The Party That Truly Believes in Giving Power to the People
By J.C. Watts
(J.C. Watts, former chairman of Oklahoma´s Corporation Commission, is the U.S. representative from the 4th District of Oklahoma.)
It was my senior year at the University of Oklahoma. I was a journalism major assigned to cover a debate between a young Republican businessman from Ponca City, Okla., and the Democratic mayor of Oklahoma City. They were both articulate, charismatic and running for the same U.S. Senate seat. I walked back to the J-school building afterwards confused and shaking my head because I found myself agreeing more with the Republican than the Democrat.You see, I thought being a Democrat was my birthright. After all, I was the fifth child of a poor black family from rural Oklahoma. I was born in a small community called Eufaula. My uncle had been the president of the state NAACP; I had a legacy to uphold. I had to carry my union card for blacks and think like the group--and I felt that any black who didn´t was a sellout. But I couldn´t get this thought out of my head: The Republican candidate had made sense. His words resonated with the values on which I had been raised, echoing all the things my dad had taught me: work hard, play fair, be responsible, pay your own way. Those were words I thought my dad owned. I couldn´t believe a Republican--let alone a white Republican--would be agreeing with my father. Years later, nine to be exact, I switched my party registration. I had the awesome task of telling J.C. "Buddy" Watts Sr. the news. I was probably more afraid of telling him that I was now a Republican than I was of ever facing any lineman during my college or professional football career. Well, dad, believe it or not, took it fairly well. (He even admitted he had voted for Richard Nixon for president over Kennedy.) It turned out that dad agreed with my feelings. He was what was known as a geographic Democrat--not an ideological Democrat. I think my dad is typical of many African Americans, who tend to be Democrats by geography or tradition. African Americans are not Democrats because they believe in the party´s values. In fact, I think the Democratic Party has forgotten its most loyal constituents. I challenge every black Democrat to ask himself or herself one question: What has their party done for them in the last 30 years? As most of you know, I am one of two black Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives. People in the media are always asking me, "What´s it like to be a black Republican?" I say, "I don´t know. I´ve never experienced the alternative." You see, I don´t speak as a black Republican. I speak from a set of principles that I believe will totally re-order the political landscape in America. My convictions are based on a deep, abiding faith in the fundamental principles of the party of Lincoln--principles that I believe appeal to all people, regardless of race. Ours is the only party founded on an idea--the idea of freedom. From that one idea flowed others: the idea of cultural renewal, equality of opportunity and empowering people, not government. These ideas transcend race, creed and color. I will make a prediction, here and now. If we remain true to our principles and if we govern according to our convictions, by the end of the decade--just three elections away--there will be more black Republicans than black Democrats serving in Congress. Granted, that´s a bold prediction, but, based on my election and my personal experience, it´s one I feel confident about making. For instance, I am the first black Republican since Reconstruction to be elected from south of the Mason-Dixon line. Even though I got strong support from the black community in my district, the majority of voters there are white Democrats--obviously, I didn´t win because of my skin color or my party affiliation. I won because I had a strong message that resonated across the racial and ideological spectrums. I won because the vision I represent is universal. A recent poll conducted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that while 72 percent of black Americans identified themselves as Democrats, 33 percent characterized themselves as conservative. A series of Washington Post polls found that 35 percent of blacks identified themselves as "conservative" or "very conservative." I, for one, wasn´t surprised. Historically, black people are conservative. They are the keepers of the flame of family values. Blacks believe in family, church and community. It was only when they vested their beliefs in the Democratic Party and allowed government to control their lives that they encountered deepening poverty, decaying families and a sick welfare system that penalizes women for wanting to marry the father of their child and mothers for saving money. During this past election, Republicans aggressively competed for votes in the black community. Republican candidates of all races advertised on black radio stations, spoke at black churches and went door to door in black communities. They revealed a fatal weakness in the Democratic Party: a growing number of its most loyal voters do not share its liberal cultural values. We have Americans in all communities who are conservative about family values. They are conservative about traditional morality. They are conservative about empowerment issues, like school choice and lower taxes. I am convinced that if we communicate those values to black voters, then the gains we made in the 1994 election will seem trivial in comparison. If GOP candidates continue to spread the principles and ideas of the Republican Party, then the Democrats will never regain control of Congress or elect another president. In this effort, our goal is not just to contain liberalism--it is to transcend it; not just to reduce the costs of government--but to change its very nature; not just to urge Americans toward reduced expectations--but toward greater and bolder dreams. Many have charged that the Contract With America adversely affects African Americans. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it is a racial slur to say black families don´t need a tax break, don´t want a government that plays by the same rules as everyone else and don´t think that welfare reform will ultimately help those it has imprisoned for decades. Are we Republicans without blame? Absolutely not. As Republicans, we must make every effort to reach out in greater numbers to those who share our values. Black Americans are closer to our beliefs than our Democrat counterparts would ever want to admit. Recently, House Speaker Newt Gingrich told the Los Angeles Times that our party needs to spend four times as much effort reaching out to the black community to ensure that they know they will not be discriminated against as compared with the amount of effort we´ve put into saying we´re against quotas and set-asides. I agree. This is the real challenge to the Republican Party, and I encourage all Republicans to prayerfully consider this: The party that Frederick Douglass defended can still appeal to minorities. Gingrich said that one of the things he has learned during his tenure as House speaker is that blacks--who only 30 years ago faced segregation, discrimination and state police who were beating them and keeping them from entering state colleges--have a legitimate fear that the country, in the absence of a strong federal government, could slide back into that environment. But does that mean we should continue to fight discriminate with discrimination? No. It does mean that we need to look for solutions that will help heal, not divide. It also means that the Republican Party--the party of Lincoln and the Emancipation, the party that truly believes in independence--needs to go out of its way to communicate with black Americans. It means that we look to the full force of the law to prevent discrimination and that we preach against it at every turn. It means that we have zero-tolerance for those who would ever dare judge someone by the color of his skin. And, lastly, it means that we embark on a course of racial reconciliation, not division. Promise Keepers, a Christian men´s group, has said that racial reconciliation is the only way to end discrimination. What better party to bring about that unity than the Republican Party? Our party must strive to restore the original meaning of Martin Luther King Jr.´s words when he urged all Americans to judge people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. To do so, we must recognize that the struggle for civil rights today is not strictly about legal rights, but about expanding the reach of economic opportunity and restoring respect for traditional values. Someone commented to me recently that our country doesn´t have a race problem, it has a grace problem. It´s going to take a lot of grace to create the American Dream for all people. But I, for one, am better able to envision the Dream fulfilled by the principles of the Republican Party than those that guide the Democratic Party. When we talk about expanding the reach of economic opportunity and restoring the respect of traditional values, I can see the American Dream. When we talk about individual freedom and personal responsibility, I can see the American Dream. When we talk about redeeming ourselves by living up to the noble principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, I can see the American Dream. I have always believed the Republican Party will not truly become the majority party until we regain our legacy as the party of minority Americans. To do so, we must bring our message and our ideals to people who in recent history have not traditionally supported the Republican Party. We don´t have to abandon our principles to reach out to minorities; we have only to rediscover them. The principles we stand for--morality, integrity, personal responsibility--are universal. Those traits are demanded of all God´s creatures, and we have a historic and spiritual responsibility to return the party and our brothers and sisters to those values. As my friend Jack Kemp has so eloquently stated, it would be a tragic mistake for the party of Lincoln and Douglass to concede the support of minority Americans to the Democrats. It would be more than a tragic mistake. It would be a betrayal of our party´s history. The black community´s history is not steeped in single parenting or drug abuse or prostitution or crime. When I was growing up, the sense of family was as strong in our poor black community as any other community. In fact, the single black mom was harder on her kids than my strict dad ever thought about being on me. There was a sense of responsibility, a sense of strength, a sense that we knew right from wrong. The roots of the black community are the very principles that make this country great. Friends, the self-appointed, non elected black professional politicians don´t have the good of your community at heart. They want to continue to make generation after generation beholden to the government dole, to dependency on them and the Democrats. They cry "Sellout!"--or worse--any time a black person dares to step out of their narrowly defined group identity mode. I ask you, who is more of a sellout--the blacks who fight for independence or the snake oil salesmen who strikes deals with the white liberals to keep minorities dependent as long as they can benefit from that dependence? As Republicans, we have always believed people should think for themselves; that people can make smarter decisions for themselves than the government; and that the government should be of the people, by the people and for the people. That´s what we offer minority Americans--a hand up, not a handout. A hand extended in friendship and trust. Remember that Oklahoma senatorial candidate who opened my eyes and mind during the debate I covered back in 1980? That was Don Nickles, a man I admire and respect for many reasons. Sen. Nickles offered me the hand of friendship and trust. Today, I´m one of two black Republicans serving in the U.S. House of Representatives. Trust me when I say that the revolution that started with the 1994 elections can be just the tip of the iceberg. Our country´s freedom was paid for with the blood of both white and black men. At this important juncture in our history, this party must reach out to its natural philosophic constituency. Our party´s growth depends on it. More important, our nation´s heart depends on it.