WASHINGTON -- Black leaders yesterday accused President Bush of ''playing the race card" in his pitch to sell his proposed Social Security overhaul.
NAACP leaders Julian Bond and Dennis Courtland Hayes said Bush should focus on addressing the underlying healthcare reasons that blacks have a shorter life expectancy instead of citing it as a reason they should support his idea of private accounts.
Under Bush's proposal, money diverted by Social Security taxes into personal retirement accounts could be passed along as an inheritance. Under the current system, relatives of people who die before retiring sometimes do not receive Social Security benefits.
''Rather than playing the race card to set Americans against Americans, we urge the administration to address the long-term problems the system faces now," said Bond, the NAACP's chairman. ''Recognizing the shorter life expectancy of people of color is commendable, but placing them further at risk is no solution."
Government statistics indicate that the average life span for a newborn black male is 69, compared with 75 for a newborn white male. Critics of Bush's plan say black mortality figures are skewed by higher death rates among infants and a higher exposure to violent crime. They cite statistics showing that by the common retirement age of 65, life expectancy for black males becomes 79.6 years, compared with 81.6 years for white males.
''Don't use the fact that African-Americans have a lower life expectancy as an excuse for privatization," said Representative Elijah Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, past chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. ''Deal with disparities, deal with making our lives longer, instead of putting more pressure on us when we're worrying about whether we'll get Social Security when we're older."
The black leaders made the remarks at a news conference kicking off a lobbying effort to defeat Bush's Social Security plan. The White House dismissed the criticism. ''President Bush does have a comprehensive plan that has greatly improved health, education, homeownership, and economic opportunity for all Americans, including African-Americans," said spokesman Trent Duffy. ''The fact is that the current system penalizes some workers who don't reach retirement age, which is one of the many loopholes that can be fixed by bringing Social Security into the 21st century."
Hayes, the NAACP's acting president and CEO, said the creation of private accounts could trigger changes or reductions in Social Security's survivor or disability programs, both of which are beneficial for blacks.
''Unfortunately for African-Americans, our experiences here in America are color-coded," he said. ''We have to be concerned about mutations, of changes that occur that we sometimes didn't foresee when we thought we were doing something good."
As examples, he said constitutional amendments on behalf of blacks after the Civil War led to Jim Crow laws curbing black voting rights, and court decisions outlawing segregated schools triggered white flight from cities and racial profiling in suburbs.