African-American Community and Bush

The Bush administration has said it was making inroads with African Americans. Then came Hurricane Katrina — and subsequent outrage in the black community over the administration's response.

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Images of African-Americans suffering in New Orleans after the hurricane combined with the slow government response have threatened to set back an ongoing effort by the Bush administration. As NPR's Mara Liasson reports, the White House had been working to change political perceptions in the black community.

MARA LIASSON reporting:

Until the hurricane hit, President Bush and his political advisers had been in the midst of a major effort to change the minds of African-American voters, historically some of the most reliable members of the Democrats' coalition. Just six weeks before Katrina, Republican Party chair Ken Mehlman went before the NAACP and said this...

Mr. KEN MEHLMAN (Chairman, Republican Party): Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I come here as Republican to chairman to tell you we were wrong.

LIASSON: Mehlman was trying to build on President Bush's success in the 2004 election where he increased his percentage of the African-American vote nationally by two points. But he almost doubled it in key states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. Those marginal gains mean a lot in tight elections. The president did it by making alliances with key conservative black clergymen, many of whom received federal funds through the president's faith-based initiative. And Republicans stressed issues that attract black social conservatives, such as gay marriage or abortion. But the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina set those efforts back.

(Soundbite of telethon broadcast)

Mr. KANYE WEST (Rapper): George Bush doesn't care about black people.

LIASSON: That's rapper Kanye West, who went off script during a telethon for hurricane relief, and expressed the feelings of many African-Americans. Poll after poll shows there's a large and bitter divide between the way blacks and whites view the federal government's response to Katrina. On his first visit to the devastated area, Mr. Bush was criticized for having little contact with the hurricane's poor black victims. On his next trip, he toured a shelter near Baton Rouge with a prominent black televangelist.

(Soundbite of presidential tour)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I want to thank my friend T.D. Jakes for rallying the armies of compassion to help somebody like the mayor.

LIASSON: And last week, at a White House meeting to discuss how charities were responding, the president sat next to Bishop Roy Winbush, who's new Bethel Church of God in Christ is based in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Bishop ROY WINBUSH (Bethel Church of God in Christ): I genuinely feel as we met with him that he is committed to put all of the resources necessary from the government to rebuild New Orleans. Surely, everybody's not going to agree with what the president has done, and I don't think he agrees with everything he did initially. If he did he wouldn't be trying to do what is going on now.

LIASSON: But Winbush is concerned about the president's decision to allow federal contractors to pay less than the prevailing wage for reconstruction projects. That decision has outraged another African-American supporter of the president, the Reverend Eugene Rivers.

Reverend EUGENE RIVERS: That is absolutely amazing. From the jump they're, you know, undermining the interests of the poor by having them being paid the lowest possible wages in a situation which is as terrible as it is. I mean, who's making the money? Is it going to be another case of a bunch of millionaire white boys who are friends of the Republicans making all the money on these little black heads and single mothers who've been suffering for the last three weeks.

LIASSON: Rivers says the president has an enormous opportunity to do the right thing and improve his party's relationship with the black community. He wants the administration to develop a Marshall Plan focusing on the poorest of the poor in the Gulf Coast.

Rev. RIVERS: If they fail to engage the issue of race and poverty and it's geographical concentration where in some parts of the country you've got virtual apartheid, they forfeit having any kind of moral legacy which he--to speak of. I'm saying this as a friend--as a friend of the administration who admires President Bush, who respects the intelligence of Karl Rove. They've got an opportunity here.

LIASSON: An opportunity that Rivers hopes the president will seize later tonight when he addresses the nation from New Orleans. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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