Thursday, July 12, 2018

So What About?

I was reading a comments section on an article from way back in the day - the Bush Administration, to be sure, and one of the commenters quoted a comedian: "Be careful if you have brown people in your country, because we're going to bomb you!" The response to this was trotting out the names of two Black Republicans of the time; names that often came up when Republicans felt that "the race card" was being played on them: Julius Caesar (J. C.) Watts, and Condoleezza Rice. And it reminded me of something that I hadn't had much call to think about recently; the fact that the relatively small bench of prominent Black conservatives leads to the ineffective and unnecessary tactic of naming the same people as defenses; as if their names are shields against charges of racism.

The larger Black community tends to have little use for most outspoken Black conservatives. Rice and Watts, like their contemporaries Ward Connerly and Alan Keyes, and present-day conservatives like Ben Carson, Kanye West, Juan Williams and even Bill Cosby are, to varying degrees, widely considered to be "Uncle Toms" within the Black community; people who have sold out to the White power structure for either their own betterment or, in the eyes of many Blacks, out of racial self-loathing. (Note that Connerly rejected the "Black" label as he is only 1/4 Black, which leads to the somewhat ironic situation of Black activists criticizing him for not accepting his "Black identity" - almost as if they were seeking to have the "one drop" principle applied. And Keyes couldn't seem to shake the "Uncle Tom" label no matter how often or loudly he accused the GOP of covert or overt racism. His moving to Illinois, apparently solely to mount a doomed Senate campaign against Barack Obama back in the day, didn't help matters any.) Colin Powell, another name that was commonly used to deflect charges of racism, by contrast, was widely considered an ineffectual dupe, whose appointment was mostly political cover for the administration, rather than a mark of any real respect. The fact that the Bush administration placed Blacks in three Cabinet positions (Powell, Alphonso Jackson [HUD] and Roderick Paige [Education]) and as National Security Advisor arguably did much less for them in the Black community than administration's seemingly overt religiosity and "activist conservatism." In fact, many Americans are/were completely unaware of Jackson and Paige period, let alone the fact that both were Black.

In any event, using the Rice, Keys or West et al to deflect charges of racism is undermined by the generally negative perceptions of this group within the Black community. The only way that this sort of name dropping would work is if the name were that of a prominent critic, who somehow managed to work well with (and within) the administration, an almost paradoxical situation mode more unlikely by the Bush, and now the Trump, administration's famous allergy to anything that smacks of disloyalty or criticism. But only by managing to find someone not considered to be either co-opted or shut out by the administration will Republican name-dropping meet with any success in the near term.

What tends to keep Blacks in the Democratic column is not an overall liberalism in the community (Blacks are very social conservative as a group), but the idea that Democrats will do more to advance and protect them. Blacks tend to see themselves as victims, and as George Will once put it, the Democrats have never met a victim they didn't like. Many Blacks don't distinguish between policies that hurt them because they are, for the most part, working-class or poor, and intentionally racist policies that are aimed at maintaining the American Apartheid that many Blacks are convinced exists (and are in some ways, emotionally invested in). If you ever hear some of the wilder conspiracy theories that circulate within the Black community, some of them are pretty incredible. (Interestingly, many of these theories have the overall effect of painting White America as being implacably malicious and supremely devious, but amazingly inept, in much the same fashion as hapless movie villains.) Alan Keyes was perhaps unique in managing to be both a staunch Republican, AND tightly wrapped up in the culture of Black victimhood.

If the Republicans could find a way to use shared values to break the (counter-)culture of victimization that many Blacks subscribe to, they could scoop up the vast majority of the socially-conservative community in one fell swoop. And in doing so, go a long way towards crippling the current incarnation of the Democratic party, which relies heavily on the fact that Blacks tend to feel marginalized and put upon by society at large. Many Black commentators feel that breaking the Democratic stranglehold on the Black vote would increase the community's political clout. With their votes perceived as being in play, the community could wrangle concessions out of both parties much more easily than they can now, when they are apparently taken for granted by Democrats, and written off by Republicans. I'm a bit dubious about this line of reasoning, however, if for no other reason than the loss of the Black vote would likely damage the Democratic Party to the point that the Republicans wouldn't feel the need to court new voters.

This effort may be hampered, however, by the fact that many Republicans may see their fellows as being at least somewhat racist, and willing to withdraw their support of the party if too many overt overtures are made. As a candidate Donald Trump famously asked the Black community what they had to lose, but it's telling that he didn't explicitly offer anything. He simply painted a caricature of wretchedness and implied has as President, he'd do something about it. Instead, he's become widely seen among non-Republicans as attracting, and surrounding himself with, would-be Confederates, neo-Nazis and other flavors of White Supremacists. The caricature of the GOP as political arm of the Ku Klux Klan was dying on with great difficulty; now it's come roaring back to life, or undeath, as the case may be.

In any event, holding up a succession of token Black names is unlikely to reduce the friction between Republicans and Black community. It is only through a values-based bridging of the perceived gap between themselves and the Black community (regardless of who does it, or how it happens) and a purging of openly racist elements that will lay to rest the idea (on both sides) that the GOP and Blacks are natural enemies. Jesse Jackson's intervention in the Terry Schiavo case showed where the Bush administration and the interests of the Black community intersected, and this is really the place the Republicans should focus on. We'll see if anyone ever has the desire, drive and vision to make it happen. In the meantime, conspicuously focusing on strategies and actions that create the rising tide to lift all boats may be the best path. But that would mean letting go of a culture of White grievance that sees wiley Blacks as cheating their way into undeserved non-poverty. And that's a much heavier lift than name-dropping.

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