A strange thing about President Bush's recent address to the NAACP annual meeting was the lack of pretense that this was anything but a partisan affair.
Referring to NAACP president Bruce Gordon, Bush said, "I don't expect Bruce to become a Republican _ and neither do you."
The president, later in his remarks, added, "I consider it a tragedy that the party of Abraham Lincoln let go of its historic ties with the African American community. For too long my party wrote off the African-American vote, and many African-Americans wrote off the Republican Party."
This causes me to ask two questions. First, if the president felt that he was effectively addressing the black national chapter of the Democratic Party, what was he trying to accomplish? Second, is it really accurate to say that the Republican Party "let go of its historic ties with the African American community?"
On the second point, with due respect to our president, I think it is the African-American community that has let go of its historic ties to the party of Lincoln.
When I think of Lincoln I think of emancipation. That bold stroke of the pen finally did what this nation was struggling to do for a hundred years _ liberate its black slaves.
Lincoln believed in freedom _ freedom for all.
The agenda of the Republican Party of recent years, an agenda fought tooth and nail by the Democratic Party and by the NAACP, has been an agenda of emancipation.
Let parents choose where to send their child to school. Emancipate them from the tyranny of a public school monopoly. Let working Americans take ownership of their social security contributions and build equity in their own retirement savings accounts. Emancipate American workers from the tyranny of the payroll tax and government-controlled retirement.
Lincoln took two great lies head on when he emancipated the slaves. The lie that one man should or could control another's life. And the lie that the African slaves could not be free.It is the greatest of ironies that both these great lies animate the opposition of the Democratic Party _ and the NAACP _ to emancipating reforms like school choice and private retirement accounts. They believe that government and politicians should control the education choice of private citizens and should control savings and retirement funds of poor people. And they don't believe that African-Americans can be free and take care of themselves.
So what was President Bush trying to accomplish with his address to the NAACP?
Maybe he thought that he could plant the seeds of change by showing up, being civil and cordial, and slipping in a few remarks about choice and ownership.
But, realistically, it was a waste of time. For the NAACP leadership, Bush's gesture was a sign that he might be ready to accommodate them, rather than vice versa. More money, more programs, more statements giving credibility to racism as the cause of poverty.
What will it take to get African-Americans back to the agenda of Lincoln and a belief in freedom and in themselves?
For one thing, understand that much of the NAACP's power and influence results not because it monolithically represents black America, but because so much of white America thinks it does. As columnist George Curry points out, the NAACP has been exaggerating its membership for years. According to Curry, there are less than 300,000 dues-paying members of the NAACP. That's out of a population of 38 million African Americans, 13 million of which voted in the last election.
Note that President Bush's address to the NAACP didn't touch on social issues, such as preservation of traditional marriage, which are of enormous importance to black Christians nationwide. He knows that the NAACP is a regular plaintiff in lawsuits trying to overturn traditional marriage.
Nor did he talk about the enormous success of welfare reform, 10 years old this year, which liberated millions of young black women and their children from welfare dependence. Black liberals uniformly opposed this reform, claiming then, as they do today, that young black women could not be freed from government dependence and take care of themselves.
Lincoln sought the advice of black abolitionist Frederick Douglass on getting the word of emancipation to the slaves in the south. Today's Frederick Douglasses, those many conservative black voices around the country who believe in black freedom and dignity, must be the vehicles for change today.
It certainly won't be the NAACP.