Saturday, January 6, 2001

President-elect Bush didn’t fall for the trap. A reporter recently asked him whether he was sending a message by appointing a number of minorities to high-profile Cabinet positions. Mr. Bush’s reply was perfect: “You bet: People that work hard and make the right decisions in life can achieve anything they want in America.” In light of these recent appointments, many may have been anticipating a more multicultural message, perhaps that all segments of America must be represented in his Cabinet. However, Mr. Bush appears to be sending an important and distinctly different message: that not only will his administration reclaim the mantle of Abraham Lincoln for Republicans but also that of Martin Luther King.

King’s dream that one day his children would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character is often brushed aside and even unpopular amidst today’s multicultural rhetoric. The leading academics of multiculturalism claim that such visions of a colorblind society are hostile toward group difference. They charge that a society that ignores skin color is one that is insensitive to the particular needs of minorities. The radical left has long abandoned King’s civil rights mantra of equality before the law. Instead, they argue that true equality can only be achieved through a recognition of differences (read oppressed status), and this manifests itself in their calls for programs such as affirmative action and for hate crimes laws. According to this line of argument, inequality before the law is acceptable if a more meaningful equality can be achieved.

The principles that all Americans must be equal under the law and not given special status ought to remain a centerpiece of administration policy. Put simply, Mr. Bush must carry on King’s legacy of working toward a colorblind society. Although this has been at the center of Republican ideology for some time, it has been inadequately represented and expressed before minority skeptics. The challenge, therefore, to Mr. Bush is to communicate this as the guiding principle of race and minority relations in America.

This is why minority Cabinet appointments, followed by an explanation that they were based on merit, were important. Mr. Bush is communicating that substantive qualifications which is to say character content, not skin color were the motivating factors behind all appointments. His efforts have already surpassed those of any Republican president to communicate this message. However, as evidenced by his poor performance particularly among blacks on election day, there is still much more work to be done.

To succeed where other Republicans have failed, Mr. Bush must engage those who will listen with open minds. Grassroots outreach is the best way for him to access such a receptive audience. Recently, Mr. Bush assembled a group of black ministers at his ranch in Texas. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss a newly devised role for faith-based institutions in America. Finding such common ground through constructive dialogue shows, as Rep. J.C. Watts notes, that the views of African-Americans and the Republican Party are much closer than most might think.

Mr. Bush faces a great challenge in trying to mend Republican relations with minorities. To do so, he ought to employ his skills as a coalition builder and remain committed to King’s principle of working toward a colorblind society. If Mr. Bush truly wants to unite America, he will do well to reach out to those who have long been ignored by Republicans and taken for granted by Democrats, simply because of the color of their skin.

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