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Republicans Come Up Short Courting Black Conservatives

By Terry M. Neal
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2005; 6:00 AM

Former pro football great Reggie White built a reputation for dazzling people off the field as well as on by the time of his death last month at a mere 43 years of age.

White, who retired from the NFL four years ago as one of the most respected and feared defensive players in league history, was also an ordained Baptist minister whose public statements on matters of politics and values echoed those of a great many blacks who are conservative on social and cultural issues. In 2000, in fact, White endorsed Gary Bauer, perhaps the most socially conservative candidate in that year's Republican presidential primary.

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And yet the Republican Party's inability to make significant inroads among socially conservative African-Americans such as White is one of the enduring political realities of our time.

Let's go back and look at some of the comments that made White (in)famous.

In March 1998, White gave a speech on the floor of the Wisconsin legislature that was a virtual cornucopia of racial and ethnic stereotypes. It even included curious comments about his own race.

"Black people are very gifted in what we call worship and celebration," he said. White folks "know how to tap into money." Hispanics "were gifted in family structure" and could get 20 to 30 people into one home. Asians are technically proficient to the point that they "can turn a television into a watch."

But perhaps because he was an equal opportunity stereotyper on race, his comments about homosexuality seemed to elicit the most media attention.

"Homosexuality is a decision," White said, referencing attempts to compare racial discrimination to discrimination against gays. "It's not a race. People from all different ethnic backgrounds are living this lifestyle. But people from all different ethnic backgrounds also are liars and cheaters and malicious and backstabbing."

The reaction was swift and in some cases harsh. White was characterized by critics on the left as a cretin, a buffoon, a racist and a homophobe. He eventually said he regretted his choice of words on race, but stood by the gist of his assertions that God imbued each race with different strengths. He never backed down from his comments on homosexuality.

White was invited on one news talk show after another, where the interviews veered off onto his other controversial stands, such as his defense of Jimmy the Greek's assertions about black athletic superiority. On NBC's Meet the Press, an incredulous Tim Russert even pressed White to defend his support of corporal punishment.

"You actually hit your children?" Russert asked.

"I whup my children," White responded. "I mean, I don't hit my children out of anger. I don't beat them. The Bible said if you spare the rod, you hate your son. The thing is that we've allowed disorder amongst our children. And now children are in chaos right now because we've not given them that discipline."

Some conservative commentators and pundits defended White's comments as perhaps unartful and a poor choice of words while also portraying him as a victim of a liberal media establishment obsessed with political correctness.

One reason that Russert and others reacted with such surprise may have been that White's comments didn't fit the political stereotype of African Americans, a group that is more loyal in its support of Democratic candidates than any other demographic group. But the socially conservative White was not alone among African Americans.


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