By:Hugh B. Price
National Urban League
President Bush surprised more than a few people this month when, with the Trent Lott controversy still reverberating, he re-nominated a Lott favorite, Charles Pickering, for a federal appeals court judgeship.
Pickering, a federal district judge in Mississippi, was rejected last year by the Senate after a bruising nomination fight in which opponents raised questions about some of his past actions regarding racial matters—including his seeking leniency for a man convicted in his court of burning a cross on the lawn of an interracial couple.
Then, Judge Pickering tried to deter prosecutors from seeking a five-year sentence for the man, and when that didn't work, called the Justice Department himself to complain. These were the actions, not of a judge, but of an ideological advocate.
Now, the President apparently feels he has the votes to push through Pickering. We urge the Senate to re-affirm its initial decision: Judge Pickering is not fit for the federal bench.
The symbolism of including Judge Pickering in the latest batch of Administration federal court nominees can't be papered over by facile pledges from Republican leaders of their intent to persuade more African Americans to vote Republican.
That oft-made pledge was the public purpose of a meeting GOP leaders and black conservatives held this week in Washington.
But I can't help but think of the extraordinary political milestone that has passed virtually unnoticed amid the attention devoted to, first, Lott, and now Judge Pickering.
That is, for the first time in more than a decade, there is no black Republican officeholder in Congress.
Three-term Representative J.C. Watts, of Oklahoma, the only African-American Republican in Congress for the last six years, stunned the political world last summer by announcing he wouldn't run for re-election.
Watts' announcement was the more astonishing given that the Republicans held the White House and were the majority party in the House, and that he himself held the fourth-ranking leadership position among House Republicans. It was just two years earlier, in the post-election Republican celebration of victory, that Watts was elevated to the leadership team and touted as exhibit number one of the GOP's commitment to seek black votes.
Last month, however, Watts quietly left office—his going ignored by both the party and the mainstream media.
There remain in the Congress the 39 black Democratic members of the Congressional Black Caucus. But there can be no doubt that Watts' departure during a moment when Republicans numerically dominate the national government is a powerful symbolic and substantive marker.
It underscores that at the level of national politics America is still deeply influenced by the ghosts of Jim Crow—and that African Americans are still limited to putting all their political hopes in one party.
Oh, yes, I know the fashionable view is just the opposite: African Americans blindly vote Democratic without regard to their true interests or understanding of how American politics works; the Democratic Party takes blacks for granted; the Republicans are interested in black voters but can't get a hearing from them.
In fact, however, when it comes to pursuing the black electorate, the GOP prefers to sit on the sidelines.
Understand my purpose here: I'm in favor of energizing even more powerfully America's two-party system.
For that to happen, as we've urged before, both major parties have to be willing to play the political game with all of America's electorate.
This is the political reality African Americans face two years after President Bush took office with a flurry of appointments of African Americans to high-level positions in his administration.
This is the political reality African Americans face in a time when the war drums are beating very loud; and when the American economy is on course for a "recovery" that will likely leave millions of workers far from the levels of prosperity they enjoyed in the late 1990s, and millions of others—who will be disproportionately black and Hispanic—out of work altogether.
This political reality, the modern political version of the old separate but equal, presents a tremendous challenge to African Americans.
They must do what they can to address problems that are political in nature and political in solution even though one of the major parties hasn't shown any significant interest in contending for their vote. (There's no mystery about how to do that, as the GOP's pursuit of Latino voters has proved.)
But this problem is also a tremendous challenge for American society as a whole. It's not a new challenge, by any means—as the shocking comments of Trent Lott showed unmistakably.
His words—and Judge Pickering's re-nomination—have underscored the wide gap that still exists all too often between the rhetorical pledge of inclusion and the reality.
Rhetoric is acceptable for the ritualistic expressions of good will. But when it comes to reality, actions speak louder than words.
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