Dear Mr. President: From a Black Dude

The signs are everywhere. In the 2000 election, you received a measly 8 percent of the black vote—a dubious distinction only surpassed in 1964 by the hated Barry Goldwater, who, of course, lost the election. A poll taken shortly after the election noted that some 8 out of 10 African Americans believed that you were unfairly elected. Another poll found that only 18 percent of African Americans believed that you care about the needs and problems of black people.

Your reception among the emissaries of Ebonica has been equally frosty. At their annual convention in July, NAACP president and longtime civil rights activist Julian Bond accused you of catering to “the wretched appetites of the extreme right wing.” Bond compared your cabinet with the Taliban and blasted it as a bunch of Confederate loyalists. All of this must have reinforced the Republican conventional wisdom: Black people hate us, so don’t bother going for their votes.

I have no doubt that you are being told that by virtue of divine edict, black people will never vote Republican; that hating conservatives is our birthright; that at least since the 1930s, our foreheads have been stamped “property of DNC.” Thus, your party-mates believe that, for as long as the Statue of Liberty presides over Ellis Island and Old Faithful boils in her subterranean home, then sure as clockwork, the black people of this nation will never vote Republican.

But Mr. President, you and your party no longer have the luxury of ignoring us. The Washington Post recently reported that due to the growth in minority populations, if the voting in 2004 goes as it did in 2000, you will lose by roughly 3 million votes. The upcoming congressional races are similarly imperiled, as Republican strategist Bill Dal Col noted: “Going into 2002, we can’t have 5 to 9 percent of the black vote … In the Senate, we have 20 Republicans up [for reelection] in minority-heavy states.”

You are clearly aware of these numbers. Since you launched your campaign under the banner of “compassionate conservatism,” you have made cursory efforts to court black voters (or at least to placate them enough to keep them from mobilizing against you in large numbers come 2004). You came to the NAACP convention and admitted that your party had not always held aloft the banner of Lincoln. You have pushed the idea of education reform, knowing that African Americans disproportionately suffer from a flawed educational system and have supported the government’s minority contracting program. You even kissed Oprah.

But these attempts at garnering the black vote have, thus far, amounted to little more than photo-ops and sound bites, which have also been compromised by your frequent relapses into the racist Republican status quo. That speech at Bob Jones University during the campaign, the nomination of Attorney General John Ashcroft, your perceived glee at executing black criminals in Texas, and your refusal to send Colin Powell to the United Nations racism conference have all undermined your halfhearted attempts to bring African Americans under the GOP’s big tent.

Lately, too, it seems your handlers have advised you to ignore black people and make Hispanics the mascot minority for the Republican Party. While I wish you well with this strategy, I still believe that with only 8 percent of the black vote, you should expect plenty of nailbiting come November 2004. Which brings me to why I am writing you.

Mr. Bush, I am here to tell you that you have been hoodwinked, bamboozled, and led astray. As a black quasi-nationalist who would never actually vote for you myself, I nonetheless have some insights into the politics of my people that you’re not likely to hear from Karl Rove or Karen Hughes. And despite what you’ve been told, I believe that a significant number of African Americans have never been as ripe for a Republican conversion as they are today.

You see, Mr. President, as we move further into the 21st century, African Americans are almost as eager to forget about race as are white Americans. And even with the burden of race on our backs, we are still very much American—greedy, self-absorbed, often socially conservative, and mainly interested in the pursuit of our own happiness, all qualities best represented by the Republican Party. So in the interest of proving that the Democrats should be careful about taking us for granted, I humbly present to you a self-help plan for turning your party’s oldest enemy into your best friend:

There is an old saying among black leftists that goes something like this: “The only thing black people resent about slavery is that they were the slaves.” You should remember this when courting the black vote. What it illustrates is that black people only have a problem with America when we are the victims.

The Buffalo Soldiers may have been partners in genocide, but we African Americans honor them because they helped make this great union. And black political leaders may dis the Confederacy, but there are more than a few African Americans who celebrate their ties—blood and otherwise—to Dixie.

Yet your party-mates seem to view African Americans as perpetual dissidents—as if we somehow emerge from the womb quoting Das Kapital—and consequently, are out of reach come Election Day. Sure we have a history of raising a ruckus, but with a few exceptions, our fight has never been to destroy or even alter America at its core. We just want a piece of it.

A few months ago, I spoke with Black Chamber of Commerce President Harry Alford Jr., a Republican who was part of an effort by black businessmen to kill the estate tax. Alford insisted that he opposed the estate tax because it had a disproportionate effect on minorities, but when I asked him if he would support the estate tax if it were somehow colorblind, he told me that he would not. “The estate tax was implemented to keep other ambitious Americans from getting rich too fast,” said Alford. “That’s un-American. The sky is supposed to be the limit. This is capitalism.”

You see, Mr. President, take it from a black dude who has been accused of teetering on the edge of Marxism: The average brother on the street hates taxes as much as any white guy and sees no shame in getting rich. So the next time you go to a black church, don’t see yourself as trying to steal votes from the Democrats. Envision yourself as taking back votes that are rightfully yours.

You don’t want to do it. You think an apology would represent a loss of face to the hated Democrats. But Mr. President, history’s highway is littered with the corpses of men who could not admit to error, and you have more to gain than you have to lose by apologizing.

First off, an apology does not mean a repudiation of the legitimacy of your administration. No one expects you to step down from office. All you have to say is that mistakes were made and that you sincerely regret the way black voters were treated in Florida. An apology in this instance would be good for any group, but it will work especially well with African Americans, who have a history of offering redemption to fallen souls (see: Bill Clinton).

Our history in this country has also been rife with incidents that found us on the heel end of the U.S. government, without even so much as an “Oops. My bad.” Thus, we are very sensitive to the idea that white politicians could care more about the shine on their wingtips than the fate of the average brother.

After Florida, an apology from the most powerful white man in the country—for anything—would hold tremendous weight with African Americans. Furthermore, after two centuries of near total de facto and de jure disenfranchisement, there is no single right African Americans hold more dear than the right to vote (even if we don’t always exercise it). The thought that you came to power because a Republican-run state denied us that right is infuriating. If you don’t apologize, expect an even bigger black turnout aimed at sending you on a permanent vacation to your ranch in Crawford.

Having softened up black voters some with these friendly gestures, you should now attempt to sway them with your presidential agenda. This is a tricky matter, as most whites looking to appeal to African Americans try to go through designated figureheads such as Julian Bond.

For you, Mr. President, this simply is not an option. The NAACP, the ranking syndicate of black talking heads, takes particular glee in hurling invectives your way. But fear not. It is common knowledge among African Americans that the NAACP still thinks this is 1963. Furthermore, the organization’s two highest-ranking officials, Bond and Kweisi Mfume, are both former Democratic legislators. You could step out onto 125th Street in Kente cloth, do your best rendition of “People Get Ready,” offer reparations for slavery, and the NAACP would still grumble.

You should listen to your administration’s old head, black conservative Robert Woodson, whom you were smart enough to enlist in your faith-based initiative but from whom you weren’t smart enough to take advice. Woodson believes that you should tell the NAACP to talk to the hand. “If he tries to play this civil rights game, then he loses,” says Woodson, who heads the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. Woodson was right when he said that you should have said “Hell no!” when the NAACP invited you to its national conference, instead of begging off with a “scheduling conflict.”

Then, having dissed black America’s self-perpetuating puppet government, you can take your message directly to more receptive elements in the black community. You see, while you may not be able to co-opt the national leaders, certainly you can co-opt the local ones. They may not like you, but they will at least listen to your message. Why, you ask? Because you will throw money at them, of course, which we all know the GOP has plenty of.

“Every month, [President Bush] should go to a city and visit a grassroots group and invite some of his wealthy donors to pull out their checks and donate some money,” advises Woodson. “When you provide something of substance to grassroots leaders, then you can withstand the storm of criticism.” Or at least pay them to go on TV and withstand it for you.

There are also several venerable institutions of black aristocracy that would welcome your attention. Thanks to skewed media coverage, many whites have somehow arrived at the conclusion that they are the only ones with old money. I can’t blame this all on the media, as black writers themselves are often nauseated by the idea of actually studying these powdered-nose stiffs.

Nevertheless, there is a substantial community of well-to-do African Americans who have created their own aristocratic institutions—debutante balls, country estates and whatnot—and who should be receptive to much of your message. African Americans have a long history of blue-bloodism, espoused by such organizations as the professional fraternity Sigma Pi Phi (better known as the Grand Boul, think of it as the black version of Skull & Bones) and the Links, sort of the black equivalent of the Junior League. (The current Boul head is a former Phillip Morris VP.)

I suggest arranging an audience with the bigwigs of these organizations as soon as your schedule permits, as well as canceling some of those White House T-ball games to make room for a few visits from the Jack and Jill clubs, the black aristocracy’s elite youth organization. If you are worried about the traditional hostilities blocking your appeals, I can tell you that color will always lose out to purse strings.

With strong ties to grassroots activists and the black bourgeoisie locked up, you will then have a base to take your war for the black vote national. Until now, you have been pussyfooting with your adversaries. But now the time has come for you to unveil your most potent weapon this side of Colin Powell: Robert Johnson, CEO of Black Entertainment Television (BET). A racial opportunist of the highest order, who specializes in being black only when he can get an airline company out of the deal, Johnson is pivotal in your efforts to integrate your 2004 returns.

A few months ago, while asserting that the estate tax should be repealed, Johnson extended an olive branch: If the president is “smart,” Johnson said, “he’d take the opportunity to reach out to these African American business leaders and say, ‘We agree on at least one thing. What else can we talk about?'” Appointing him to your 15-member Social Security commission was a brilliant first step—especially given that Johnson really does believe in privatizing the pension program—but I believe that you can get even more out of the deal.

First, you should prominently display Mr. Johnson, and others like him, in your photo-ops. This is about tokenism, Mr. President, a game your father understood well. When blacks clamored for another minority to replace Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court, your father was able to exact wicked revenge by giving them Clarence Thomas. While I don’t suggest appointing Johnson to any judicial positions, you can use him to further show off your racial sensitivity.

Next, you should capitalize on Johnson’s control over BET. Although Johnson recently sold it to Viacom, BET, despite its meager programming, is still a regular stop-off point for African Americans fiddling with the remote control. BET offers the possibility of endless public relations ploys. For instance, you could give an exclusive interview to the bland host of “BET News,” Ed Gordon. You could give BET exclusive rights to your next State of the Union address. Better yet, you could simply pen a “State of the Black Union” address, adopting Johnson’s motto at BET: “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We just have to paint it black.”

Finally, Mr. President, you must persuade Johnson to switch parties. Johnson represents precisely the type of African American who is vulnerable to the GOP allure. Johnson’s race consciousness has never prevented him from engaging in time-tested Republican business strategies—like, say, busting up union-organizing at BET (unions formed by black workers, no less) and underpaying his employees.

And Johnson is one of those African-American Democrats who stick to the party more out of habit and suspicion of GOP racism than any particular support for the Democrats’ liberal platform. A public switch by Johnson could have more long-term impact than any treachery by Jim Jeffords. By joining the GOP, Johnson would be breaking a taboo, making it acceptable for thousands of other black fencesitters to comfortably make the leap with him. You should revive that airline deal to speed up the transition—preferably, for you, before the midterm election.

Your father never enjoyed a great relationship with the black Generation X crowd. Commenting on your daddy’s presidency, Chuck D rapped, “Who am I to tell a lieI’d rather push the BushHope the cracker gets crushed.” Hip-hop elder statesman Ice Cube, on his album, Death Certificate, coldly observed that a bird in the hand “was worth more than a Bush.” (A Bird is Ebonics for cocaine meant for sale.)

But a curious thing happened during the Clinton years. As the economic fortunes of African Americans rose, the angst of their music fell. Today, the mantra of the hip-hop generation is uniquely American and wholly capitalistic. You can’t go more than three songs deep into the average hip-hop CD without hearing the slogan “get money,” or an offhand reference to “stacking paper.”

This new hip-hop generation eschews political militancy in favor of pursuing the materialism that is America’s promise. Young enough to have escaped segregated schools and Jim Crow, black youths have been more free to pursue jobs in the private sector than their parents, whose main route to the middle class often came through the Democratic arteries of civil service. As a result, many black young people would be right at home with the suits in the Republican Party, if only you’d invite them in.

This is more than creative interpretation, Mr. President. “Among African Americans ages 26-35, maybe 40 percent are interested in the privatization of Social Security, at least two-thirds support school vouchers, [and many] are pro-business,” says David Bositis, senior policy analyst for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. “They have a lot of attitudes that, if not for race, they would look like Republicans.” But according to Bositis, the stigma of the Republican Party is so powerful that many of these party-less conservatives simply don’t vote.

Mr. President, you may not want your daughters bringing home the average hip-hop aficionado, but you could sure use his vote. So take a few cues from your predecessor: Issue pardons for Suge Knight, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and Snoop Dog, while ordering John Ashcroft to launch a federal task force devoted to solving the murder of Tupac Shakur.

Once you’ve shocked the Democrats by winning over the hip-hop vote, it will be time to move towards the end game. For this, Mr. President, you will need to unleash the deadliest weapon in your arsenal, a warrior who will end all wars over the black vote—or at least make it a fair fight. If you want the black vote in 2004, you must dump Dick Cheney and tap the indomitable Colin Powell as your vice-presidential candidate.

At the ballot box, Cheney serves only to retain the right-wingers in your party who have nowhere else to go, anyway. But Powell has the complexity to take you places. First, he is a military man, with credibility among white blue-collar voters that many white candidates never enjoy. But here’s the bonus, Mr. Bush: Black people like Colin Powell, too.

Unlike Clarence Thomas, who is widely viewed in the black community as someone who more than lives up to his last name, Powell is much harder to dismiss. He has come out in favor of affirmative action and has stated that he is pro-choice (which you must politely ignore the same way you do your mother’s position on this issue). Powell’s wife is black—this is more important than you may think—and the couple comes off in interviews as quintessentially American. African Americans have tremendous respect for him, and only among the hardcore black nationalists do you hear Powell dismissed as a sellout.

With Powell on your ticket, Mr. President, you would effectively muzzle the NAACP and automatically garner a free pass from the diversity police. For Powell is that rare black Republican who somehow has managed to avoid the stigma that the average black conservative must face. But he will be a hard sell, the hardest of them all: Powell will not take a job in which he is simply black window dressing for a morally bankrupt administration. He will want Dick Cheney’s power, and you will need to reassure him that he will be able to make a difference in some big and meaningful way. Even more difficult, you will ultimately have to persuade Alma, his wife, to let him take the job. After all, she has vetoed a Powell presidency, and will need more than a reading program to convince her that the job is worth the risks. Bring in your mother, Barbara, if necessary, to help make the pitch.

None of this will be easy to negotiate, Mr. President. But I guarantee you: If you follow my plan, black America—no, all of America—will be yours in 2004.

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes frequently on race and African-American cultural issues.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle and Between the World and Me.