Since the days of Lincoln, it seems, the “Party of Lincoln” has been trying to attract more black voters to its ranks. I cannot remember a time during my life when that has not been so. In recent decades, we have tried with all of our might to demonstrate that we are “kinder and gentler,” that we are “compassionate” in our conservatism, and that we “celebrate diversity” as much as the Democrats.
Our president–a good and decent man without a prejudiced bone in his body–has done everything imaginable to exhibit the softer side of Republicanism: He has promised to “leave no child behind.” He has appealed to the deep-seated and long-standing tradition of faith among black people. Where Democrats appointed blacks to head Health and Human Services or Housing and Urban Development, Bush has appointed more blacks to non-traditional positions of high-level responsibility, such as Secretary of State, than any president in American history.
On the issue of “affirmative action,” which is symbolically the most important issue to the black establishment, Bush has triangulated with the skill of Bill Clinton. He has never expressed a position regarding Proposition 209 (California’s seminal initiative to end “preferential treatment” based on race). He has supported “affirmative access,” and maintained more than an arm’s length distance between himself and those who promote an end to race preferences and other forms of government paternalism. His position about race is essentially indistinguishable from that of my good friend Jack Kemp, who self-identifies as a “bleeding heart” liberal on the topic. Both of them, I hasten to add, have the best of intentions.
The Problem with Outreach
I, admittedly, have long held doubts about the wisdom and appropriateness of race-conscious appeals to voters. But like many other Republicans I have held my nose about such practices in deference to the noble aspiration that the Republican party could become a more representative collection of American society than is the case at present.
Recent events in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina have reaffirmed for me, however, the complete folly of any Republican strategy to increase black representation in the Republican party by appeals based on race. Whatever the name–”African American Outreach” or “Black Republicans for Bush”–any effort to attract blacks or any other ethnic group to the Republican party, based on explicit or implicit appeals to race or ethnic identity, are not only a waste of time and resources, but are also misguided and potentially quite damaging to the nation.
“Republicans Hate Blacks”
This conclusion became profoundly clear to me as I listened to a recent segment of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. The telephone lines were open for any caller to discuss his or her preference of topic. A self-identified black man put forth the view that the Republican party was the “Party of David Duke,” and, as such, was a political party that hated black people and wanted them to die. An astonished Limbaugh quizzed the man. Based on his reaction, it was obvious that Limbaugh was hoping that he had misunderstood what the caller had said. Instead, the caller amplified his remarks and stood by them.
I am fully aware that there are black “leaders” who are exploiting the issue of race to give themselves currency as “leaders.” They demonstrate how much they are needed by underscoring their claim that “racism is not dead.” And there are high-ranking representatives of the Democrat party who find it useful to invoke race in the Katrina disaster as a means of strengthening their claim to the black vote. This caller, however, was neither of those. It was apparent that he was sincere and of strong dedication to his premise that “Republicans hate blacks.”
When I heard him, my heart cried for my country and for the future of black people. For my country: after over 40 years of trying to right past wrongs and to live out the meaning of our creed, it has come to this. What more could America, often led by Republicans, have done to demonstrate its irrevocable commitment to the principle of equality regardless of race? What greater evidence of good faith in eradicating every vestige of discrimination could have been exhibited than decades of preferential treatment (“affirmative action”) in education, employment, and contracting? How can a nation expect continued success when a significant segment of its population suffers from such racial paranoia and a false sense of exclusion? How can any nation run at maximum speed in a global race with a broken leg that comes in the form of an emotionally hobbled portion of its population?
Blacks should understand the damage that they do to themselves and to the cause of equality by crying “wolf” all the time. Accordingly, they should exercise restraint whenever there is doubt that racism is afoot. Certainly, any rational being would have to doubt that George W. Bush would withhold support or delay assistance to New Orleans because a majority of its residents are black. They should recognize the impatience of the American people, including a growing number of blacks, with the incessant claims of “racism” that drip from the lips of some. As Mychal Massie and the good people at Project 21 recently queried, “Why must every issue be translated into or interpreted as one of race?”
My heart cries especially for low-income black people who are such easy prey for demagogues and charlatans who purport to represent black people, but only exploit them for their personal benefit by appealing to their worst fears about their country. Many of these individuals who fall prey to ludicrous charges that “the man” hates black people are uneducated and rely on others for political guidance. How much longer must a majority of black people live a self-imposed exile outside the mainstream of American life simply because of their paranoia about race and their insistence on seeing every transaction in their country–social, political, and economic–through the prism of race? How can one live a full and complete life as a member of any community when constantly looking over one’s shoulder for demons that were essentially exorcised decades ago? This is not to suggest that America is free from all racism or that only whites hold the monopoly on racism; it is to suggest that there comes a time to let go and begin to trust and give the benefit of the doubt. When it comes to race, President Bush has earned that right to be given the benefit of doubt–if anyone has such doubts–in times such as this.
The question now, however, is concerns where the Republican party should go from here with respect to the matter of black people. First,we must abandon fruitless “outreach” efforts to “the black community,” and treat black people as we would any other group of people. The message: We want you to join us in this pursuit of a more perfect union. But, we have no interest in you based on your “race” or skin color. Our interest is based on values that we hope you will share. Second, Republicans should shift their focus from the amorphous goal of “diversity” into a message of unity. We want a nation that celebrates what our people have in common, not our differences. Encouraging or taking note of our differences in the public domain, even for the beneficial purpose of broadening one’s political base, will most assuredly result in an increased emphasis on identity politics; and politics based on group identities is a clear path to a badly fractured nation. The charge of “racism” in responding to Katrina is what identity politics has wrought. Today, it could be Republicans hearing the charge from blacks. Tomorrow, it could be Democrats being attacked by some other group for some other circumstance. In all instances, the nation will devote precious time and funds to quelling racial or other identity paranoia.
Third, we should return to the colorblind vision that guided America through the turbulent 60s. This means getting back on track to making real the proclamation of John F. Kennedy that “Race has no place in American life or law.” Fourth, we should embrace the version of “affirmative action” which holds that every American has a package of “civil rights” that should be protected and honored and that no American should be denied opportunities because of skin color–white, black or any other “race” or ethnicity.
Fifth, Republicans should work in their official capacities to get the government out of the race business. Message to Congress: eliminate race preferences and government distinctions based on race wherever they exist in the statutes. Message to President Bush: There is much that you can do, administratively, to build a bold legacy of true equality and colorblindness for your nation. Why should the government be classifying and counting its citizens according to their skin color? We all know the answer: because that is how public goodies are distributed. If the government must continue counting by race, then, at the very least, acknowledge that growing segment of America that identifies with no specific race but with several. As long as the race boxes remain, the president should issue an Executive Order allowing Americans who are “multiracial” the option of checking a “multiracial” box. Currently, the Office of Management and Budget expressly forbids that option. A better course of action, of course, would be to eliminate government classifications based on race altogether by the 2010 Census.
I know there will be those who will loudly proclaim, as they have before, that the GOP does not want to go down in history as “the political party that ended affirmative action.” To them, I respond thusly: “Affirmative action” is the last vestige of the government-sanctioned race regime. When this symbol of dependency is ended once and for all, a critical mass of black people will come to the realization that they must rely on their own abilities to succeed. Many others have long come to this realization and are doing very well without the crutch of preferential treatment.
Currently, America is guided by the liberal philosophy promoted by my friend and former Sacramentan, Professor Cornel West, who argues that “race matters,” and that to get beyond race, we must take race into consideration. This “let’s burn the village down in order to save it” approach only embeds race more deeply into the fabric of American life. We are destined to civic destruction by its application. To get beyond race, we must remove it from the public landscape.
Waiting for the courts to restore the principle of equal treatment “without regard” to color, race, or national ancestry is a gamble unworthy of a nation devoted to the principle of individual equality before the law. We risk too much by waiting another 23 years for the possibility of that happening.
For the long-term benefit of our country and for the advancement of black people as a whole, we need to move with all deliberate speed to implement what Daniel Patrick Moynihan once called “benign neglect” with regard to the condition of black people in America. We begin this journey by extracting the government from the business of race; and we stop treating black Americans as a separate group and start regarding them as full members of American society. With this status comes responsibilities and expectations. Getting rid of the rhetoric of “diversity” is a crucial step for America to return to the goal of unity instead of division and differences. Yes, the black establishment will throw a temper tantrum and contend that Republicans and whites “hate black people.” But they are already saying that, and there is no evidence on the horizon of a change in this mindset.
On the other hand, if tough love is shown and blacks are accorded the full and complete status of American citizenship with all of the attendant obligations and expectations that accompany that status, instead of being treated as recent graduates of slavery–which is the underlying premise of “affirmative action”–blacks will fold more completely into the fabric of American life. At present, blacks continue to be considered a separate “community” to which special attention should be devoted solely because of skin color. The result is a marginalized, embittered group whose bitterness is fed by the patronizing benevolence of liberalism and the misguided comfort of “compassionate conservatism.” In the fullness of time, a colorblind American public sector will lead to a diminution of identity politics, at which point race will lose its currency as a political issue.
“One nation under God, indivisible…” should be the goal for us all, shouldn’t it?
–Ward Connerly is founder and chairman of the American Civil Rights Institute.