Is the party of Lincoln the contemporary party of civil rights? Are American conservatives the new civil-rights leaders?
These are far from the most frequently asked questions in American politics, but they’re worth raising. Especially given the potential for liberating results.
The questions are partially calendar-inspired: Martin Luther King Jr. Day. But also some less obvious dates: the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision — and the president’s State of the Union address.
The questions are suggested by two recent incidents, in particular.
First: If his past roles in shameful and deadly incidents haven’t already fully exposed the Rev. Al Sharpton as a charlatan of a self-proclaimed civil-rights leader, his recent performance on Sean Hannity’s television show should do it. Sharpton refused to engage former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum on the issue of the eugenics history of abortion activism in the United States, and on the continuing racial disparity in the number of abortions performed. None other than the New York Times has reported that “data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that black women get almost 40 percent of the country’s abortions, even though blacks make up only 13 percent of the population. Nearly 40 percent of black pregnancies end in induced abortion, a rate far higher than for white or Hispanic women.” On this issue, Alveda King, director of African American outreach for Priests for Life and niece of Martin Luther King Jr., believes Barack Obama is “missing an opportunity.” King insists: “The president has a defining moment before him. The nation has become pro-life. It’s evident. This is a tide. This is a time. It’s a conversation of energy. And the energy is with life.”
Second: The most undercovered story of the recent State of the Union address was who was sitting in the speaker of the House’s box — students, parents, teachers, and the Catholic cardinal of the archdiocese of Washington. The students have had their lives transformed by the chance to get out of the District of Columbia’s failing public schools. The first time I heard their presence there mentioned, though, on national television news, was only days later, in the context of a livid host, beside herself that John Boehner would bother himself to care about the educational opportunity of the inner-city children of Washington, D.C. What could they possibly have to do with jobs? How could they possibly be his concern? (Of course, given the constitutional relationship Congress has with the District of Columbia, not to mention the physical location of the Capitol building, how could they not be a concern?)
Boehner, along with Connecticut independent Sen. Joe Lieberman — joined by Democrats Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois — introduced the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act, reauthorizing the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program that the current president and the last Congress killed. The program has been a lifeline to children in D.C.’s predominantly black inner city, who are otherwise largely imprisoned in failing and dangerous schools. It increased graduation rates, serving families with an average family income of slightly more than $17,300.
In both cases, Sharpton and the speaker, there’s an undercovered moral imperative at play.
Gerard Alexander, an associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who has written extensively about politics and race in America, thinks it’s possible that we may be reaching a tipping point. “I think we may be reaching a point where conservatives can make excellent points about race and civil rights, and be heard. Obviously, for decades everything they said on the subject was considered irrelevant posturing at best and nefarious at worst. But the same was true about debates over poverty and welfare, and we know that conditions in that area became so bad, and policies so discredited, that conservative reformers were able to break through in the conversation in the 1980s and 1990s. Something like the same happened in debates over public-school education, just in the past decade. In both cases . . . well-meaning liberals were willing to have a real conversation and integrate conservative assumptions and proposals into their thinking and agendas.”
In Congress, Santorum was a leader in the bipartisan move to reform welfare in the 1990s, as it happens.
Alexander continues: “I think we may be at the beginning of something similar about debates over race. . . . Formulaic liberal nostrums about race make a lot of people’s eyes roll.”
The Boehner-Lieberman press conference the morning after the State of the Union, along with that little debate segment Sean Hannity hosted, may be signs of the times.
“Civil rights secure individual liberty and equal opportunity, protecting all of us against government encroachment upon our lives and our beliefs,” former Ohio secretary of state Kenneth Blackwell points out. “If Republicans rally Americans around issues like the protection of the unborn, school choice, and religious liberty, as principled conservatives, then they will carry the civil-rights banner into the future.”
None of this is foreign to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., who said, in that famous speech: “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”
Santorum, Alveda King, and Boehner are working to make those noble goals lived reality. And if the president wants to take the lead in restoring school choice to D.C. and having an honest national conversation about the consequences of abortion for the black community, there is more than one conservative who would be overjoyed by his leadership. They may not be holding their breath waiting for it, but they’d welcome it, encourage it, and get to work.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is an editor-at-large of National Review Online. She can be reached at [email protected] This column is available exclusively through United Media.