Republicans face up to black issues

John Carlin in San Diego listens to a man who crossed an enduring divide
The black vote is almost as reliably Democrat in America as it is for Nelson Mandela's African National Congress in South Africa.

Thus for a black South African journalist covering the Republican National Convention in San Diego the sprinkling of black faces among the delegates was curiously familiar.

It reminded him of the handful of his black countrymen who accepted FW de Klerk's invitation to join the National Party before the first post- apartheid election in 1994.

They were shunned in the townships, derided as "token blacks". At National Party rallies their erstwhile white masters would shun them too, or accord them cringingly over-eager respect.

Similar scenes have been in evidence in San Diego at a gathering dominated overwhelmingly by red-meat Republican white males. Although the Republicans belong to the party of Abraham Lincoln, the president who fought the Civil War to crush slavery, in recent years the Republicans' opposition to welfare and affirmative action and their tough measures against crime have been interpreted in many quarters - notably by Jesse Jackson - as code for "Keep the blacks down".

So who are these black people at the convention? What are they thinking? Charlie Baskerville is a government administrator who lives in Maryland but was born in North Carolina, historically cotton-picking slave country. He explained, quite matter-of-factly, that the earliest ancestors he had traced had been called Bulloch, until one was sold to a plantation owner bearing the name made famous by Sherlock Holmes.

"My friends," Mr Baskerville said, "call me Hound." Not that he has a lot of friends. Black ones, at any rate. "Black folks won't talk to me. I can't get through to them, man. They think I'm weird."

A wiry, grey-bearded man of evidently deep convictions, Mr Baskerville volunteered the information that he was about to complete his second master's degree. He did so by way of explaining his Republican philosophy.

"My daddy brought us up in North Carolina to stand on our own two feet. Now what the Democrats tell us is that the white folks owe the black folks a living. And the great majority of the black folks, and our black leaders, believe this. They say if only the white man changed his racist ways, if only he stopped being this and that, then we'd all be just fine."

Mr Baskerville screws up his face in pain, in frustration. "When are they going to understand, man, that this is the slave mentality? When are they going to see that the welfare system is killing our people, killing our families? When are they going to see that affirmative action kills our dignity?" The spectacle of Colin Powell addressing the Republican convention was a balm to Mr Baskerville's wounds, but not a cure. While the general is the most popular man in white America, he is viewed with suspicion among the black community. And what do the white delegates make of their black confreres? Do they entertain any notion that, for example, by having a black youth singing the national anthem at the opening on Monday they will persuade black Americans to vote for Bob Dole? A convention official explained the value the party organisers saw in having the likes of Mr Baskerville in attendance.

"What we hope it will do," he said, "is that it will educate our supporters."

A possibly more compelling message is provided when an army of cleaners descends on the vast convention floor each lunchtime. Here there is no shortage of black faces.