Published on April 30, 2001
Last February, a few days after a man from Indiana had fired several shots at the White House, I found myself driving a group of black fourth and fifth graders to the U.S. Capitol for a private tour. George W. Bush had just been inaugurated, so I asked the kids what they thought about their new president.
“When I heard about the shooting I was pretty happy,” said one of the boys with a laugh. “I thought Bush might have got shot.” Other comments were just as bitter, though the kids were too young really to know what they were saying:
“President Bush is going to put us all back in slavery.”
“He’s going to round up all the black people and kill them.”
The kids were part of a reading and art program at a housing project in Northeast Washington, D.C. — a part of town long known to residents and local reporters as “Little Beirut.” They were, for the most part, nice kids — affectionate and brash, used to hardship at home and mayhem on the streets, with little real experience of the “white” world that lies outside their all-black neighborhood.
President Bush spoke of these separate worlds in his inaugural address: “While many of our citizens prosper,” he said, “others doubt the promise — even the justice — of our own country. . . . And sometimes our differences run so deep, it seems we share a continent, but not a country.” Bush’s commitment to “healing” the racial divide is by now beyond question. But so is the fear and loathing of Republicans among most blacks, young and old, rich and poor, religious and secular.
To be sure, Democrats and the civil rights establishment have had their own problems of late: Jesse Jackson’s personal and financial scandals; Sen. Robert Byrd’s use of the term “white nigger”; the bloodfight between Terry McAuliffe (the white choice) and Maynard Jackson (the black choice) for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee, followed by McAuliffe’s use of the term “colored people” in one of his speeches; and, most significantly, the quandary over President Bush’s faith-based initiative, which threatens to drive a wedge between the black civil rights establishment (allied as it is with the secular Left) and the black churches and church leaders with whom Bush hopes to work.
But none of these contretemps has changed anything politically. There has been virtually no backlash against Democrats for their insensitivities; even Democratic mayor Charlie Luken of riot-torn Cincinnati seems to be getting a political pass — by contrast with, say, mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York after the Amadou Diallo shooting — while the Cincinnati police force comes under heavy fire from black leaders for the fatal shooting of a black suspect.
It is far too early to tell whether President Bush’s “compassionate conservative” agenda — his vigorous support for black churches, his talk of reforming inner-city schools, his deliberate sensitivity to issues like racial profiling, and (though he would never openly admit it) his race-conscious appointments to the highest posts in his administration — will break this political stalemate in the long run, defusing black animosity towards Republicans and even garnering black support. Four months does not a realignment make; the record in Texas, however, is not encouraging. After six years as governor, Bush won a paltry 5 percent of Texas blacks in the presidential race. Despite all of Bush’s efforts at “inclusion,” the dominant symbol of his young presidency for most blacks remains John Ashcroft, whose interview with Southern Partisan magazine and appearance at Bob Jones University were easily exploited by Democrats to reinforce many blacks in the belief that Republicans are the moral equivalents of slaveholders.
Undaunted, Bush and his compassionate conservatives are determined to win the confidence of black Americans. They insist that religious, socially conservative blacks living in overtaxed cities are a natural Republican constituency. They believe that decades of liberal failure, especially in the public schools, make it possible to break black voters’ near unanimous loyalty to the Democratic party. This is no mere political gambit, as civil rights leaders smugly claim; it is not the inverse of Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.” It reflects, rather, two decades of reflection on how to make Republicans the party of urban renewal, and it springs from the conviction that core conservative principles can address the problems of the black community — while decades of liberal policies and grievance politics have only made them worse.
Whatever promise it may hold for the future, Bush’s overture to blacks faces two obstacles in the here and now. The first is Republicans’ mistaken willingness to tolerate old forms of southern pride that border on bigotry. President Bush, to his credit, has made an effort to confront America’s slaveholding past without giving in to “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” But to his detriment, Bush, like most of his fellow candidates for the Republican nomination in 2000, remained agnostic about the Confederate flag — thus seeming to put calculation before principle and giving the Left a symbolic victory on race (which it tirelessly replayed during the Ashcroft fight).
The second is more fundamental: Republicans haven’t decided whether or not race matters. They are torn between their philosophical commitment to color-blindness and the necessity they feel for deliberate outreach to blacks. They believe that race-based hiring and college admissions are wrong, yet they feel compelled to make sure that minorities are included in numerous and key positions in the administration. (For Democrats, there is no such ambivalence: They defend race-conscious policies like affirmative action, diversity hiring, and the racial gerrymandering of congressional districts in the name of fairness, suspending the principle of color-blindness in order to make up for past prejudice and ongoing discrimination.) The Republicans only compound their political problems when they tell the truth about the high incidence of black-on-black crime and illegitimacy and the racial achievement gap in school. They are left, in the end, with a whole repertoire of losing strategies: maintaining that race does not matter, when to most black Americans it does; equating blackness with social pathology; or trying to out-pander Democrats. Compassionate conservatives must find a way out of this maze if they are ever to win more than George W. Bush’s dismal 9 percent of the national black vote.
A good starting point would be to admit that conservatives have been right to criticize the excesses and destructiveness of race-based thinking, but wrong to underestimate the enduring significance of being black in America. For the fact is that black America — with its history of slavery and freedom, segregation and civil rights, bigotry and courage — retains a special moral authority in the nation at large, even if militants and demagogues have so often abused this claim. America’s greatest black leaders, from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King Jr., spoke not just as Americans but as black Americans — with a long history of injustice behind their challenge to the nation’s conscience. Even today, the most independent black thinkers, from Thomas Sowell to Shelby Steele, speak with a special courage, special voice, and special authority.
If compassionate conservatism could engage this black voice in the service of just ends — a role for religion in public life; school choice as a civil right; human rights, including the right to life of the unborn; families complete with fathers — it could significantly change American politics. Such a black-white compassionate-conservative alliance would not only address black problems with new vigor; it would invite blacks to address America’s problems. It would treat blacks not just as the needy but as the needed. It would connect black identity with the moral life of America — and in the process expose the moral bankruptcy of the current black political establishment.
To advance this ambitious agenda, compassionate conservatism must be informed by a deeper grasp than most conservatives now have of how blacks understand themselves, of how race does matter, for better and worse. The church, as President Bush has realized, is a good place to start.
The Reverend Willie T. Lawson is the minister of Mount Paran Baptist Church, a black congregation in Southeast Washington, D.C. For two and a half hours one recent morning, he told me stories — about the sack he used for picking cotton when he was 5 years old, about his turn to God as a teenager, about his time in the army, about his views on abortion, the family, and the black crisis — each of which turned into a boom ing mini-sermon followed by an apology. Then Lawson said this:
“I think a lot of the problems of the inner city have to do with not knowing about our past, our real past, our struggles. I don’t mean this in a racist way — we should not hate because we were oppressed. But we need to know. We need to know about the courage we once had. We need to get God back into our lives. I want to see our people fly with the eagles, not scratch with the chickens. And we can’t do it with our pants hanging down around our hips on the street corner selling drugs. Government can’t solve our problems, because if government could, God would be obsolete. The kids aren’t going to do it themselves. We have to enlighten them, and that’s where the church comes in.”
That Sunday, Rev. Lawson preached a sermon entitled “Too Blessed to Be Depressed.” It built like a volcano, punctuated every 30 seconds with “Amens” from the overwhelmingly female congregation: “God knew Jeremiah in the womb. He already loved him. And here we are talking about allowing partial-birth abortion.” Amen. “Look at the blessings God has bestowed on us. He’s taken us out of our own Egypt right here in America.” Amen. “And we’ve got the nerve to shoot one another, to sell drugs to one another, to destroy one another.” Amen. Amen. Amen.
What becomes clear is that if the conservative problem is the failure to take adequate account of how race matters, the potential problem for liberals is their failure to reflect the moral outlook of many of their loyal black constituents. The black America that dominates our national dialogue, it seems, has two cultures but one politics. One culture was represented at Mount Paran Baptist Church that Sunday. It is the culture of Rev. Lawson, deeply religious, largely female, pro-life, pro-school prayer, and pro-abstinence. The other culture is self-destructive, largely male, plagued by violence, drugs, rage, death, misogyny, and illegitimacy. It is the culture of Puffy Combs and Allen Iverson, of BET music videos and Al Sharpton riots.
The black political establishment appeals to the former’s sense of justice, while justifying the latter’s sins. It translates the personal morality of its churchgoing constituents into a political morality of grievances and payoffs. It denies, ignores, or deemphasizes grave problems of the black inner city, to preserve an undiluted politics of oppressor and oppressed — when in truth the present tragedy of many blacks has neither so obvious nor so intentional a cause as racism. But when it comes to voting, most blacks of all classes, however conservative on certain issues, still affirm this politics, perhaps because they see in it the only available affirmation of their black identity.
No issue better illustrates the corrupting legacy of this unprincipled politics than abortion. Consider the example of Jesse Jackson, circa 1977, articulating how the defenders of abortion end up adopting the slaveholder’s logic:
There are those who argue that the right to privacy is of [a] higher order than the right to life. . . . That was the premise of slavery. You could not protest the existence or treatment of slaves on the plantation because that was private and therefore outside your right to be concerned. . . . What happens to the mind of a person, and the moral fabric of a nation, that accepts the aborting of the life of a baby without a pang of conscience? What kind of a person and what kind of a society will we have 20 years hence if life can be taken so casually? It is that question, the question of our attitude, our value system, and our mindset with regard to the nature and worth of life itself that is the central question confronting mankind. Failure to answer that question affirmatively may leave us with a hell right here on earth.
But Jackson and the civil rights establishment abandoned this larger idea of justice a long time ago. In February 2001, Jackson issued his personal “10-point civil-rights agenda.” Point No. 8 was: “A Woman’s Right to Self-Determination. Women must be secure in their control of their own bodies. . . . ” Of the 36 voting members of the Congressional Black Caucus, 29 had perfect pro-choice voting records in the 106th Congress; the other 7 had pro-choice records of 80 percent, 82 percent, 90 percent, 94 percent, 95 percent, 95 percent, and 95 percent.
And so here is the problem, in a nutshell: On this issue of great moral seriousness, where liberationist values conflict with Christian values, and political power conflicts with moral principle, the black establishment chooses autonomy and power. It enters a pan-liberal alliance with secular feminists and rejects the majority beliefs of the black community, which are Christian and pro-life. In so doing, black establishment leaders reveal the hollowness of their idea of justice — since justice depends on honoring principles higher than power, duties higher than choice. Instead, they become the very thing they supposedly exist to oppose: people who put self-interest and convenience before what is right. That is what slaveholders did; that is what abortion is. And the person who consents to either of these evils — as Jesse Jackson once knew — consents to the slaveholder’s creed of power, not principle.
On issue after issue, the black establishment has followed this pattern. On school choice, religion in public life, sexual morality, and the nature of the family, the black establishment has embraced power over principle, easy grandstanding over hard truths. And so, in the end, it betrays the best of its community and justifies the worst. It leads blacks nowhere.
A conservative alternative is just beginning to take shape — one that combines realism about black problems with a new idea of compassion and an offer of alliance with black churches. But it cannot succeed unless Republicans can overcome the animosity with which much of the black community still regards them.
To this end, Republicans must do more than diagnose black problems and formulate conservative policies to address them. They must also find a way to connect black identity with conservatism’s highest principles. They must make the case not simply that blacks need conservatives, but also that conservatives need blacks. This is not primarily a matter of winning votes — Republicans, after all, win elections with few black votes. It is a matter of enlisting blacks’ unique moral authority on the social issues. Until conservatives understand this — and until more black leaders and citizens accept the burden of self-criticism where it is warranted, and the challenge of leading the nation as a whole, not just black America against white America — the racial stalemate will likely continue, with little gain to blacks, conservatives, or the country they share.
Copyright: 2001 The Weekly Standard