As an American who's also black and a Republican, I've grown increasingly uneasy lately about our public discourse on race. Consider these recent developments:
After Hurricane Katrina, a number of conservative white commentators and elected officials made several highly insensitive comments about the black victims of that disaster. "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans," one GOP congressman joked. "We couldn't do it, but God did." More disturbing -- and disappointing -- was last weekend's Millions More March, which came across to me as a racially divisive event, with rhetoric calling white Americans "devils" and suggesting that President Bush should be impeached for allegedly blowing up the levees in New Orleans. None of this is going to help us move forward.
By way of contrast, last month I was filled with hope -- and frankly thrilled -- by President Bush's words when he spoke from New Orleans after Katrina. "Poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America," he said. "We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action . . . let us rise above the legacy of inequality."
I was stunned -- and suddenly more optimistic than I had been in a very long time. I never thought I'd see the day when a conservative Republican president would acknowledge what Bush just had. In a few words, he had struck directly at more than 30 years of conservative ideology and policies, policies that have denied that race and poverty in this country are historically linked and have refused to acknowledge that remedial action and ongoing programs such as affirmative action in education, contracting and employment are still needed in modern-day America.
When Bush spoke that night, I think he was being the compassionate conservative he campaigned as in the 2000 election. He didn't have to bring race into that particular speech. But he did the courageous thing and admitted that America has a legacy of discrimination that still affects the lives of many black citizens. And make no mistake: He raised these issues at great peril to his standing with his own conservative base.
If he can follow through on his suggested programs for the Gulf Coast, he will be doing something quite historic. He will truly be finishing the original Reconstruction envisioned by Abraham Lincoln and the Radical Republican Congress of the 1860s and '70s, which sought to give newly freed slaves access to education, land and a stake in the American economy that had been denied them for 200 years. And, despite the divisive voices in the party, he will be giving the GOP a chance to reclaim some of its historical greatness as the party of civil rights and social justice.
I joined the Republican Party as a college student in 1988, when George H.W. Bush ran on a promise of a "kinder, gentler America." I support the party's positions on a strong national defense, lower taxes, family values, religious freedom and economic entrepreneurship. Where I part company with the GOP is on its position on civil rights. I believe this country is still deeply divided over race. Just look at the national polls showing that between 70 and 90 percent of white Americans believe that race had nothing to do with the federal government's slow response to Katrina, while 60 percent or more of black Americans believe it was a significant factor.
Having worked for the last seven years with small- and minority-owned businesses in the federal contracting sector, I see how the legacy of inequality continues to play out in the real world. Women and minorities get a dismal fraction of total government contracts annually -- well under 7 percent, according to the Federal Procurement Data Center. Yet just this August, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a report taking federal agencies to task for not properly considering "race-neutral" policies in federal contracting procedures and questioning whether approaches that take race into account are still necessary.
The commission's report dismissed historical discrimination and the need for remedial action, even though, as lone dissenting commissioner Michael Yaki pointed out, the commission's sole purpose is "fact-finding and making recommendations on how best to eliminate discrimination" in the United States. To its credit, in the past few weeks the White House has made a point of stating that minority and small contractors aren't getting a fair share of Gulf contracts and that the government is working to increase the figures.
But we saw the effects of discrimination in New Orleans. What we watched unfold there was far worse than the devastation of a hurricane. It was the unraveling of 40 years of failed urban planning and programs that followed the era of Jim Crow. Katrina's poorest victims had been denied decent housing, safe communities, economic opportunity, quality educational facilities -- and, most of all, hope.
That's why I was inspired by the president's vision of an urban homestead act, opportunity zones and worker recovery accounts, to provide job training and educational assistance, incentives for job-creating investment, tax relief for small businesses and more in the Gulf. It sounded as though he had spoken to Jack Kemp, the former GOP congressman and housing and urban development secretary, who had it right when he was promoting opportunity zones by another name in the 1980s: African Americans and urban America don't need more government programs; they need new policies and lower taxes to provide the opportunity for ownership, entrepreneurship and investment.
What we need to understand after Katrina is that there is a direct connection between modern-day poverty in New Orleans and the past. There is also a historical reason why the poor in this region are disproportionately black.
After the Civil War, Lincoln launched the Reconstruction era, which lasted from about 1865 to 1885, to help the South get back on track economically and to help freed slaves become successfully integrated into American society. But when Andrew Johnson, a former senator from Tennessee, became president after Lincoln's assassination, he granted pardons to thousands of ex-Confederates, many of whom were later elected to Congress and supported segregationist policies. In states such as Louisiana -- and specifically in New Orleans -- civic leaders delayed adopting integration policies and granting rights to blacks as required in order to receive federal support until after they had fallen irrevocably behind the rest of the "New South."
This further exacerbated the severe challenges a city like New Orleans already faced from the rise of railroads and other market transformations, leaving pockets of poverty and economic deprivation that would last for generations. Another damning legacy of the Reconstruction era was the implementation of the infamous Black Codes, which instituted miscegenation laws, did not allow blacks to own property, compelled them to work as farm laborers and forbade them to live in cities and towns where whites lived.
In January 1865, Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's Special Field Order No. 15 did set up a temporary plan granting each freed black family in the region from South Carolina to Florida 40 forty acres of tillable land (the origin of the famous "40 acres and a mule"), but few former slaves ever took possession of any land. Fast forward to 1896, when segregation was legalized through the Supreme Court's Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which remained the law of the land until 1954 and Brown v. Board of Education.
This is the "legacy of inequality" that Bush spoke so eloquently about last month. America can't simply ignore hundreds of years of slavery and legalized segregation and then expect that there will be no real and lasting consequences for generations to come. It's frustrating, as a black American, to hear my peers and colleagues, commentators and ordinary citizens alike suggest that somehow blacks now have a level playing field, and that somehow we are responsible for resolving hundreds of years of discrimination against us all by ourselves. We aren't. This is an American problem that won't be solved until the work that Lincoln started with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 is completed.
Is this something Bush can do? His words after Katrina were an affirmation to me and millions of other African Americans. Unfortunately, they were not so comforting to lots of conservatives.
The day after Bush's speech, Rush Limbaugh and other prominent conservatives were hyperventilating on talk radio and opinion pages, wondering why the president had injected race into the discussion of the disaster. Race, they argued, had nothing to do with it. If "those people" in New Orleans had simply gotten a good education and had jobs, the refrain went, they wouldn't have been stuck in poverty and would not now be living in hopelessness far from home.
Add to that former education secretary William Bennett's appalling comments about the correlation between aborting black babies and reducing crime, and I'm not so sure the president has the support in our party to carry out the much-needed discussion on race. But I want to encourage him, anyway, to stay the course and follow through on what he promised -- to confront the issue of poverty "with bold action."
In doing that, perhaps he can also help the Republican Party find its way again, help it return to its roots as a party founded on social justice and civil rights for all, including women and blacks. Black Americans' opinions of the party and the president are currently at an all-time, single-digit low. But Bush has the opportunity to lead the party back to greatness. I don't know if he can pull it off, but I do know this: On the night of Sept. 15, Bush sounded like Lincoln's ghost had come to him in a dream and asked him to step up, do the right thing and finish the work that had been started 140 years ago. And until that work is completed, this nation will continue to be a house divided against itself on race.
Author's e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sophia Nelson, a Washington attorney, specializes in working with minority federal contracting firms. She worked as a lawyer in the 2004 Bush campaign.