Trying to attract the wrong blacks


A promising new black political figure is emerging in Ohio - J. Kenneth Blackwell, a solid, anti-abortion conservative who has fought for lower taxes. He is seeking the Republican nomination for governor of Ohio, and polls indicate that he has substantial support.

Unfortunately, Ohio's Republicans are a lot like Ohio's Democrats; both are for higher taxes. On this and other issues, Mr. Blackwell is described in the current issue of City Journal as "often at war with his own party as well as the Democrats."

The Republican Party has not had much success attracting black votes in recent decades, and conservative blacks have not had an easy time in the Republican Party.

Blacks have voted so overwhelmingly for Democrats for so long that Republicans have few incentives to try to gain black votes, and little success when they do.

Political inertia can be powerful. The "solid South" voted consistently for Democrats for more than a century. Today, the Jewish vote is just as automatically for Democrats as the black vote is, and with even less reason, since Jews have little to gain from the welfare state and Israel's strongest supporters are religious conservatives.

When Republicans occasionally try to reach out to blacks, they tend to do so ineptly, if not ridiculously. For reasons unknown, they seem to want to appeal to black voters in the same ways that Democrats appeal to black voters, by adopting a liberal stance.

Why would anyone who wants liberalism go for a GOP imitation when they can get the real thing from Democrats? Republicans do not have a chance of winning the votes of liberal blacks.

Nor are they likely to win a majority of the black vote as a whole any time soon. But if Republicans can get just a fourth or a fifth of the black vote nationwide, that can shift the balance of power decisively in their favor.

It is not rocket science to see that whatever chances the Republicans have of making inroads into the black vote are likely to be better among more conservative blacks.

Black religious groups opposed to abortion or homosexual marriage are an obvious group to try to reach. So are black business owners or military veterans.

Does anyone think that President Bush's awarding a Medal of Freedom to Muhammad Ali was likely to appeal to such groups? Yet this continues a pattern in which Republicans have tried to approach black voters from the left.

In 1997, when black Republican Rep. J. C. Watts of Oklahoma denounced people such as the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and Washington Mayor Marion Barry as "race-hustling poverty pimps," House Speaker Newt Gingrich took it upon himself to apologize to Mr. Jackson.

To apologize for what another man said is to treat that man as if he were your child or your servant. Mr. Gingrich then added further insult by inviting Mr. Jackson to join him in his box during Bill Clinton's inauguration for a second term as president.

Undermining your friends in order to appease your enemies may seem like clever politics to some people. But what could possibly have led Republicans to think that pro-Jesse Jackson blacks were ever going to vote for them? Did they think that conservative blacks who might have voted for them were more likely to do so when Republicans embraced Mr. Jackson? Did they think that conservative blacks who might have considered becoming Republican candidates were more likely to do so after seeing how Mr. Watts had been treated?

Another conservative black Republican who had the rug pulled out from under him was Michael Williams, when he was in charge of civil rights at the Education Department. Mr. Williams ruled that setting aside scholarships exclusively for minority students was racial discrimination in violation of civil rights laws.

This courageous ruling was overruled in the first Bush administration, embarrassing Mr. Williams.

Mr. Blackwell's candidacy for the Republican nomination for governor in Ohio is a golden opportunity for Republicans, not only in that state but on the national political scene as well. Still, Mr. Blackwell would do well to watch his back.

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His syndicated column appears Thursdays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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