By Jack Kemp
August 9, 2000 for Townhall.com
Colin Powell was certainly right when he told the Republican Convention that for too long America has been divided over the issue of race and color and has paid a high price for not living up to the spirit and letter of the Declaration of Independence. Gov. George W. Bush, to his enormous credit, has set a new course for the Republican Party to close that divide, and he is doing so in a way that is neither condescending nor demeaning to African-Americans or white Americans. In both his rhetoric and his actions, Bush is making it clear that he and the Republican Party intend to compete with the Democratic Party for every single African-American and minority vote from here on out.
It’s no secret that the modern Republican Party has struggled to win the vote of African-Americans, but it hasn’t always been that way. Following the legacy of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, the post-Civil-War GOP provided the sole political voice for African-Americans throughout the next 65 years. The primary turn occurred with the New Deal realignment and was frozen in place during the civil rights era, when Republicans, preoccupied with another set of constitutional principles, fell tone deaf to the pleas of African-Americans for full racial equality under our Constitution.
Democratic leaders such as Harry S. Truman, Hubert H. Humphrey, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson heard that cry and wisely split with the segregationist wing of the Democratic Party to stand with Dr. Martin Luther King and Andy Young in support of the civil rights movement.
It’s wrong, however, to believe that the Republican Party abandoned the African-American community during this struggle for equal opportunity. In fact, the 1964 Civil Rights Act never would have passed without the brave leadership of Republican Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen. While 21 Democratic senators voted against the Civil Rights Act, only six Republicans did so. Despite these startling facts, the stigma stuck to the GOP, and African-Americans became aligned with the Democratic Party.
The Democratic Party takes the African-American vote for granted, while in the past, the Republican Party all too often conceded it without contest. That hasn’t been good for the country, it wasn’t good for either political party and it certainly hasn’t been good for African-Americans.
Although history rarely affords a second chance, the dawning of this new century gives the GOP an opportunity to affirmatively seek and win back African-Americans into its fold. It’s my hope for America that by the end of this decade 50 percent of blacks consistently vote for the Republican Party. The Republican Party can start this effort by carrying progressive and reformed-minded conservatism directly into African-American communities.
Powell was right about the cynicism that exists in the black community. That is why it was so important for Bush, when he spoke to the NAACP recently, to send the unambiguous message to black Americans that not only is he willing to fight for their vote today, he will listen to them and fight for them after the election, as well. This campaign will be remembered as a turning point for the GOP.
I think it’s wrong to assume that because the NAACP and other political elites within the African-American community do not endorse all Republican ideas, the GOP will never attract African-American voters. In many cases, the NAACP finds itself on the opposite side of a majority of its own constituency.
Take, for example, school choice. The idea that the government should allow parents to choose what school their children attend is a policy vehemently opposed by the NAACP, yet it finds consistent support from two-thirds of black parents. As the Urban League’s Hugh Price said recently in a message to public schools, while the Urban League loves public education, its members love their children more and want what’s best for them and will do whatever is necessary to achieve the best educational option available.
And when most people, African-Americans included, hear the truth about how the current Social Security system often takes more money from them than they ever will receive in future benefits, they rightly demand a higher rate of return on their Social Security contributions, which can only come through personal retirement accounts.
When Bush speaks to people of color, it is thrilling to see the positive reaction they have to the ideas of reforming education through school choice, building real wealth by cutting tax rates, creating personal retirement accounts, reducing entrepreneurial barriers, expanding property ownership, and increasing access to credit and capital to get their shot at the American dream.
These ideas date back to Abraham Lincoln, and if they are formulated into specific policies, such as real enterprise zones and home-ownership opportunities, they can be winning ideas for the GOP with the black community. Ownership, entrepreneurship, individualism and upward mobility – the heart of Lincoln’s vision – are Republican principles that are as timeless in America as the ideals within the Declaration of Independence itself.