Presumptive GOP presidential nominee George W. Bush spoke recently at the NAACP annual convention, breaking a decade-long boycott by GOP presidential candidates of such events. Invoking Abraham Lincoln, Bush reminded his audience that “we cannot escape history.” Bush’s message was politely, if not necessarily excitedly, received. “Recognizing and confronting our history is important,” Bush said. Bush’s remarks come at an interesting moment in American history. The economy is doing better than ever, alleviating much material poverty and reducing the barriers to prosperity for all racial groups. The current census may be the last one in which blacks outnumber Hispanics as the largest minority (not counting women, of course, who have long constituted a majority of Americans). Intermarriage rates are skyrocketing — one in eight blacks married in 1994 wed a white spouse, a number surely higher today.
”While some in my party have avoided the NAACP and some in the NAACP have avoided my party, I am proud to be here,” said Bush.Yet, African-American politicians, intellectuals and activist groups are as determined as ever to pursue a separatist approach to racial policies. In Florida, for example, black legislators and demonstrators sang “We Shall Overcome” when Gov. Jeb Bush, George’s brother, implemented his “One Florida” policy regarding college admissions — despite the fact that it would result in more blacks gaining access to colleges and universities than the old racial spoils system. Black leaders have managed to convince the Clinton administration to follow a one-drop rule when it comes to the census. If a citizen checks off black, white and Asian on his census form, for example, it goes on the books only as “black.”
Most telling, though, is the renewed push for slavery reparations. With great intensity, black leaders around the country have settled on the notion that a cash payment from $1 trillion to $8 trillion is in order to black ancestors of former slaves. City Councils in Dallas, Washington, Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland have issued resolutions demanding that Congress provide reparations. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), who will become chairman of the Judiciary Committee if the Democrats take back the House, has sworn that his reparations bill will be his first item of business if he gets the gavel. During the Democratic presidential debate at the Apollo Theater in Harlem last February, neither Al Gore nor Bill Bradley would disavow the idea of reparations.
THE UNMELTABLE BLACK LEADERSHIP
All but the most partisan racialists would concede that white racism explains only a fraction of the black community’s problems. There are reasonable — and unreasonable — arguments about how big that fraction is, to be sure, but two generations after legal segregation has been removed from the books, it is hard to say that external factors are the beginning and end of any intelligent conversation about racial progress. Indeed, only 35% of black teens said that whites cause the most problems most blacks face, as opposed to 56% of black adults, in a 1997 Yankelovich poll.
“I hear that melting-pot stuff a lot, and all I can say is that we haven’t melted,” Rev. Jesse Jackson famously said in a Playboy interview in 1969. Jackson was right then, and he is still right if you look at many of the core attitudes of African-Americans and especially the black political leadership.
Black racialists attack everything “European” from the Western Canon to concepts of “merit” to even such things as “knowledge.” “That’s a white (read “European”) way of looking at things” is a retort found throughout racially charged debates on literature, politics, even science. The novelist Toni Morrison says, “The Canon is empire building.” Andrew Hacker — who is white — argues that blacks fail academically because “historically white” colleges “are white … in logic and learning, in their conceptions of scholarly knowledge and demeanor.” According to Ishmael Reed, “It’s because of Eurocentric control of the public-school curriculum that the United States produces generation after generation of white bigots.” Conservative scholar Dinesh D’Souza’s The End of Racism compiles a litany of such testimony.
OLD EUROPE, NEW BLACK
The great irony is that more than any other ethnic group, African-Americans have what could be called a “European” (almost pre-Enlightenment European) worldview. The essential insight of liberal political philosophy and constitutionalism generally is that humanity is universal. This notion was much derided under the constitutional regimes of Old Europe. The most articulate critic of this concept was Comte Joseph de Maistre. During the tumultuous days of the French and American Revolutions, De Maistre derided the idea of “man.” He stated: “Now, there is no such thing as ‘man’ in this world. I have seen in my life French, Italians, Russians. … But as for ‘man,’ I declare that I have never met one in my life; if he exists, it is entirely without my knowledge.”
For De Maistre, transcending one’s particular identity was impossible. Jews were Jews, Moors were Moors, and Chinese were Chinese. Liberals in all parties — from the Philosophes to Edmund Burke to the American Founders — rejected this thinking explicitly. Yet today, this view can be found throughout the multicultural left. The phrase “melting pot” — which implies that particular identities are ephemeral — has been removed from many textbooks and curricula, replaced with the study of and exultation in permanent racial and ethnic differences. Alone, the grammatical and philosophical evolution of the hateful appellation “colored people” to the left’s preferred “people of color” is perhaps the most stunning transformation in public rhetoric in American history. But it represents the left’s uncritical acceptance of the immutability of identity.
Speaking in broad — and therefore uncomfortable — generalities, black Americans display Old European thinking in striking ways. African-Americans, for good reason, cling to longstanding historical grievances against the majority culture, just as ethnic groups in Europe have done for centuries. The fight for reparations is nothing if it is not an expression of justifiable anger toward an old wrong. The constant invocation of the “legacy of slavery” is a sign that African-Americans still feel the heavy weight of history.
The only thing that is remarkable about this attitude is how out of place it is in American culture. America’s immigration-driven culture is a forward-looking one in which the ways of the “Old Country” and an invocation of history are usually frowned upon. As John Adams said, “Driven from every other corner of the earth, freedom of thought and the right of private judgment in matters of conscience direct their course to this happy country as their last asylum.” It’s understandable that many blacks do not subscribe to this view as they were not “driven” so much as dragged from their own corner of the earth. As Frederick Douglass asked before the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1847, “What country have I?”
Another expression of a distinctly European attitude toward politics is the African-American community’s overwhelming support for a strong centralized government. Again, there’s a good reason why blacks feel this way. The federal government — from the Civil War to Reconstruction to the civil-rights era — was often on the side of freedom in the eyes of blacks while state and local governments were often bastions of reaction. This was often the case with oppressed minorities in Europe, the Jews being just one example. Russian Jewry usually believed that the pogroms were the result of corrupt and venal local leaders in defiance of the czar’s preference. Hence the ironic plaintive wish of many Jews: “If only the Czar knew.”
Many of the policy aims of the black leadership can be traced to their sense that the national government is still on their side. Federal hate-crimes laws, which have a European-monarchical flavor in that they protect certain classes of people over others, are a top priority for most civil-rights groups. Another priority is the maintenance — through statistical sampling or a perverse modification of the “one-drop rule” — of black numerical supremacy in the pantheon of victimized groups. But that is a long discussion. Suffice it to say, such supremacy is essential to prevent being marginalized in multicultural politics.
It is a tragedy that African-Americans feel they are on the outside of American society, though certainly not nearly as tragic as the circumstances that led them to these conclusions. Nevertheless, it seems clear that Bush was right when he told the NAACP: “Transcending our history is essential. We’re not limited by what we have done or what we have left undone. We are limited only by what we’re willing to do.” This is a quintessentially American view, and it should not be limited to white America.
Indeed, that was the view of Albert Murray the writer, jazz critic and inspiration to a generation of African-American writers. He argued that blacks were not merely American; they were the most American of all Americans. He called them “Omni-Americans” because they exhibited as the essential American underdog — the truest aspects of American character. No Horatio Alger story can compete with the life of Frederick Douglass, whom Abraham Lincoln called “the most meritorious man in the United States.” Murray recognized that America was a great melting pot and he celebrated that fact. “The problem is not the existence of ethnic differences, as is so often assumed,” he said, “but the intrusion of such differences into areas where they do not belong.”
Alas, this view is not in favor these days.