Blackest Night

Politics and policy.
Aug. 1 2000 12:09 AM

Blackest Night

PHILADELPHIA--The Republicans may be taking this inclusiveness thing a bit far. The strangest point in tonight's show was the performance by the soul/rap singer Brian McKnight. He swiveled his hips and sang a sexy hip-hop number, accompanied by a break-dancer in a do-rag and a sextet of babes in slinky black pantsuits, shaking their stuff. A large number of retired bankers and blue-haired Republican ladies looked on, not in horror but in what might be described as pure cultural bewilderment. Do Republicans really have to stage rap videos at their convention to prove how much they like black people?

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There wouldn't have been much doubt from the rest of tonight's program. It began with Paul C. Harris Sr., a black Virginia legislator who holds the seat once held by Thomas Jefferson, and ended with Colin Powell, who said there were too many minority men in prison, then criticized "some in our party [who] miss no opportunity to roundly and loudly condemn affirmative action that helped a few thousand black kids get an education." Along the way, it featured a black teacher from North Carolina, videos about three innovative schools filled with minority kids, Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts, a live broadcast from a black church in Philadelphia, and the re-creation, on the stage, of a Houston classroom at a mostly black charter school where the pupils shout out their multiplication tables call-and-response style. And most of the non-black faces on view were Hispanic.

It's basically a hopeful sign that the GOP now wants to compete with Democrats for minority votes, or at least feels compelled to be seen by moderate white voters as trying to compete for minority votes. But there was something off about the show the convention producers put on tonight. It has an element of insincerity and an element of condescension.

The insincerity flowed from the way the GOP simply seems to have dropped principles that conflict with its new "inclusiveness." Four years ago in San Diego, Powell drew boos when he stuck up for affirmative action. This time, the room broke into warm applause. To be sure, Republicans have long been hypocritical about affirmative action, practicing it while opposing it in principle. But where did the principle go? Out the window, apparently.

The condescension stems from the way a still overwhelmingly white party spent the evening showing off its black and Hispanic trophies. Beyond the platform, the GOP remains far short of integration. On the floor, there are very few minority delegates, as opposed to the vast preponderance of them onstage tonight. But what makes this feeling of patronization worse is the attitude of noblesse oblige that underlies it. Bush Republicans want to help the underprivileged, but out of charity rather than civic obligation or a sense of basic fairness. They expect gratitude in return. And they seem to view education, in particular, as a process whereby saintly people work miracles with minority children who would otherwise remain illiterate. Most minority children will never be touched by such privatized wonders.

To be sure, a party of rich white people that cares about poor black children is a big improvement over a party of rich white people that doesn't care about poor black children. But based on tonight's overdone attempt at a BET special, I'd say the Republicans still have a long way to go.