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It's too bad -- in more ways than one -- that President Bush decided to renominate Charles Pickering Sr. to a seat on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Pickering's nomination was defeated along partisan lines in the Senate Judiciary Committee last fall, when Democrats had majority control. But now that Republicans are in charge, Bush has decided to reopen the fight over Pickering's record on civil rights. Democrats charge that this shows the Republicans are not serious about repairing their standing with black Americans after the Trent Lott fiasco.
The Pickering controversy promises to drown out, at least for now, those Republicans who are actually trying to talk about things that should matter to African-Americans -- and for that matter, to all Americans. But they're having trouble being heard over the partisan warfare over Pickering. Last week, flanked by a half dozen of his Republican colleagues, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said it was time for Republicans to address issues of racial reconciliation that too many in his party had avoided -- or exploited -- in the past.
He mentioned increasing aid to historically black colleges and putting more federal dollars into the overhaul of state voting systems to make sure that the votes of minorities count. He also spoke of doing more to combat the spread of AIDS in Africa and improving health care for blacks and other minorities here at home.
"For reasons we don't fully understand, but we've got to face and we've got to elevate, we know that African-Americans do not live as long," said Frist, a Nashville surgeon before coming to the Senate. "They don't have the same access, and the doctor-patient relationship in some way is colored by medical training. And that's something I addressed a long time ago and will continue to address."
Democrats aren't impressed. They say Bill Frist is no different from Trent Lott when it comes to civil rights. For example, both have opposed affirmative action in the past, although Lott, in a desperate effort to save his leadership position, told a black television audience he has seen the light and now supports affirmative action.
How long will emotional issues such as affirmative action, which means little to minority children trapped in failing urban school systems for whom college will never be an option, continue to dominate the civil rights debate in Washington? To listen to the Democrats, you'd have to conclude that the most important items on their civil rights agenda are affirmative action and hate-crime laws. Reasonable people, white and black, can have principled disagreements on these issues. Opponents of affirmative action, including quite a few blacks, can't be dismissed as opponents of civil rights or worse.
It's easier, of course, for Democrats to beat up Republicans who oppose affirmative action than to address some of the more pressing issues facing minorities and the poor in their everyday lives -- better schools, access to health care, the scourge of HIV, prescription drug coverage, the disproportionate number of black men in prison. At least Bill Frist is beginning to talk about these issues, although his words won't mean much unless they are backed up with federal action.
In a recent essay, Time magazine's Jack E. White spoke for a growing number of blacks in urging Republicans to make a sincere effort to break the Democratic lock on black votes by coming up with a civil rights agenda that speaks to the real concerns of African-Americans. However, he doubts that Republicans will seize the opportunity.
"I'm convinced that the Democratic Party's virtual monopoly on the black vote is bad for African-Americans," he wrote. "It's the foundation of a demeaning form of political serfdom, a Plantation Politics that we will never be free of as long as Democrats take our votes for granted . . . Many blacks have become disillusioned by the cynicism of the Democrats' quadrennial rallying of the black vote, which typically involves sending out Jesse Jackson to round us up and deliver us to the polling place -- only to ignore some issues that matter to blacks until the next election."
White, who is a liberal by most standards, cites as an example the Democrats' staunch opposition to even an experimental school voucher program in inner cities. A survey by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington-based think tank, found that 60 percent of blacks support vouchers. But Democrats, he wrote, "aren't even willing to find out whether giving black kids in lousy public schools the chance to attend private or parochial institutions could help close the academic gap between black and white students, the most urgent racial problem we're facing."
The Democrats' hostility to vouchers, White wrote, "is usually phrased in sanctimonious rhetoric about preserving the public school system -- often mouthed by Democrats, including Jackson, who sent their children to private schools."
Democrats would do well to listen to White and other black voices who are trying to tell them they're tired of being taken for granted. And if Republicans are smart, they will build on Frist's start and come up with a civil rights agenda for the 21st century. President Bush could do his part by reassuring blacks that his design on the federal judiciary does not threaten the enforcement of civil rights laws paid for with blood and tears decades ago. His renomination of Pickering is not reassuring.