WASHINGTON, June 26 (UPI) -- President George W. Bush paid tribute to black music during a White House event just days after census statistics showed Hispanics outnumber blacks and highlighting the fact that the administration has failed to actively court African American voters on substantive issues, civil rights leaders say.
The U.S. Census Bureau last week released figures showing that 38.8 million Hispanics now live in the United States, making them the largest minority group in nation. Blacks numbered 38.3 million in the survey, as of July 2002.
The Hispanic vote will be an important factor in Bush's bid for re-election. He failed to secure any substantial support in the black community, garnering less than 8 percent of that sector's vote in the 2000 presidential election, and has since the start of his administration been heavily courting Latinos.
That raises questions about what place the black voting bloc will have in the upcoming campaigns as both Democrats and Republicans steer their media and political machines toward sidling up to Hispanic voters. Democrats have begun releasing a radio address in Spanish on Saturdays, an answer to the president's weekly address to the nation.
Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's legislative office in Washington, denied that the black and Hispanic communities were vying for the attention of political candidates, saying instead that the two groups have much in common.
Shelton did say, however, that the Bush administration has repeatedly turned down requests to meet with the NAACP leadership including invitations to its annual conventions.
"I don't think the civil rights community has been invited in to sit down and talk with the president and they should be," Shelton told United Press International. "He is the president for all Americans, not just the ones who voted for him. He has the responsibility to prove governance for all communities."
White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said the president has met with numerous groups of all races. In February, she said, Bush, Education Secretary Rod Paige, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Chief of Staff Andrew Card said down with a group of black leaders to discuss a "variety of issues."
"He's met with pastors and faith-based leaders. Of course the focus was on faith and his compassionate agenda," Buchan said. She said that some meetings with black leaders have not been public events like the black music event in the East Room this week.
Civil rights leaders say blacks have a heavy stake in the Bush's domestic agenda that plans to revamp Medicare and reconfigure tax laws, making a conversation with him that much more important.
Issues such as the economy are expected to overshadow foreign policy in the upcoming election, particularly if the unemployment rate -- which tends to have a more devastating effect on blacks -- remains high. It is currently at 6.1 percent.
The National Urban League, a liberal-leaning social justice advocacy organization, called Bush's stimulus package ineffective and unfair, and said it provides tax relief to mostly wealthy Americans while ignoring lower-income and middle-class families. Social justice groups and some lawmakers on Capital Hill balked when Bush's tax cut plan excluded low-income families, giving them no expectation of a tax rebate check expected to be mailed out sometime in July.
Since taking office, Bush has had more than 10 so-called open media events featuring Hispanic leaders and celebrities to tout his proposals for both families and small businesses. Those events included the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, remarks at the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast at the nearby Capital Hilton Hotel, a "drop by" during a White House briefing on the Hispanic scholarship fund and remarks to the national leadership of Hispanic faith-based organizations.
Political analysts say it is too early to say how or in what numbers blacks will turn out at the polls. They contend that traditions will hold with the Democratic Party taking the black vote for granted and Republicans caring little about whether they can gain ground in the black community.
The Democratic National Committee has been trying to mend fences with the Congressional Black Caucus over the group's minority hiring practices. It was last month when the DNC angered the caucus when it announced plans to lay off 10 black workers. It changed that decision after some lawmakers expressed outrage.
Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, called the black vote the most monolithic vote in the United States. Hess said blacks typically vote Democratic, but said it was the size of the vote, not the direction that counted.
"It is much to early to say (what the size will be). It will depend more on the state of the economy than anything else," Hess said, adding that most of the votes would likely come from working-class blacks.
Hess said that Hispanics are not yet a voting powerhouse, though that may change with time. Some of the Latinos living in the United States are either not yet citizens and thus cannot vote.
"Over time, they will become a more important voting bloc," Hess said.