WITH A TWO-FACED grin on affirmative action, President Bush turned the White House into the Apollo. He put blacks folks on the turntable and spun them into soulful senselessness. On Tuesday Bush celebrated Black Music Month. Surrounded by singers from Harlem, Bush said: ''The artistry of black musicians has conveyed the experience of black Americans throughout our history. From the earliest generations of slaves came music of sorrow and patience, of truth and righteousness, and of faith that shamed the oppressor.''
Bush was as shameless as a disc jockey taking payola to play only certain records. He is becoming a broken record. Five months ago, despite America's history of oppression, Bush took the side of the white students who sued to destroy affirmative action at the University of Michigan. It did not matter that Michigan's affirmative action undergraduate and law school programs had no quotas or that African-Americans were underrepresented at Michigan to start with. Bush reached for the most inflammatory language of affirmative action opponents to justify his position.
''Quota systems that use race to include or exclude people from higher education and the opportunities it offers are divisive, unfair, and impossible to square with the Constitution,'' Bush said.
He said this on the actual birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. Five days later, on the federal holiday for King, Bush went to a black church in Landover, Md. There he kissed the minister on the cheek. Bush said: ''There are still people in our society who hurt. There is still prejudice holding people back. There is still a school system that doesn't elevate every child so they can learn.... We remember the dream of Martin Luther King and remember his clear vision for a society that's equal and a society full of justice.''
At the church, African-Americans applauded. At the momentary Apollo of the White House, black folks sang. For three years now, Bush has held celebrations for Black Music Month, saying things as if they were mouthed by former president Clinton, who actually took up an office in Harlem.
Last year Bush marked the event by saying, ''In the Black American experience, there has been a lot of pain, and America must recognize that.'' In 2001 Bush said the roots of black music go back to ''people held in bondage, denied schooling, and kept away from opportunity. Yet out of all that suffering came the early spirituals, some of the sweetest praise ever lifted up to heaven. In those songs, humanity will always hear the voice of hope in the face of injustice.''
No such hope or recognition of pain can be found in Bush's politics. When the Supreme Court upheld affirmative action at the Michigan law school but struck down bonus points for underrepresented people of color in the undergraduate school, Bush acted as if he had played the middle ground all along. He said: ''I applaud the Supreme Court for recognizing the value of diversity on our nation's campuses.... Race is a reality in American life.''
Bush has yet to provide a vision as to how diversity can be achieved in a country where racism remains a significant impediment to education and employment. That is not news. His dad did the same thing. The senior Bush had plenty of African-American entertainers come to the White House after he and his bouncers threw out average African-Americans with Willie Horton, Clarence Thomas, and his 1990 veto of the Civil Rights Act.
The junior Bush is amassing a similar record, smearing affirmative action at home, sneering at racism conferences abroad, underfunding the Leave No Child Behind Act, announcing antiprofiling guidelines with loopholes that still allow profiling, and appointing federal judges with checkered records on civil rights. It was telling that in the days after Bush announced his support for the white plaintiffs in the Michigan case, all his top African-Americans - Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Rod Paige - cautioned that the country is not yet so ''race-neutral'' that we can throw race out in admissions.
The telling part was that Bush ignored them and still called the Michigan program ''quotas.'' Rapidly, the issue is less that Bush plays black folks for fools. The real issue is that the longer African-Americans stand for this, the more they become the fools. Praising King for a day or black music for a month means nothing if Bush's politics deliver pain all year long.
African-American ministers need to think about this the next time Bush wants to come to a church. Entertainers need to think about this the next time they are asked to sing at the White House. Bush is well practiced at shuffling and jiving about past oppression while owning no responsibility for the present. At some point, dancing to this disc jockey makes one a lawn jockey.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.