appears ever more insular and stodgy. That means minorities will continue to vote for Democrats - making them the easiest group for both parties to take for granted.