PRESIDENT BUSH broke his boycott of the NAACP by copying the speech he gave to the nation’s oldest civil rights group as a candidate in 2000.
On Thursday, Bush said: “I understand that many African-Americans distrust my political party. . . . I consider it a tragedy that the party of Abraham Lincoln let go of its historic ties with the African-American community. . . . We need to challenge the soft bigotry of low expectations. . . . I understand that racism still lingers in America.”
In 2000, Bush said: “For my party, there is no escaping the reality that the party of Lincoln has not always carried the mantle of Lincoln. . . . While some in my party have avoided the NAACP and while some in the NAACP have avoided my party, I’m proud to be here. . . . I will confront another form of bias: the soft bigotry of low expectations. . . . Discrimination is still a reality, even when it takes different forms. Instead of Jim Crow, there’s racial redlining and profiling. Instead of separate but equal, there is separate and forgotten. Strong civil rights enforcement will be a cornerstone of my administration.”
Bush hoped he could plagiarize himself to an audience he treated for 5 1/2 years as separate and forgotten. Until Thursday, he was the only sitting president since Warren G. Harding more than 80 years ago not to address the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Bush’s top moment of success in that regard was when he said he would sign the extension of the Voting Rights Act. This was hardly courageous, as the Senate passed the extension 98 to 0 and the House passed it 390 to 33. More on Bush’s mind was blunting visceral anger at his Iraq debacle and domestic policies that have many Republican members of Congress at risk in the mid-term elections.
Anger seethed beneath the politeness. While Bush received strong applause on the voting act and for understanding the distrust of black voters toward his party, silence grew as Bush retreated to well-worn, but ill-funded initiatives such as education. He received a smattering of boos for pushing charter schools.
Many people in the audience were acutely aware that Bush barely touched on the NAACP’s core mission of equal rights. Bush failed to square his lament about African-Americans and Republicans when his own Justice Department deleted half of a massive report on racism among its attorneys, and his own Department of Health and Human Services attempted to delete all references to disparities and inequalities in healthcare. Bush did not mention why he backed white students at the University of Michigan who tried to kill affirmative action. He did not mention his Supreme Court and federal judicial appointees who oppose affirmative action and school busing.
His praise of the Voting Rights Act was, of course, the most ironic moment of his speech, considering how he gained the Oval Office with the massive disqualification of black ballots in Florida.
“I thought it was a good speech; he lost his luster and fire at the end,” said James Crowell, president of the Biloxi NAACP in Mississippi. “We’re still waiting for money to help us out from [Hurricane] Katrina. Even in removing rubbish from Katrina, minority contractors were at the end of hiring. The cost of a gallon of gasoline is almost the same as the minimum wage. Small school systems are dying from lack of funding as white families pull out. I haven’t seen anything from Bush where the rubber meets the road.”
Kenny Gwynn, president of the middle Tennessee chapter of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, and Paco Havard, president of the Maury County, Tennessee chapter of the NAACP, agreed.
“We don’t need separate charter schools; we need all our schools to be built up,” said Gwynn, a General Motors auto worker. “On jobs, we’re bleeding them overseas and everyone is worried about their pensions and healthcare.”
Havard added, “I hear hope in what Bush says, but don’t show me despair.”
Julian Bond, the NAACP’s chairman and the organization’s harshest critic of the Bush presidency, said he was happy Bush made his speech, but noted how the president failed to utter a single example of how the administration enforced civil rights. He said Bush still ranks among the lowest of modern presidents in that regard.
“It’s like a plumber addressing a carpenters’ convention,” Bond said. “The harsh reality of his presidency is one of low performance and low expectations.”
Derrick Z. Jackson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.