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Currying Color-Coded Favors
Jeb Bush's Black History Contest

Gov. Jeb Bush is sponsoring an essay contest for Florida pupils from kindergarten through 12 th grade. He’s inviting them to write 500 words answering this question: “What impact has black history had on my life?” The winners earn college scholarships. It’s a wonderful idea, but it’s incomplete. Bush should not just propose it. He should write his own 500-word essay. This newspaper would be eager to run his essay alongside others.

Bush doesn’t need a scholarship, but he does need to win reelection in less than a year, and his road to a second term will be that much tougher if he cannot explain the impact of very recent black history on his life—the 4 percent of the black vote he got in his first run for governor in 1994, and the only comparatively less paltry 10 percent he got in his winning run in 1998. Clearly, something has been amiss between Bush and the black electorate. Whether the reason is substantial or perceptive doesn’t matter, although Bush hasn’t helped perceptions with his One Florida initiative, which eliminated racial quotas in areas such as college admissions. Quotas are ultimately a poor substitute for equality of opportunity, in education as in business or anywhere else. But a bridge from what historian Carter Woodson called a century’s “mis-education” of blacks to that vaunted equality was crucial. It took the form of quotas. Bush destroyed the bridge not to replace it with something more imaginative, or fair, but to put an ideal before proof of its realization—to realize by decree an equality that has yet to be realized in fact.

No sooner had Bush’s hopes for One Florida been signed into law than the 2000 presidential election showed the nation a Florida of chasms, not least of which the polling’s black-white split—when blacks could get to the polls at all. “The customary combat the Negroes have with Lily-white corruptionists” (to quote Woodson again) is better remembered than any idealistic One Florida flagpole.

As it stands, Bush’s initiative looks more like a ploy to reach out for the black vote than a sincere attempt to highlight next February’s Black History Month. Again, this is mostly a matter of perception, the sort of imprisoning interpretation that turns every politician’s good deed into opportunism and every misjudgment into malfeasance. Granting that some calculation is in play here, an essay contest with the governor’s stamp happens to be more meaningful than so much of the self- congratulatory mishmash of poster contests, feel-good fea tures and patronizing lesson plans that get replayed every February. But the sincerity of Bush’s initiative depends on his taking it to heart with 500 words of his own—skipping, of course, the calls to Peggy Noonan, Michael Gerson or any of the many other Bush family ghost writers.

Bush could also deal with a couple of other problems inherent in the essay question. When Woodson started Black History Week in 1926, his intention was to teach blacks a history they had been forbidden to learn, or had been taught by whites. “In fact,” he wrote, “the keynote in the education of the Negro has been to do what he is told to do. Any Negro who has learned to do this is well prepared to function in the American social order as others would have him.” Black History Week was meant precisely not to give whites a voice, but to compel blacks to “think and develop something for themselves.”

Blacks have managed to realize Woodson’s ideal maybe faster than he thought possible, this still being a land prone to “lily-white corruptionists.” But the transformation of Black History Month into a national celebration of “diversity” rather than an examination by blacks of black history, shows how far from Woodson’s ideal things remain. Instead of whites for once looking on as spectators and maybe learning something out side themselves, Black History Month is mostly a white-establishment celebration choreographed mostly by white teachers, white directors and producers, white editors, white governors, finally to be consumed mostly by white audiences. That the whole thing vanishes on March 1, as if black history was worth precisely 8 percent of America’s time and not one minute more, speaks a subtler, more familiarly segregative, message.

The white-tinted problem is apparent in the governor’s question—“What impact has black history had on my life.” The answer inevitably must subordinate black history to personal history, to the era’s facile, talk- show-like confessions where the first person is all and the big picture is lost somewhere vague and distant. In the case of the essay contest, reversing the question—what impact ought I have on black history—would exact more challenging thinking, because it would bring the “I” outside its small world and give narcissism a rest. Certainly in Bush’s case, the second question is more pertinent than the first. For others it would blunt the easy way out ( “That last Wynton Marsalis CD changed my life, man.”)

“As to whether or not a white man should be a leader of the Negroes may be dismissed as a silly question,” one may finally ask in Woodson’s words, but in response to Bush’s challenge. The answer, not less valid today than it was two generations ago, should challenge Bush even more: “What has the color to do with it? Such a worker may be white, brown, yellow, or red, if he is heart and soul with the people whom he would serve. It just happens, however, that most white men now in control of Negro institutions are not of this required type.”

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