Grooming a new generation of black Republican leaders is perhaps the greatest task currently facing the Republican Party.
That's the opinion of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who told me, "Until the Republican Party is able to have black candidates win, not only in black districts but in white districts, only then will we begin to regain some authority on the race issue."
What DeLay is really saying - and what anyone who gives the matter any thought realizes - is that the Republicans will not retain long-term, stable control of government unless they do a better job establishing legitimacy with minority voters.
Presently, blacks don't vote Republican because they don't feel like they're welcome in the party. Makes sense. On the federal level, the Republicans don't have a single black senator or congressperson. The party's greatest locus of support is in rural and suburban areas.
Republican candidates with experience as big-city officials, who maintain regular association with black venues, tend to do OK with black voters. But, as we know, the GOP is not a party of big-city officials. On the whole, black American communities and venues remain unfamiliar turf for Republicans.
By contrast, about one-quarter of the membership of the Democratic National Committee is black. This strong representation within the party means more American blacks get hired by - and elected to - government at every level, under the party's auspices. This creates a positive ripple effect throughout the community. Black politicians typically maintain close associations with other black community figures such as ministers, teachers, entrepreneurs and union officials. These interlocking relationships proclaim to African-Americans that they are part of the Democratic Party.
The Republicans need to take a page from the Democrats and do a better job of grooming black elected officials who can carry their message into the community - because the black community is ripe for appeal. More and more black Americans are coming to the conclusion that liberalism has not solved their most basic problems. Instead, it has put us in the mindset that we have to be fed government programs, instead of being given access to capital and the opportunity to create our own jobs. The younger generation of black Americans is saying it is time to move beyond the basic covenants of liberalism and finally face who we are and what we need, not solely as blacks, but as individuals.
Lacking the psychic scars of their parents and grandparents, young blacks are more optimistic about the idea - and the reality - of being part of the middle class. They don't just want a seat at the table. They expect to own the house.
These differences in perspective are manifesting themselves in seismic shifts in public opinion. According to polls conducted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, roughly one-third of black Americans under the age of 35 describe themselves as independents. Black support for the Republican Party has more than doubled, from 4 percent to 10 percent, over the past two years. During the same period, support for the Democratic Party has dropped 11 percent among black voters. This new generation is straddling partisan lines on core issues such as education reform and welfare reform.
Even more profound is the narrowing difference between what young black Americans and white Americans rate as their top priority concerns. According to a recent Joint Center study, each group ranked education, health care, crime and the economy among its top five areas of concern. That marks a profound change. Young black Americans are no longer isolating themselves from mainstream society along the fault line of black and white issues. They want issues-oriented solutions, not racial rhetoric.
In political races across the country, these generational shifts are coming into focus. A number of new-wave moderate and conservative black political leaders are gaining local and state office outside the auspices of the liberal Democratic black establishment. Elected leaders such Cory Booker, Harold Ford Jr. and Kwame Kilpatrick are articulating a new vision and agenda.
These new leaders are more conservative than the old guard. They tend to be less certain that racism is the prime reason for the lack of progress among many blacks. Most oppose racially based affirmative action. Unlike the old guard, they do not see America as fundamentally flawed because of its unfortunate racial history, or because of its capitalist economic system. They are more inclined to encourage choice and market-based approaches, such as school vouchers and black entrepreneurship. These new black leaders are not promoting the so-called black agenda. They are laying out a new roadmap that will prepare us to achieve the American dream.
Sadly, they are facing stiff opposition from the black liberal old guard, who are fearful of falling into irrelevancy. Discrimination and victimhood are the foundation upon which they have built their legitimacy as our spokespeople. To this day, they depend on the perception of on-going, widespread racism to remain competitive in the electoral process. They underplay the dramatic improvements in economic and social status experienced by blacks over the last 40 years. They do everything they can to drum the new wave of black conservatives out of the black community. Exhibit A: the vitriolic and irrational attacks the old guard launches against individuals such as Justice Clarence Thomas, Shelby Steele, John McWhorter, et al.
The old guard of liberal black leaders has every reason to be fearful. The day when the black voting populace automatically rubber-stamps the Democrats is coming to an end.
The Republicans - and black America - are facing a historic opportunity. Should the Republicans get serious about grooming this new wave of conservative black leaders, they could carry forth a new narrative about how this younger generation faces different obstacles than those encountered by their parents and grandparents, and how new approaches are desperately needed. That would be a refreshing change of pace for a community that has been stuck on the dead-end street of victimhood for too long.