Politics & Policy

Keying On Keyes — and Race

A hero to legions of very conservative, very religious, very white people.

I haven’t said anything nice about Alan Keyes in a long time, so why should I start now? Just kidding.

Actually, I like Keyes. He’s brilliant and he’s entertaining and he’s the best public speaker to come along in a generation (far superior to the vastly overrated Jesse Jackson, whose combination of juvenile rhymes and incomprehensible mumblings makes him more of an embarrassment than an orator). I think Keyes should get out of the race, though. He is not qualified to be president, and even if he were, he can’t win this time around. So, like Bauer, Forbes, and all the others, he should exit the stage with grace.

But before he does go, there are a few things worth mentioning.

First off, he’s black. Did you know that? Well, it seems that this is news to a lot of journalists. Indeed, by all rights Alan Keyes should not exist. He is akin to a square circle, a well-read Alec Baldwin, a chaste Bill Clinton, a white Al Sharpton. Indeed, it is the refusal of the national media that has prompted me to write this column. That, and the endless haranguing from Keyes supporters. I don’t much like being on the same page as US News and World Report.

Last month in Iowa, Keyes won a sizable number of votes from the sort of people East and West Coast liberals think are physically incapable of seeing beyond race. Indeed, the people who get their daily programming from the New York Times op-ed page are incapable of imagining that there are conservative, pro-life, church-attending white folks who could be comfortable with a black doctor, policeman or school teacher, let alone a black commander-in-chief. And yet these are the people who voted for Alan Keyes.

It’s worth remembering that in 1988 numerous “serious” commentators considered Jesse Jackson’s failure to win the Democratic nomination a barometer of white racism. “A black man can’t win” was the mantra at the time. In 1988 Atlanta mayor Andrew Young declined to support Jackson because “racism” was too potent in America. Why throw away your vote and resources on a doomed enterprise? ‘’I am not keeping any barriers up,’’ Young said defensively at the time. ‘’I am a rueful, sorrowful observer of racism in this country. Wishing is not going to make it go away.’’ In effect, Young — and legions of other liberals — would not vote for a black man.

The reality, of course, was that even liberal white voters thought that Jesse Jackson was too liberal. Indeed, outside the ranks of Mother Jones subscribers, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t think Jesse Jackson would have made an awful president.

[Dan Rather: “The Dow Jones reported its 17th straight 200 point drop today, as reports come in from the Kremlin that the Politburo is — and I quote — ‘partying like it is 1999.’ The national guard has been called in to bring blankets and bottled water for the tens of thousands of Americans lined up outside Canadian embassies and consulates in their quest for Canadian citizenship in order to avoid America’s punitive taxes.”]

But many liberal observers believed that “too liberal” was a code word for “too black.” “There is a message in that term ‘liberal,’” argued Milton Morris, the head of a black think tank, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. “A main tenet of being a liberal is that you provide more social programs for blacks. That is now part of the burden of that term.” The logic here being that whites are actually wildly pro-welfare, they simply would rather have their own people rot than let black people feed their kids.

Since then — with some credit going to Jackson, I suppose — black elected officials have prospered, largely thanks to white voters. Black mayors and governors have been elected regularly. And when presented with the possibility of electing a moderate, qualified black man, General Colin Powell, Americans went nuts for the idea. Indeed, the Colin Powell boom of 1996 was probably more of a white phenomenon than a black one. But when some conservatives said that Colin Powell was too liberal, the media portrayed the objection as nigh upon racist. It must be because the Far Right cannot tolerate the thought of a black president. It didn’t occur to anyone that conservatives have this annoying preference for universal, color-blind standards.

So now Alan Keyes, a very black man, is a hero to legions of very conservative, very religious, very white people, and the press doesn’t care. It is almost as if the media is embarrassed by the revelation that conservatives meant what they said all along. “Morality,” “equal justice,” “virtue,” are not code words. They are words with very obvious meanings.

William Raspberry, a columnist for the Washington Post, at least took some time to notice. Raspberry was in the vanguard of those who felt Jackson should have gotten better treatment in 1988. “I am struck by the number of anti-Jackson whites who insist that his race has nothing whatever to do with their opposition,” he wrote in 1988, as if this were somehow less than an honest position.

Two weeks ago he wrote of the Keyes victory among white conservatives, “I have to think it’s a good thing–and too little recognized by those of us who insist we want to be judged by characteristics other than the color of our skins.” Hooray for Raspberry?

Well, hold on.

“But look how these conservatives get beyond race — by supporting African Americans whose views are anathema to the rank and file of black voters. Doesn’t that demonstrate their disregard for what black people in general think? Doesn’t it suggest that the only way they can forget our race is by supporting black folk who have forgotten it too?”

Ugh. The whole point is that the appeal of Keyes is that he does not appeal to self-interests or even the concerns of particular constituencies. He calls it like he sees it. Raspberry is horrified that Keyes can’t stomach affirmative action and other modern liberal programs. And yes, Keyes opposes affirmative action, but he also opposed the income tax and popular election of U.S. Senators. Keyes’s objection to modern politics soars far, far above the simple issues of “black concerns” or “white concerns.” Keyes speaks to the soul of modern society.

I should be fair to Raspberry, as he is one of the only liberals out there to address the issues that Keyes raises. Raspberry writes:

“…I don’t mean to suggest that all conservatives have retired their suspicions of racial minorities, or that racism and a certain brand of conservatism have been disentangled. I’m suggesting only that those of us who refuse to believe that white people can be conservative without being against black people may have some disentangling of our own to do.”

Obviously, Raspberry has a hard time grasping that conservatism is not anti-black. But at least he is grappling with the idea. Meanwhile the larger media simply ignores Keyes as if he doesn’t — or more accurately shouldn’t — exist. One gets the sense that the liberal media is terrified by the possibility that conservatives actually mean what they say.


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