There’s Room to Grow the African-American Right

by Reihan Salam

The Slate columnist Jamelle Bouie often argues that conservatives should make more of an effort to secure the votes of African Americans. He makes a strong case. In 2008 and 2012, Republican presidential candidates secured 4 percent and 6 percent of the black vote. From 1980 until the rise of Barack Obama, the GOP had managed to win between 8 and 12 percent of the black vote in presidential elections. Had Mitt Romney matched this pre-Obama-era performance among black voters, there is a decent chance that he would have been elected president, as African Americans are overrepresented in competitive states in the South and the Great Lakes region. Bouie cites Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, and Ohio as states where the black vote is particularly important, and of course these states are among the “swingiest” in the country. Though Bouie is very much an egalitarian liberal, he offers advice to Republicans hoping to secure a larger share of the black vote. Specifically, he observes that because residential integration is one of the largest obstacles to upward mobility among African Americans, the right ought to “merge relocation assistance and direct income support—ideas endorsed by conservative thinkers and Republican politicians—with an aggressive commitment to anti-discrimination enforcement in housing, and deregulation of residential land use” as part of a broader strategy to (and here he quotes sociologist Mary Pattillo) “open the door for low-income blacks to move to predominantly white neighborhoods, where jobs and resources are unfairly clustered.” This embrace of more rigorous desegregation laws, coupled with existing conservative support for vouchers and charter schools and a push for criminal justice reform, would, in Bouie’s view, make for a compelling alternative to the center-left.

Bouie allows that there is room to tinker and disagree with his proposed agenda. While the relaxation of stringent local land-use regulation is an excellent idea, and it would go a long way towards making high-productivity regions more inclusive, it’s not clear to me that stricter desegregation laws as such are the best way forward. I am sympathetic to the notion that in-group favoritism on the part of non-black Americans is a barrier to black progress, yet it is striking that, as Patrick Bayer, Hanming Fang, and Robert McMillan have found, residential segregation appears to increase as income differences across groups become more equal. It is quite possible that creating the conditions for greater upward mobility among African Americans, a goal that we ought to pursue to regardless of the political implications, might lead to more majority-black middle-income and upper-middle-income neighborhoods as opposed to more integrated neighborhoods. Should conservatives limit their appeal to African American voters who see the persistence of majority-black neighborhoods as necessarily a sign of blocked racial progress, or should they also seek the support of black voters who find the idea of living in a majority-black neighborhood appealing, possibly out of a benign in-group favoritism or a desire to preserve the cultural character of their communities? The ongoing migration of African Americans to sprawling metropolitan Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston, and to the South more broadly, reflects a number of things, including the relatively low cost of high-quality housing, the opportunity to build wealth and reduce commute times afforded by it, and (perhaps) the desire on the part of black migrants from high-cost metropolitan areas in the northeastern United States and California to improve their relative position. This suggests that relaxing local land-use regulation might be best pursued on its own, and not as part of a more legalistic approach to desegregation. Part of the attractiveness of metropolitan Atlanta to upwardly-mobile African-American strivers is that it has become a mecca of black culture and black entrepreneurship. Could conservatism align itself with a politics of black cultural distinctiveness as well as a politics of integration and inclusion, and could a larger politics of upward mobility co-exist with both? I don’t see any reason to rule out this possibility.

Moreover, there are many different ways to pursue criminal justice reform. One strategy is to focus primarily on reducing incarceration in light of its deleterious impact on the incarcerated, ex-offenders, and their families and networks. Another is to reduce incarceration as part of a broader effort to make the criminal justice system more efficient. That is, we might reduce incarceration and reduce crime by embracing parole reform that would, in effect, make parole more paternalistic, on the understanding that swift and certain sanctions are a better fit for people with impulse control problems than slow and uncertain sanctions. Advocates of criminal justice reform often emphasize the benefits of reform to those caught up in the criminal justice system. This paternalistic approach would instead emphasize the benefits to those most likely to be victimized, a disproportionately large share of whom are black.

In a similar vein, calls for the expansion of the EITC have indeed gained ground in the conservative intelligentsia, in part out of a desire to address the underlying concerns that are motivating the push for an increase in the federal hourly minimum wage. Yet in Expanding Work Programs for Poor Men, NYU political scientist Lawrence Mead argues that making work more attractive is not enough to address the challenge of worklessness in high-poverty neighborhoods. Rather, he calls for more stringent work requirements. Mead’s idea, as I understand it, is that while the EITC helps retain people in work, it’s often not enough to get people to shift from nonparticipation in the formal labor market to participation on its own, hence the need for caseworkers and others to play a role. Though this is an idea that might meet with resistance in some quarters, it resonates with the idea of “conditional reciprocity” that is so central to the worldview of conservative voters.

And finally, I believe that the best way for conservatives to appeal to African Americans is not to pursue policies that are racially-specific, whether in regards to housing policy or criminal justice reform, but rather to pursue a middle-class-centric politics like that outlined in the YG Network’s Room to Grow effort. Though the conservative reform agenda aims to reduce the intrusiveness of government and its tendency towards excessive centralization and technocratic micro-management, it recognizes the importance of making safety net and public sector institutions more broadly work for Americans looking to climb the economic ladder. Policies like an expanded child credit, a K-12 agenda that aims to expand educational choices for the middle class as well as school choice for the poor, student loan reform designed to reduce debt burdens and improve the quality of post-secondary options for all students, will be at least as attractive to African American parents and young adults as they are to non-blacks, if not somewhat more so.