Black History Month is upon us again, a time to reflect on the turbulent and triumphant history of African Americans. It's a time to ponder the actions and words of preachers and emancipators, men and women who lived and even died for racial equality.
You know, men like U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum.
I mean, what Black History Month could be complete without the junior Senator from straight outta the South Hills? Sure enough, his Feb. 4 statement, "Senator Santorum Comments on Black History Month" doesn't disappoint. It contains some garden-variety political pandering, of course: In it, Santorum touts himself as an "original cosponsor" of a national museum of African-American history. (A distinction he shares with nearly half the Senate.) But Santorum is up for re-election next year, and so he really shines it on:
"Celebrating Black History Month is also a celebration of the history of a people who believe in community, faith, and family. The civil rights movement rescued African Americans from a form of bondage and at the same time transformed the rest of America. I believe that this was largely due to African Americans [sic] faith and devotion to family. As we continue to fight for equality in our society, we must not forget the importance of family in affecting [sic] change in relationships, communities, and our nation."
Will it spoil the reverential mood to note that the civil rights movement wasn't "largely" due to "family" per se? Cleary many African Americans have strong religious values, but if Martin Luther King had stayed in the pulpit, we might still be drinking from different water fountains. The civil rights movement began not with families (those had been around for a long time) but with people getting out of the house. It began when blacks took to the streets and the voting booth .
I can see how Santorum wouldn't be anxious to mention that: Republicans, after all, won the 2000 Presidential race in part by suppressing the black vote in Florida. Instead, his statement cleverly links Republican "family values" rhetoric with civil rights -- even though many conservatives opposed the movement when it was going on.
There's another message between the lines: Families change society, but they must be protected from it too. Above all, they must be protected from gay people.
Maybe that seems like a stretch. How could a statement supporting families be directed at gays? Don't ask me; ask Santorum, one of the leading advocates of a Constitutional amendment to "protect" families by outlawing gay marriage. And he's not alone. In Maryland and elsewhere, conservative whites and black churches are joining forces to ban gay marriage: odd bedfellows trying to prevent others from sharing marital beds. In Ohio, 16 percent of black voters supported Bush in the 2004 election, as opposed to 11 percent nationwide. Many political observers say the chief reason may be that Ohio was one of 11 states holding a referendum on Santorum's anti-gay Constitutional amendment. Polls repeatedly show that black voters are more hostile to gay marriage than most other Democrats.
It'd be a sad chapter in black history if African Americans celebrated equality by denying it to someone else. (Sad, but perhaps not surprising: One way to move up in American society is to keep someone else down. Poor whites did it to blacks; now Republicans are offering blacks a chance to do it to gays and lesbians.) It might also be the final chapter for the Democratic Party.
Democrats should study Santorum's statement carefully. It shows they need to stop taking the black vote for granted, and tend to it at least as assiduously as Republicans are. They also need to launch a counter-offensive on the GOP's turf, trying to appeal to the Republican base -- like rural whites -- with Democratic policies couched in language that resonates with them. Writing off voters in the "red states," as John Kerry's 2004 election strategy did, might be a successful short-term strategy. But it spells disaster over the long run.
Such outreach may take years. It may never win a majority, or even a sizable minority, of the other party's voters. But dominating your rival's political base isn't the goal: eroding it is. And even a slight shift at the margins can shape elections. Just ask the Kerry campaign in Ohio.
Santorum's Black History Month statement may be self-serving nonsense. But if Democrats don't take it seriously, they're the ones who'll be history.