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WASHINGTON - It was cold and snowy outside the Heritage Foundation, the nation's leading conservative think tank, but the rhetoric inside was collar-tugging hot.
The entitlement state has replaced personal responsibility for too many black Americans. So-called civil rights leaders are too quick to blame racism for dysfunction within the black community, rather than an urban culture that often rejects education and glorifies vulgarity.
Although it is getting easier, African-Americans are still too timid about speaking out for the right, for fear of being tarred as turncoats and Uncle Toms.
And the people saying it were black, too.
"One of the reasons the black community is so screwed up is because of too much government," the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, a Los Angeles minister and community activist, said during the introduction, setting the tone for the 11/2-hour-long panel discussion on black conservatism.
"It is time out for Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, Al Sharpton. ... Most blacks - not all, not all, not all, not all - are suffering not because of racism, but because of a lack of moral values."
The discussion, aired live on C-SPAN, was titled, Responding to the Call: The New Black Vanguard Conference , and it drew about 70 people, most of them black, to the Heritage Foundation's headquarters on Capitol Hill.
Peterson and the other four black panelists, as well as many audience members, cast themselves as the sharp, leading edge of the black conservative movement, which they say is gaining appeal.
As proof, they cite a growing number of elected black Republicans, increased black support for President Bush in the November election, and polls showing that on issues such as gay marriage, private school vouchers and the role of religion in public life, the majority of African-Americans are more Republican than Democrat.
"The condition of the country has gotten to the point where people like us, who thought like this for years and years, are finally starting to be heard," said Don Scoggins, chairman of the Frederick Douglass Republican Forum, a predominantly black group in Northern Virginia.
"It's almost gotten to the point where we're not looked at as being kooks anymore."
Polls show African-Americans still hold a dogged allegiance to the Democratic Party, but conservatives say they see reason for hope. President Bush has helped legitimize black conservatives by elevating four of them to his Cabinet, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his successor, Condoleezza Rice.
He also almost doubled his share of the black vote in key states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania in November from the 2000 elections, and his support nationally grew from 8 to 11 percent. A Pew Center poll put it even higher, at 17 percent.
Blacks generally differ from Republicans on such issues as health care, affirmative action and government spending for social programs.
But the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a nonpartisan group that tracks African-American attitudes, and other research groups have found Republican-friendly views among blacks on several issues: About 60 percent back school vouchers, and about half support private investment accounts for Social Security, as President Bush has proposed.
Several national polls have found that 60 to 65 percent of African-Americans oppose legalizing gay marriage.
Black conservatives also are buoyed by their successes with votes. Alvin Williams, president of the conservative Black America's Political Action Committee, or BAMPAC, ticked off recent victories for black Republicans: A state Senate seat in South Carolina, a county commission seat in area of Las Vegas that's often a stepping stone to higher office, the mayor's office of Tuskegee, Ala., and a seat in the Missouri General Assembly.
"We know that this is a long road ahead, in terms of getting African-American conservatives to win, but when individuals are winning elections like this on a state and local level, it's only a matter of time before they graduate and compete on the federal level," Williams said.
In Ohio, Secretary of State Ken Blackwell has won statewide election three times, and polls show him leading the race for the Republican nomination for governor.
A fiscal and social conservative who grew up poor in Cincinnati, Blackwell peppers his speeches with Bible verses and the gospel of shrinking government spending. In his last election, he won 50 percent of the black vote.
"When I get to the general, I am the Democratic Party's worst nightmare, because I can go right to their base," Blackwell said in an interview.
"African-Americans respond well to conservatives who are not just there on election eve or election day, but who are in the trenches with them."
While BAMPAC's 2004 poll found that 56 percent of African-Americans held an unfavorable view of the Republican Party, it also found that younger blacks don't feel the same allegiance to the Democratic Party as their parents and grandparents do. But they aren't comfortable with the Republican Party.
Black conservatives acknowledge the Republican Party has done a poor job of reaching out to black voters, though they say that's changing.
Ken Mehlman, the new chairman of the Republican National Committee, has made building black support a priority. And next month, a group of black religious and political leaders will launch the Mayflower Compact for Black America, aimed at building Republican grass roots support in all 50 states.
But Thursday was not the night for the drudgery of policy, or to acknowledge the popularity of affirmative action within the black community, or the lasting power of racism. It was a time to praise Bush as a crusader for personal responsibility, and to thrash the black Democratic establishment like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton as crusaders for excuses.
It was time to rail against the baggy pants of urban youth, the vulgarity of rap music, and the collusion of the media and many African-Americans in keeping Jackson, et al., in power, because they fear the labels that come with attacking them.
"Racism is the new scarlet letter that is used to demagogue those who would speak out," said panelist Mychal Massie, a black conservative talk show host and columnist. "Don't be afraid to speak the truth. Don't be afraid of what they're going to call you.
"Two days ago, I was told I wasn't black."
Black conservatives say they have long been outcasts, their motives constantly challenged. As with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and, to a lesser extent, Rice, they often have been derided as opportunists, willing to forsake their roots in return for celebrity status among white conservatives, who welcome their protection against the persistent, subtle suggestion that the conservative cause is inherently a racist one.
It's a lesson comedian Bill Cosby learned at an NAACP meeting in May after criticizing "the lower economic people" for failing to value education, proper speech and social order. Many African-Americans agreed with his points, but he was blasted for being out of touch with the tough economic realities facing many African-American families.
Thursday's panelists praised Cosby, too.
At the beginning of the conference, Rebecca Hagelin, vice president of communications and marketing at the Heritage, introduced the panel and promised the live TV audience that "your hearts and souls are going to be warmed by what you hear today."
Afterward, when the clapping stopped, panelists and attendees retired to a conference room at the Heritage for sodas and snacks; they traded business cards and stories as a line formed at the table where Peterson was autographing copies of his book, Scam: How the Black Leadership Exploits Black America .
Scoggins, of the Frederick Douglass Republicans, nibbled on a chicken wing and said he couldn't think of anything that "feeds the soul more," this rare gathering of like minds, the minority within the minority.
--Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.[Last modified February 28, 2005, 01:04:17]
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