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It is a great mistake to view the Bush regime’s ferocious assaults on Black and poor America as simply a more vicious version of standard Republican behavior since Ronald Reagan’s presidency. The Bush crowd is different than their predecessors; they don’t just want to defeat Black political leadership, but to replace it.

The mass Black mobilizations of the Sixties caused the corporate Right to despair of exerting more than marginal influence among African Americans. The reactionaries who took over the Republican Party during the period between Barry Goldwater’s 1964 defeat and Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory were most concerned with achieving a national majority by transforming the GOP into the White Man’s Party. However, by the mid-Nineties rightwing strategists – most notably, those funded by Milwaukee’s Bradley Foundation – believed they had found formulas to alter power relationships within the Black community, itself.

Faith-based initiatives and private school vouchers, they theorized, could provide portals directly into the realm of Black grassroots politics. If generously funded and working in tandem, the twin strategies had the potential to subvert a portion of the Black clergy and create a wedge to divide inner city residents from teachers unions and other pillars of the Democratic Party. The synergy of bribed clergy plus a phony voucher “movement” would give the appearance of an authentic conservative “groundswell” among African Americans. Corporate media could be counted on to provide a narrative lifted directly from the position papers of the same think tanks that crafted the faith/vouchers strategy. The stage would be set for the media-hyped emergence of a “New Black Leadership” – Democrats as well as Republicans and “independents” – reflecting the supposedly growing conservatism of the Black middle class and youth.

All this, of course, came to pass. Once Republicans won the White House, the full resources and prestige of the federal government were made available to the preachers, hustlers and voucher operatives of the new, corporate-invented African American leadership. “Old-style” Black leaders – including those elected by the people – are dismissed as unrepresentative, out of step with the times. The political space for opportunistic forays by Black Democratic officeholders seeking rightwing favor has expanded exponentially. (Witness the machinations of Black Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford, Jr.)

George Bush felt so confident in his ability to sideline Black Democratic leadership that, except for a pro-forma get-together right after his 2001 inauguration, the president refused to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus for the remainder of his first term. (Caucus members gate-crashed the White House in late February, 2004, to demand answers about U.S. intentions in Haiti.) Why confer the prestige of the White House to a group that Republicans are working so mightily to discredit and supersede?

Great damage already done

Faith-based offices embedded in ten federal agencies and departments operate as patronage and payroll centers for Bush’s bought-and-paid for urban constituency – the people who contributed a (modest) quarter million new Black Republican voters in 2004. Through a grotesque interpretation of the No Child Left Behind law, the Department of Education finances a constellation of voucher groups birthed by the corporate Right. Bush’s current Social Security privatization blitz is peppered with forums to showcase his African American supporters, who are now routinely referred to as Black “leaders” in the corporate media.

During his first term, Bush succeeded in funding, expanding and bestowing the trappings of Black “leadership” on the motley crews originally assembled by the Bradley Foundation and other Right moneybags. But that’s only the first stage of the project. The Bush Grand Plan is methodical, cleverly crafted by professional think-tankers intent on patching the holes blasted in the public social safety net with outfits staffed by Black and brown Bush loyalists.

A bipartisan coalition of 55 Senators turned back the administration’s attempt to slash by 40 percent the Department of Housing and Urban Development's $4.7 billion community development block grant program. The cuts would have crippled local lawmakers’ ability to fund local community organizations – including many established church-run programs – effectively neutering local Black Democratic structures across the country. In the place of locally dispensed block grants, the Bush men would offer faith-based enticements tied tightly to the administration’s new Black patronage structures. In addition, the White House plan would transfer block grants to the Commerce Department, with its emphasis on entrepreneurism – tasty bait for locals eager to cut a Republican deal to make a buck.

If successful – and Bush has four years to achieve his goals – the scheme will largely negate local Black politicians’ ability to serve their constituents – unless they come to terms with the GOP’s faith-based networks. A dramatic example of how the game will be played is unfolding in Pennsylvania, where Republican Senators Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum shameless dangled the political strings attached to a $4 million faith-based job training program for Philadelphia. As reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer, Specter told a group representing 400 Black churches that he and Santorum had “gone to the wall” to get the money, and expected votes in return:

"And we're prepared to go to the wall again and again and again. But if we're going to the wall, you've got to see to it that we're in office," Specter said… .

Referring to Santorum as "President Bush's No. 1 lieutenant," Specter said: "When the sword strokes come in Washington, D.C., you have to have people who have power. You've got to have somebody like Rick Santorum.”

Community block grants empower local officials. In heavily Black cities, that translates as Black power. Bush’s faith-based funding means national Republican power, and the selective privileging of locals loyal to Republicans.

In short, Bush is using faith-based monies to finance an alternative Black political machinery in the cities – one that will eventually affect the political complexion of council chambers, city halls and congressional delegations.

The greedy-guts among the preacher class and other corrupt elements understand the formula well. Bush’s faith-based structures offer not just money, but a direct line to Washington and, therefore, outsized power in local politics.

Voucher-based politics

Bush’s proposed 2006 educational budget would cut nearly $4.3 billion from a range of programs deemed to “have achieved their original purpose, that duplicate other programs, that may be carried out with flexible State formula grant funds, or that involve activities that are better or more appropriately supported through State, local, or private resources.” In the real world, wealthy suburban districts will raise the funds to pay for the programs they want to retain, while urban districts will be stripped, thus making private vouchers more attractive.

Over the past four years, the Bush education agenda has become transparent. Whatever legitimate value there may be in rigorous testing of students and ratings of schools and school systems, the Right is most keen to pin the “failure” label on as many urban schools as possible, while portraying material aid to these schools as throwing money down a rat hole. In Newark, New Jersey, for example, local school board member and voucher operative Dana Rone last year lobbied the state legislature to divert public education funds to private schools:

“Make money follow children to schools they choose instead of tying school funding to guaranteed populations segregated by zip codes….  And, most importantly, leverage successful private and parochial schools in our communities that have a proven track record of educating minority children at, incidentally, a substantially lower cost than our traditional public system. Tying dollars to children will make us compete for students.  Market forces will lead to more efficient, and effective, use of the aid the state sends us and, ultimately, the improvement of every public school in our district.”

The Republican Right has long been informed by the slogan “Starve the beast” – meaning, create fiscal conditions in which public institutions cannot do their job, and must yield to the private sector. Voucher advocates consider public education a “beast” to be starved, replaced with private schools staffed by cadres of activists under the leadership of politicians like Dana Rone – rightwing bulwarks in the heart of the ghetto. It is no longer an impossible dream.

In the space of one decade, the Right has worked its Political Money Miracle, creating a public impression that there exists a sizeable body of rightwing opinion in Black America. Through faith-based social funding, federal voucher advocacy, and relentless showcasing of Bush’s “New Black Leadership,” Republicans have provided sustenance and a semblance of legitimacy to groups and individuals eager to sell out the historical Black Political Agenda and Consensus.

It’s a whole new ball game. Black progressives can win it, but only through steadfast resistance and mass mobilizations that will demonstrate – to African Americans as much as to others – that the schemes of Bush and his dark minions are repugnant to the Black community at large.


March 10 2005
Issue 129

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