HOUSTON -- More than a hundred years ago, Frederick Douglass boasted, "The Republican Party is the ship, all else the sea." If Douglass were in Houston to read this year's rigidly conservative platform, or witness the marginal role of black Republicans in this convention, he would quickly grasp why most African Americans haven't sailed on the GOP vessel for years.
The Houston gathering is a pale imitation of the party Frederick Douglass touted. Douglass's GOP was the major political party of social progress. Despite some backsliding during the post-Reconstruction period, Republicans led the fight to abolish slavery, give blacks the vote and guarantee due process to Americans regardless of race. These victories earned the GOP the allegiance of most blacks well into Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal.
But the capture of the party by conservative extremists and the past 12 years of Republican White House control have given African Americans little reason to consider boarding that ship again. That seemed to be the message received by Tom Smith, the black Republican mayor of Asbury Park and member of the New Jersey General Assembly, who is attending his first GOP convention. He didn't disguise his disappointment with the right-wing platform.
"There's no hope in it," he said of a platform that talks tough about the need for more tough judges, tougher anti-crime laws and tough treatment of welfare recipients who don't behave like the middle class. Smith said the platform offers little to adult African Americans, who may be moderate but are far from the Republican political and religious right who embrace the so-called wedge issues.
Any doubt about where people with moderate views fit in today's Republican Party was laid to rest by arch conservative Phyllis Schafly. "Total victory," she crowed about the defeat of pro-choice Republicans. "None of this litmus-test, big-tent garbage."
To understand why conservatives are having their way, Frederick Douglass would only have to take a stroll around the convention hall. Of the 2,210 delegates attending the convention, only 107, or less than 5 percent, are black, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. Stack that against the 771 black delegates who attended the Democratic convention in New York, and their broad representation on the credentials, rules and platform committees.
Opening day at both conventions gives an indication why African Americans have abandoned the GOP in droves. Last month's Democratic convention was gaveled open by Ron Brown, who holds the critical post of Democratic national chairman. He was backed up by another African American vice chairman and 80 black members of the Democratic National Committee.
The Republican convention also opened with a black near the top of the schedule. He was former Reagan administration aide Fred McClure, who was given the honor of singing the national anthem. McClure's GOP national committee has only four black members: three from the Virgin Islands and one from the District of Columbia. McClure could gaze over an auditorium in which 15 states had no black delegates.
Black Republicans weren't idle though; on opening day they sponsored a "Salute to Lee Atwater" starring Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan. The convention did hear from Maryland black conservative and U.S. Senate hopeful Alan L. Keyes. His appearance followed his charges that convention organizers had refused him an invitation to speak. Keyes had also released an open letter to President Bush asking, "What impression does it create when you go to Illinois to help raise half a million dollars to defeat Carol Mosely-Braun, while your staff treats me like the invisible man?" That blast got Keyes a spot on the podium twice, including a prime-time slot. Who says that playing the race card in the GOP can't win?
But it fell to Pat Buchanan to remind African Americans why treading water alone in shark-infested seas may be preferable to setting sail with him in the Republican Party. For one who invokes the name of God at every turn, Pat Buchanan can be mean and intolerant, as he demonstrated on Monday night, when he bashed gays and pro-choice advocates, misrepresented Hillary Clinton's views on children and did his version of David Duke's number on the need to "take back our culture" from a nameless but-you-know-who-I'm-talking-about enemy.
Thanks to American history, most blacks past the age of 40 carry with them a keenly developed second sense of peril. And they know damn well what and who Buchanan is talking about.
But changing the ways of the GOP is off the screen at this convention. Take the case of Lugenia Gordon, who heads the New York-based Freedom Republicans. Gordon, a disciple of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, has sued to change party rules that hamper blacks from serving as delegates and members of the Republican National Committee. She came to Houston and told the GOP rules committee: "Today black Americans, the very citizens who more than any other can understand and testify to the traditions of the GOP, feel alienated from the Republican Party." Gordon asked: "What would the founders of the GOP say were they to attend a meeting of the Republican National Committee and learn that the only full black members are from the Virgin Islands? That the RNC has a specially designated auxiliary reserved for black Republicans?"
Having heard Gordon on the subject before, the party stuck to past scripts and ignored her. But she'll continue her lawsuit challenging the party rules as racially discriminatory. She won a victory in district court earlier this year when Judge Charles R. Richey in Washington found that the Civil Rights Act applied to the GOP and Democratic conventions. The Federal Elections Commission, which must enforce the court order, has appealed. So the feisty Mrs. Gordon is now pitted against the FEC and the RNC. She said if Frederick Douglass were here today, he "would spit in their faces."
That part might be debated. But is there any doubt that Douglass would be up in arms over his party's 12-year retreat on civil rights, its divisive handling of racial issues and its indifference to the problems crushing blacks who remain trapped in America's inner cities? Its a good bet that if Douglass and his co-abolitionists were aboard that Republican ship today, they would be up on charges of mutiny. The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.