Politics & Policy

The Plantation Theory

It is time to retire a dumb idea and the rhetoric that goes with it.

Cornel West is a very smart man who has some very dumb opinions, but when he’s feeling froggy he can be a hoot. In a recent interview, Professor West mocked Al Sharpton for playing the odalisque in President Obama’s media seraglio, calling him the embodiment of the “rent-a-Negro phenomenon on MSNBC.” The Reverend Sharpton, he said, is constrained because “he’s still on the Obama plantation.”

The use of the word “plantation” to describe the relationship between black Americans and their political patrons is an unfortunate staple of contemporary rhetoric. Professor West’s remark is unusual in that “plantation” rhetoric usually comes from the Right, as in Star Parker’s Uncle Sam’s Plantation, Deneen Borelli’s Backlash: How Obama and the Left Are Driving Americans to the Government Plantation, remarks by Michelle Malkin (“a textbook example of plantation progressivism”) or Ann Coulter (“Democrats seem to have decided blacks are safely on the plantation”), Rush Limbaugh (“The libs run a plantation”) and the like. Joe Biden, because he is a despicable human being, drove straight past the plantation to the sanitarium when he told a largely black audience that Mitt Romney would “put y’all back in chains.”

The plantation rhetoric is distasteful for the same reason that facile Nazi tropes should be verboten: Some instances of evil are unique, and using them as a handy cudgel in every disagreement dilutes their emotional potency. Hitler was Hitler, and nobody else is. The Reverend Sharpton is slavish, but he is not a slave. When black critics use plantation rhetoric, it is repugnant; when white critics use plantation rhetoric, it is repugnant and condescending.

It is also a marker of sloppy thinking. The conservative plantation theory holds that African Americans support the Democratic party in exchange for welfare benefits and other handouts, that the Democratic party cultivates black welfare dependency in order to keep black voters firmly in their camp, and that the liberal establishment through either  incompetence or cynical calculation frustrates the aspirations of black Americans in critical areas such as education, family life, crime, and economic mobility. That is a mostly accurate assessment of the Democratic party’s side of the relationship — Lyndon Johnson’s crudely expressed machinations have indeed come to pass — but not of black voters’ attitudes.

If Democrats were buying votes with welfare benefits, one would expect support for the Democratic party to be less pronounced among high-income blacks and more pronounced among low-income whites. The opposite is the case. Wealthy African Americans, who have no financial stake in welfare benefits other than being taxed to pay for them, are politically very similar to less wealthy African Americans. By some measures, wealthy blacks are more liberal than poor blacks.

Which is not to say that black voters are not keenly interested in the welfare state, economic intervention, redistributive taxation, and the rest of the Democrats’ dependency agenda. They are. As I have shown at some length, it was the New Deal rather than the Democrats’ abrupt about-face on civil rights that attracted black voters. The last Republican presidential candidate to win a majority of the black vote was Herbert Hoover, and the majority of black voters were Democrats by the 1940s — a remarkable fact, given that the Democrats were still very much the party of segregation at that time, with future civil-rights enthusiast Lyndon Johnson fighting laws against lynching. African Americans remain more intensely supportive of New Deal programs such as Social Security and the minimum wage than are whites, even when their personal financial situations ensure that they are unlikely ever to earn the minimum wage or depend upon Social Security.

Conservatives should ask ourselves why that is. Not because it will help the Republican party win more black votes — that is an unlikely outcome — but because our first loyalty is to reality. Across income groups, African Americans are on balance less enthusiastic about free-market economic policies than are Anglo Americans; there is a rich tradition of entrepreneurship and self-improvement in black culture, but that does not translate into sympathy with the traditional conservative rhetoric on these subjects; and, shockingly, when asked by pollsters about their attitudes toward “capitalism” and “socialism” — using the actual words — more African Americans expressed positive views of socialism than of capitalism.

It is not surprising that blacks have less faith in the productive and transformative power of the free-market economy than do whites. Black Americans were for some centuries treated as an economic commodity themselves and were systematically excluded from full participation in the economy for generations after that. As horrific as slavery is, it may in fact be the latter experience that has undercut African Americans’ faith in capitalism. Slavery is an alien experience, but being passed over for a job or a contract, or being denied a loan, and suspecting that one’s race has something to do with the fact, is not ancient history. And while accounts of discrimination against black Americans in the marketplace may be exaggerated, they are not without basis in fact.

That African Americans’ attitudes toward economic issues are strongly influenced by their historical experience of economic exclusion is consistent with other aspects of black life beyond political-party affiliation. For example, blacks are notably risk-averse when it comes to personal financial decisions. Blacks are much less likely to invest in stocks than are similarly situated whites. They invest relatively less in risk-involved instruments such as stocks and bonds and more in risk-mitigating instruments such as life insurance. (That is one of the reasons that affluent black households often end up less wealthy than white households with identical incomes and education levels. Women exhibit similarly risk-averse investing behavior with the same result.) Risk aversion is the reason that many Americans — black, white, and other — are made anxious by proposed changes to the welfare system, even when they themselves are unlikely ever to need it. They view the welfare state as (that inevitable phrase) a safety net.

And that is what the plantation theory gets wrong. Democrats are not buying black votes with welfare benefits. Democrats appeal to blacks, to other minority groups, and — most significant — to women with rhetoric and policies that promise the mitigation of risk. (Never mind that these policies don’t work — voters never sort that out.) Conservatives routinely generalize our own economic confidence, assuming that it is shared by the general public, with catastrophic political consequences. The health-care debate represented the most notable instance of this faulty assumption in recent years; every Republican politician who could get near a microphone was harrumphing about how we had the greatest health-care system in the world, but they all failed to appreciate the anxiety inherent in being tied to an employer-based insurance plan during times of economic uncertainty. (In the 21st century, all times are times of economic uncertainty.)

Professor West gets a pass, of  course, but blonde ladies and golf-tanned Caucasian gentlemen on Fox News probably should not be engaging in loose talk about plantations — if not as a matter of good taste, then because it leads to erroneous thinking.

— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review and author of the newly published The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.


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