The recent focus of public attention on President Bush's refusal to speak at the NAACP Annual Convention and his subsequent decision to address the National Urban League convention have missed more significant developments for African-Americans and other communities of color. Rather than focus on whether the president accepts an audience with organizations representing people of color – which he should – instead, the focus should be on an assessment of the Bush administration's policies and their impact on people of color.
While Bush's snubbing of the oldest civil rights organization may have offended the sensibilities of the members of the NAACP and others, a critical assessment of the conservative policies of the Bush administration illustrate a more serious assault on the interests of people of color.
Under the cloud of the Bush administration's recession and "jobless" recovery, much of the prosperity that communities of color experienced during the 1990s economic boom has all but evaporated in the past four years as poverty rates, on the decline at the end of the 90's, have risen. The unemployment rate for African-Americans has doubled that of whites – 10.1 percent for African-Americans and 5.0 percent for whites according to the June 2004 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Further, President Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy have widened the racial and ethnic wealth and income divide by rewarding those who have investment income with lower taxes and penalizing those with wage income with higher taxes.
A similarly bleak picture exists in health care policy where the Bush administration has failed to put forward a reform plan to fix a troubled health care system and promises of expanded funding for HIV/AIDS treatment have largely gone unmet. As a result, the expanding ranks of individuals lacking health care coverage include a disproportionate number of African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans, and racial disparities in a range of health outcomes – including mortality rates – continues to exist.
In education, while the Bush administration's signature "No Child Left Behind" has garnered the most attention because of the administration's callous refusal to adequately fund the proposal and fulfill its promise of greater accountability and student achievement, there are other failings in the Bush administration's education policy that are equally troubling. The Bush administration has provided the smallest increase for education funding since 1996, frozen funding for after-school programs, inadequately increased Title I funding for the nation's poorest schools, and failed to increase Pell Grant awards. While President Bush is fond of criticizing those in the education profession for "the soft bigotry of low expectations" that he argues undermines achievement for students of color, President Bush's own education policies have significantly undermined the public education system and exacerbated the problem of educational inequality.
In response to public criticism of the NAACP snubbing, the Bush administration has sought to emphasize the president's "proven record" in helping communities of color. And while nothing on the list was quite as amusing as HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson's reaching way back to President Abraham Lincoln's freeing the slaves to find Republican Party accomplishments for African-Americans, the "proven record" illustrates a tenuous connection between the rationales of the Bush administration and the realities of life for many people of color.
For example, at the top of the Bush "proven record" is the expansion of home ownership for people of color. While home ownership rates have risen overall during the Bush administration – although the rise has slowed more recently – this achievement can largely be attributed to the monetary policies of the Federal Reserve that have kept long-term interest rates low. More troubling has been the increase in mortgage delinquency and foreclosure rates that are directly attributable to the job losses and financial vulnerability that many low and middle-income families have experienced under the Bush administration. At the same time, the Bush administration is advancing a policy for funding Section 8 housing vouchers that will substantially cut housing assistance for many low-income families.
The administration's record on civil rights enforcement is equally undistinguished. Career lawyers in the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice have publicly complained that Attorney General John Ashcroft has allowed conservative politics to compromise key enforcement decisions. One such example was during the consideration of the 2002 Mississippi redistricting plan in which the Justice Department sat on its hands against the recommendation of its career lawyers, thus allowing a three-judge federal appeals court composed of three Republican-appointed judges to approve a plan that diluted the strength of the African-American vote and benefited the Republican candidate in a heavily contested district. And Ashcroft continues to stand by while the state of Florida purges alleged convicted felons from its voter roles based on inaccurate data and a flawed process.
As the president and his advisers seek a do-over of the NAACP debacle by accepting the invitation of the venerable National Urban League to speak before its upcoming national conference, it is important that the policies of the Bush administration and their impact on people of color not recede into the shadows. If President Bush can't walk the walk on issues of critical importance to the prosperity of people of color, why should he be given a second chance to talk the empty talk of "compassionate conservatism"? Hopefully, the leaders of the National Urban League will not allow President Bush to address their convention without addressing the issues that really matter.
Cassandra Q. Butts is the senior vice president and coordinator for economic policy and Clyde Williams is vice president of state and local government relations at the Center for American Progress.