Racial Divide

January 15, 2000 at 12:00 AM EST


GWEN IFILL: Never has the politics of race been more potent than on this Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday. Joining us to assess the state of the debate are Robert Woodson, the founder and President of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, a nonprofit research organization that supports neighborhood initiatives; Ken Blackwell, the Ohio Secretary of State — he was campaign manager for Steve Forbes’ presidential bid, and worked for the George W. Bush campaign — Hugh Price is the President of the National Urban League, a nonpartisan civil rights organization; and Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich is the executive director of the Black Leadership Forum, an umbrella group of 26 civil rights and service groups.

Hugh Price, both President Bush… President-elect Bush and President Clinton agreed on one thing today, and that is that there is this great and enduring chasm between the races, among the races perhaps in the United States. Why is that still true in 2001?

HUGH PRICE: I think we’ve made tremendous progress as a country. This is certainly a much more integrated society than it was when Martin Luther King passed away in 1963, when he was assassinated. But there’s still tremendous gaps. There are literacy gaps; there’s a huge gap in unemployment, our unemployment rate has gone down dramatically but it’s still twice the national average. We saw that there are problems in the elections. There was a real issue in the criminal justice system where there are vast racial disparities in sentencing. So there’s a great deal of work yet to be done and a lot of economic deprivation that has to be overcome.

GWEN IFILL: Ken Blackwell, what is your answer to that question?

KEN BLACKWELL: Well, I think we have to work on a couple of things and work on them immediately. First is the education divide in this country. Too many parents find their kids locked into dysfunctional schools. George Bush has to do the bully pulpit, provide the leadership that expands home schooling, expands charter schools, expands the use of vouchers and improves the accountability of the present school system so that those kids are liberated from those schools. He has to begin to really close the asset gap between blacks and whites. I know Hugh’s organization, the Urban League has worked on this. I’ve gone in and spoken to him. He can do that by changing the Social Security system, transferring it from a tax transfer… transforming it from a tax transfer system to a real investment system that gives Latinos and African-Americans a real stake in the economic growth and prosperity of this country. His agenda must, in fact, move America forward. And I know that he believes that his agenda will do that and he started with what is, I think, a key step. And that was making sure that his cabinet was both competent and compassionate and diverse.

GWEN IFILL: Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich you just heard these two men talk about charter schools and vouchers and home schooling. Education is the way to begin to close this racial divide. Do you agree with that? Do you think that’s the way to go?

YVONNE SCRUGGS-LEFTWICH: In part, but I want to be very clear that the reason the gap still exists is because too often we don’t talk about the fact that the gap still exists and we talk in code words and about surrogate measures without recognizing that there is a large portion of the African-American community — and I’m separating that from other communities of color — which still are being visited by the discriminatory attitudes and behavior that has caused that gap to continue. I think it’s all well and good to talk about education. That’s important. But that’s also in part blaming the victim because you have to ask the question, why since we know that education is the key to advancement in our kind of an economy and society, why are we still having to require that funds be made available for education and why is it that the most underprivileged educational facilities and programs exist in African- American communities and why are we talking about using the surplus for something other than improving education?

GWEN IFILL: Bob Woodson, you heard what Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich just said; you also saw what the President sent to the Hill today and which he talks a lot about education and spending more money on hiring teachers. What do you think about that?

ROBERT WOODSON: Well, I have to take issue with all three of my colleagues. I don’t think race is the most crucial issue facing America today. If you look at the poll by the Joint Center for Political Economic Studies, when blacks were asked what are the issues most important to them — education, health care and crime, and only 2 percent registered race as an issue and in our national poll just completed by Fox revealed that zero percent of the American public regarded race as the crucial issue. We keep mixing class issues with race issues. The crucial issue is most of those failing schools are in black cities run by black Democrats over the past 20 years. So the question is why are our kids failing in systems run by our own people? These are the kinds of issues that we don’t really address if we look at the… at this whole issue through the prism of race.

GWEN IFILL: Bob Woodson, Ron Kaufman, who is a Bush advisor, worked for President-elect Bush’s father and advised this campaign, has said that he believes that in his words the party has a problem when it comes to race, that fence mending is needed. Do you not agree with that?

ROBERT WOODSON: The party has a problem with race but that is separate and distinct as to whether America has a problem with race.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s talk about the party’s problem.

ROBERT WOODSON: Okay. The party has a problem on race because it cannot afford the luxury of what the Democrats do. The Democrats market in symbols. They appoint people to office and leave corrupt policies in place. My hope — and I pray that the Republicans don’t take a page from the Democratic book and merely deal with symbols. Instead they need to go into those communities, go around the gatekeepers who are the civil rights leaders, go directly to the neighborhood leaders and then begin to forge an alliance of people there that have a vested interest in solving the problems. The civil rights communities have become extensions of the teachers’ unions and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and they have abandoned all pretense of being impartial.

GWEN IFILL: Let me turn to Hugh Price — who you might call a gatekeeper — and ask you to respond to Bob Woodson’s comments but also to what Ken Blackwell had to say about the diversity in this cabinet being a symbol, a sign.

HUGH PRICE: The Urban League is the oldest and largest community based movement in this country devoted to empowering our people to get into the economic mainstream. We have affiliates all over the country on the ground in neighborhoods. I think Bob’s argument about us being gatekeepers is frankly tired and familiar rhetoric. There is a tremendous amount of work to do in improving the schools in this country, holding educators accountable, investing in literacy programs. I frankly think that President-elect Bush is off to a very strong start in his determination to raise the reading scores of youngsters — not just African-American but Native American, Latino youngsters and all youngsters in this country. So I think that focus is where it needs to be. So I’m not really concerned about who is serving as a gatekeeper. And on the problems of the party, there are people on the ground, I was in a hardware store the other day. An African-American who owns it was dismayed by some of the things that are going on in the party. I think the focus has to be on the bread-and butter issues that affect the well-being of African Americans. If this incoming administration will concentrate on those bread-and-butter issues, then perhaps this debate about whether the Republican Party appeals to African Americans will dissolve to some degree.

GWEN IFILL: Ken Blackwell, let’s about the bread-and-butter issues; are there bread-and-butter issues besides education?

KEN BLACKWELL: Education, Social Security reform — and I think we’re so close in this country to making sure that our poor and elderly have access to health care, particularly our elderly, with prescription drugs, that that’s something that he can get done almost immediately. Let me just say that the other thing he can do — and that is to get out in front of the election reform issue. We know it’s pure folly that the Bush brothers were involved in some sort of conspiracy to distribute malfunctioning machines throughout Florida or throughout this country in low-income communities. Many of those were white communities in rural Southeastern Ohio. One of the things he can do is to basically say right off the bat that in this country in four years there will, in fact, be no American that is… indirectly disenfranchised because he or she has had to vote on malfunctioning equipment. We can move towards some standards across the board. We don’t have to talk about centralization of elections but we should move towards some standardization that gives people a sense that there is equal protection of the law and that their vote does count.

GWEN IFILL: Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, would you agree? Would you accept that if that were proposed to you?

YVONNE SCRUGGS-LEFTWICH: I think that certainly is a basic requirement that there be ground-level floor that applies to everybody and gives everybody equity. But I think that along with that, I would encourage Mr. Blackwell to encourage the incoming president to acknowledge that in Florida and other places people were disenfranchised. And I think that there is a great deal of concern within the African-American community that even though the incoming president has said very encouraging things about his desire to bring people together, he also has not acknowledged that reality, which is now a matter of record. It’s not a conjecture. And I also want to take the opportunity to correct the impression that African- Americans in the joint center poll did not think that racism was a top priority. There were other questions in that poll where African-Americans pointed out that they felt that they still stood outside the mainstream — a majority of them. So when you get to the issue of what are the most important programs that can be initiated, it would have been redundant for them to deal with racism. They were talking about programs. African-Americans know that there is still a great deal of work to be done to close the gap as Hugh Price said.

GWEN IFILL: Bob Woodson, you’re trying to get in?

ROBERT WOODSON: Yeah. It’s interesting that this is selective outrage. Let’s be very clear. If the Democrats had won the election, Hugh Price and Yvonne Scruggs would be getting ready for the inaugural. They would not be on television talking about unfair voting in Florida. Even Mary Francis Berry who heads the Civil Rights Commission acknowledged that this was bipartisan disadvantage taking place there. The first three witnesses that came were black, and they presented no evidence of any illegality down there. Also, those precincts were controlled by Democrats. Many of the people in the polling places were black Democrats.

GWEN IFILL: Bob Woodson, do you think….

ROBERT WOODSON: I don’t see where there is even evidence….

GWEN IFILL: So do you say to the folks who are upset about this, basically get over it?

ROBERT WOODSON: Absolutely. I mean, there are so many issues we have to confront in black America to have all of our civil rights organizations all geared up to talk about voter illegality or irregularity when we’ve got 9,000 kids being killed by other black kids each year, when our families are going to hell in a hand basket, when our schools are deteriorating even though we’re spending more money on those schools, there’s so many more substantive issues that we need to be confronting….

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about crime and punishment and John Ashcroft, who would be in charge of the Justice Department, the designee. Hugh Price, do you think (a) that he will be confirmed and (b) if he is that’s bad news for African Americans?

HUGH PRICE: I can’t speculate about whether or not he’ll be confirmed. I think the nomination is very troubling and the Senate ought not confirm. Just the other day in the New York Times I read that he had vetoed legislation when he was attorney general, a governor, that would have allowed the same voting rights procedures to be used in St. Louis that are used in the suburbs. I think they’re very hard questions that have to be asked of the Senator during the confirmation hearings. I think it’s a mistake, too, to imply that all that civil rights and African-American organizations are doing is protesting the vote and that had there been a Democratic victory that we wouldn’t be complaining. Civil rights organizations were on President Clinton’s case about the fact that he ignored racial profiling — that he didn’t do enough with education — that he was about to embrace social promotion without investing and improving the education that children receive before we start to hold them accountable. So I think that we are objective in our agenda and, Bob used to work for the Urban League. I’m going to have to take him around and visit the Urban League to he can get reacquainted with what he was once a part of.

GWEN IFILL: We’ll all be peeking on that. Ken Blackwell, what about John Ashcroft, do you think that he is bad news or good news for the African-American community?

KEN BLACKWELL: I’ll tell you, I think former Senator Paul Simon said it all in your last segment. He said he is bright, he is honest, he’s a man of integrity; and he’s very, very capable. This is a gentleman who I watched when he, in fact, worked hard to save Lincoln University, a university that was founded by black soldiers. Here’s a guy who made strategic appointments of blacks throughout even in the judiciary during his term as Governor of Missouri. Here’s a guy who has upheld the laws even when he didn’t agree with one or the other. He is a man who has a fidelity with the rule of law. I don’t think he’s a threat to life as we know it in America. I think he is conservative but I think he is a man of great decency and he would serve us well. I think all of us who have worked in this… in the vineyard for a long time understand that this is… the problems confronting us are problems that will only be solved when we have bipartisan support.

GWEN IFILL: On that note I’m going to have to leave this here for the night. Thank you all very much.