Politics & Policy

Identity Issues

Where's the line on race in politics?

I very much enjoyed Ward Connerly’s eloquent and important piece, “End the Race Party,” published Friday here on National Review Online. I thought I would add some thoughts, which were prompted by a discussion some time ago among fellow conservatives about the propriety of President Bush appealing to blacks to support his Social Security reform, since they are statistically more likely to die before they draw many benefits. The issue, however, as Connerly rightly notes, is a recurrent one. In fact, I use below the example of Jews and Middle East policy, but there were lots of other examples I could have chosen–Latinos and immigration policy, to give another obvious one–in addition to blacks and affirmative action.

There is, to begin with, no doubt that some specific issues are of particular interest to some specific ethnic groups, and that members of those ethnic groups may sometimes tend to have a particular view on that topic. Jews, for instance, may be more interested in American policy toward Israel than Latinos or Asians, and they may be more likely to favor pro-Israeli policies than Arabs.

Now, to what extent is it appropriate for a president to take account of such a fact in formulating and communicating policy? I think this question can be broken down into three components: (1) Ought a president to choose one policy position over another because of its popularity with this or that ethnic group? (2) Ought a president to choose to stress his position on a particular issue when communicating with members of that group? And (3) ought a president to urge members of that group to support him because of their membership in that group and his solidarity with that group’s interest in that issue?

To give some concrete examples: (1) Ought the president to choose a position on a particular Middle East issue because of its popularity with Jews, whose support he seeks? (2) Ought he to choose to discuss Middle East policy rather than, say, national parks when he next speaks to a Jewish group? And (3) ought he, when he speaks to them, ask for their support as American Jews?

Now, it is unrealistic to think that a politician will ignore the preferences of important ethnic groups when he hammers out his positions, just as he will inevitably consider the preferences of other important interest groups when he takes other positions–farmers, say, with regard to price supports, or the elderly with regard to Medicare, or the NRA with regard to gun control. Nor is it realistic to think that the president will insist on ignoring a group’s interest when he chooses to speak to them. Of course he will discuss education policy when he addresses teachers, and trade policy when he addresses importers, and environmental policy when he addresses environmentalists.

But a line is crossed when a president urges a group–and particularly a racial or ethnic or religious group–to support him because of their interests as members of that group. And I also think there are differences in degree that matter. Some amount of groveling and pandering has to be accepted, but at some point it is no longer just politics, but identity politics. Taken as a whole, we expect our politicians to appeal to us as Americans, not as members of this or that group. Finally, racial appeals are inherently dangerous and potentially divisive in a way that appealing to farmers as farmers is not. Consider: If it is permissible to appeal to blacks as blacks, then why not whites as whites; and if to Jews and Jews, then why not to Christians as Christians?

I think that the Democrats generally crossed that line a long time ago, and I think that Republicans are starting to cross it–for instance, I think it was a mistake for Bush to urge blacks as blacks to support Social Security reform. Ward Connerly sounds a timely warning.

Roger Clegg is general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Sterling, Virginia.

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