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Several polls show President Bush has significantly improved his support among African-Americans, and while that may be unwelcome short-term news for John Kerry, it could represent a hopeful long-term development for the country.

The rate remains decidedly low, with just 18 percent of blacks backing Bush, according to a poll by Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black-oriented think tank. But considering that his support was only 9 percent in 2000, the change is notable.

For decades, blacks have solidly supported Democrats, and while no one could claim otherwise this year, an 18 percent level of support would be the best showing by a Republican among black voters since Richard Nixon garnered 32 percent in his 1960 loss to John Kennedy. Even that figure must carry an asterisk, since it was almost certainly influenced by intimidation tactics meant to depress black voter turnout in an election that predated the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

A support level of 18 percent, if it materializes, would not exactly obliterate the more recent highs of 15 percent, garnered by Gerald Ford in 1976 and Nixon in 1968, but it would be a new high, nonetheless. Factors influencing it could be several, from an unease with Kerry to support of conservative positions on gay marriage.

Regardless of the specific cause, though, a growing willingness to vote for Republicans suggests that African-Americans are increasingly comfortable with their place at the national table -- enough to vote based on their individual beliefs rather than their historic and legitimate group fears. That would be a historic development -- safety in numbers would give way to the security of citizenship, and offer persuasive evidence that Democrats cannot take the black vote for granted. Eighteen percent won't make that case, of course, but it would make it better than 9 percent and better than 15 percent. It would be a milepost on a long journey that is not yet completed, but one that must be if the country is committed to its own ideals.

This page has endorsed Kerry for president, and we hope he wins. But the true integration of blacks into the political and social mainstream of the country is a development not for one election, but for the soul of the nation. Anything that suggests progress on that front is a welcome sign.

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