Bush's Toughest Task as a 'Uniter' ; despite Diversity in the Cabinet, Many Blacks Say True Test of Inclusiveness Will Come on Issues

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For a president-elect pledged to be a uniter, not a divider, the toughest challenge ahead may be mending fences with the African- American community.

The early, high-level appointments of Gen. Colin Powell as secretary of State and Condoleezza Rice as national security adviser helped. So did meetings in Austin yesterday with black ministers and others to discuss how the new administration can expand "faith-based" social services to the poor.

But winning back the GOP's most alienated constituency will be a hard sell for the new president - particularly coming after a Democratic administration that made racial reconciliation a top priority. Indeed, black civil rights leaders insist it will take more than appointments, meetings, or symbols to overcome decades of suspicion - even hostility - many blacks harbor toward Republicans. It will hinge more on the direction and tone the Bush administration takes on issues ranging from affirmative action to school vouchers.

"You can't just look at who is being named, you have to look also at the priorities and policy priorities that these nominees represent," says Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, director of the Black Leadership Forum, which represents civil rights and social-service organizations.

Some 93 percent of black voters voted against George W. Bush in November, despite an unusually strong effort by a GOP candidate to reach out to minorities. Mr. Bush spoke to the NAACP convention this year, a venue Republicans generally avoid.

But in the end, mainstream black groups focused on turning out the vote for Al Gore, registering more than 4 million new voters in 29 states. Moreover, the black vote hit historic highs in some states, including Texas, New York, Missouri, Alabama, Mississippi, and especially Florida.

"In this election, there were several states where black voting was the highest it's ever been," says David Bositis, senior analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington.

It's that effort that makes Florida's undercounts especially painful for African-Americans. Civil rights groups are still documenting widespread allegations of disenfranchisement of voters, especially in black neighborhoods. (In Jacksonville, 1 in 3 ballots cast in black precincts were rejected by voting machines, about four times the number in white precincts.) Some 81 percent of blacks said that the outcome of the presidential election was unfair, compared with 40 percent of whites, according to a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll this week.

As news organizations pursue their own hand recounts of those ballots, such feelings could intensify. …