Republicans, lately upbeat about the GOP's current relationship with black Americans and its future potential, have sought to characterize the Democrats as taking black support for granted.
But that assessment may be premature. To judge from opinion polls and interviews with lawmakers and opinion leaders, black voters do have problems with the Democrats, but they find that party much more in their comfort zone — politically, socially and historically — than the GOP.
“It seems like the Republican Party is in a continuous search for those elusive black voters,” said David A. Bositis, a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a WQashington-based think tank concentrating on African American and minority issues. “George W. Bush got the smallest share of the black vote since Barry Goldwater. Are they making any progress? No. If they're really trying, they're quite inept at it.”
“The party of Lincoln? I don't think so,” Bositis said. “The Republican party is now the party of Jefferson Davis.”
Black Democrats cite a long list of policy concerns that affect their daily lives, including poverty, jobs and education.
Besides focusing on such practical matters, black Democrats point to the Bush administration's actions and statements to explain their reluctance to vote Republican.
There's the lingering bad taste of the 2000 election, and the persistent belief among many black voters that the results were somehow rigged, invalidating their votes.
There's also Bush's nomination of Judge Charles Pickering to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, despite Pickering's record on civil rights decisions. Pickering criticized the “one-person, one-vote” principle recognized by the Supreme Court and tried to limit remedies provided by the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Bush installed Pickering on the federal bench in January as a recess appointment, bypassing the routine Senate confirmation process. (His appointment ends next January.)
In January 2003, on what would have been Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's 74th birthday, Bush condemned the admissions system at the University of Michigan, which used race as one of several factors to determine qualification for admission, as “divisive, unfair and impossible to square with the Constitution.”
Rep. John Conyers, leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, called the president's position “yet another slap in the face of African-American and minority leaders across the country.”
More recent events
In July, in an action fraught with deep symbolism, Bush rebuffed the NAACP’s invitation to speak before its national convention, becoming the first sitting president since Warren G. Harding to refuse to address the convention. Bush chose instead to address the National Urban League convention, apparently oblivious to the fact that many members of the one organization also belong to the other.
In August, Nadia Naffe, a black former field director for the Republican Party, filed a federal lawsuit accusing the Florida GOP of racial discrimination, saying she was fired after complaining about being “race-matched,” or assigned to work only with black organizations.
Naffe's lawsuit alleges she was threatened by Republican Party officials and subjected to stereotypical comments by the staff. Florida GOP spokesman Joseph Agostini had no comment when contacted by MSNBC.com, but previously told Knight-Ridder Newspapers that “once the process takes its due course these allegations will prove to be without substance.”
Why do doubts persist?
Why do black Americans believe that Republicans work against them? One reason may be the low numbers of blacks in positions where key party decisions are made.
Take the Republican convention in August, for example. Conservatives have pointed to the number of black delegates who attended as a sign of progress, but the total was only 6.7 percent of all delegates. The previous record, 6 percent, was set at the GOP convention in 1912.
By comparison, black delegates comprised more than 20 percent of all delegates at the Democratic convention, according to the Joint Center.
‘An issue of trust’
“There’s an issue of trust; it has nothing to do with issues or policy — though I won't say policy is nothing,” said Bositis, a longtime observer of minority voting trends. “The problem is that African Americans don't trust the Republican Party because it's a white Southern party. They don't trust the Republican Party to do things in their interest.”
“During Bush's term, unemployment has risen almost 50 percent, incomes have fallen ... and there's no group in the United States that opposed the Iraqi war like African Americans,” Bositis said. “They didn't like [Bush] before. They like him even less now — even less than Ronald Reagan.”
On National Public Radio, Cornel West, a prominent author and professor of African-American Studies at Princeton University, said he doubts Republicans will be successful in their pursuit of black voters.
“The history of American conservatism is still there on the minds of black folks,” West said in an Oct. 6 NPR interview. “They know that conservatives opposed any critique of Jim Crow and American apartheid, they know that Republicans still stand for redistribution of wealth away from poor people to the well-to-do."
“Those issues in the end are going to trump even the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage,” West said. He conceded that “a significant slice of black churchpeople, including pastors,” would “become very visible in their support of Bush, but I think that black folks will be still be roughly, oh, about 90 to 93 percent against Bush because of those other crucial policies.”
West's forecast may be only slightly overoptimistic; an Associated Press-Ipsos poll in mid-September found that 80 percent of black registered voters supported Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, and that 7 percent backed Bush.
But more recent polling reflects a situation in flux. In a poll released Tuesday, the Joint Center found that Kerry enjoys a 4-1 margin of support among blacks, down slightly from the backing then-Vice President Al Gore received in 2000.
In the center's new poll, Bush enjoys stronger support now than in 2000 from those black voters 50 and older, and those who consider themselves “Christian conservatives.”
That has helped Bush narrow the still sizable gap with Kerry among black voters, who preferred the senator over Bush, 69 percent to 18 percent. The group’s poll before the 2000 election found Gore with 74 percent support, compared to 9 percent for Bush.
Seizing the advantage
This presumed advantage for Democrats isn’t lost on the Kerry campaign. At the National Black Clergy Summit in Philadelphia on Oct. 4, Kerry huddled with church and opinion leaders, including black clergy from Ohio and Pennsylvania, two states thought to be key to the outcome of the election.
In an Oct. 7 interview on the Black Entertainment Television network, Kerry outlined priorities for a relationship with black Americans under a Kerry administration.
“I've made this pledge: to even do better than Bill Clinton did in terms of African-American representation in the government participation in the decisions of our country,” Kerry said. “My administration will look like America.”
Michael E. Ross is author of “Interesting Times: Essays and Nonfiction.” MSNBC.com's Alex Johnson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.