Jewish World Review Dec. 20, 2002 / 15 Teves, 5762
The solution to the Republicans' "black problem"
In the wake of his idiotic remarks at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday celebration, Trent Lott's stop and grovel tour continues. Last Monday found him on Black Entertainment Television, calling the controversy "a wake up call," proposing to start a "task force on reconciliation," promising to "move an agenda ... helpful to African Americans" -- and mentioning, by the way, that he now favors making Martin Luther's King's birthday a federal holiday. (Based, no doubt, on Dr. King's many activities since Lott voted against it in 1983.) How well Lott's mea culpa took in the black community can be gleaned from the venom directed at him on BET.com's discussion board after the interview.
The latest twist in the fiasco came midweek, after New York State Senate Republican leader Joe Bruno said that Lott "ought to be cut some slack"; the outrage from the black community at Bruno's suggestion was so fierce that Bruno wound up apologizing.
This is insanity. But it's instructive insanity in that it highlights the futility of Republicans kowtowing to, or tailoring their message for, black voters. The core value of the Republican Party is individual initiative. But this value is palatable only if you believe opportunities for such initiative are readily available to all. Republicans cannot adhere to their core principle and simultaneously admit that black people are perpetually oppressed -- as Lott's "wake up call" implies. This is the basic reason Republicans cannot attract large numbers of black voters. To be black, in the eyes of many black people, is to be perpetually oppressed; more than skin color, hair texture or facial features, the belief in ongoing black oppression is the unifying element of black culture. As civil rights activist Roger Wilkins wrote recently, "For blacks, there is the pain of slavery and the continual loss of dignity that accompanies our treatment as nonstandard citizens."
It's a profoundly wrongheaded sentiment -- but virtually impossible to debate. If someone insists he's in pain, how do you convince him he shouldn't be? In any event, the percentage of Wilkins's black readers who'd nod in agreement is undoubtedly high. Oppression has, in effect, entered into the very definition of being black. Telling black people they're no longer oppressed, under such circumstances, amounts to telling them they're no longer black.
Republicans are thus in a no-win situation with regard to black voters: Either you tell them that they're not being oppressed, and alienate them by your insensitivity, or you admit that they are being oppressed, and alienate them by appealing to individual initiative ... which only matters in a fundamentally fair society.
The solution to the Republicans' "black problem" lies not in prostrating themselves but in recognizing that their ideals serve blacks as well as whites.
The overwhelming majority of black voters are hardworking, taxpaying, law-abiding citizens. They may not realize it, but they have an abiding stake not only in the value of individual initiative, but also in the correlative values of national defense, civic order, economic responsibility, educational accountability and equal opportunity; these are ideals to which Republican politics is committed. It cannot simultaneously commit itself to government programs designed to redistribute wealth or to ensure equal outcomes -- both of which undermine individual initiative.
The overwhelming majority of black voters, in other words, should see the Republican Party as a viable option to exercise their personal interests. They don't because they've been brainwashed, browbeaten and culturally cowed into believing that their natural constituency is made up not of other hardworking, taxpaying, law-abiding citizens but of a ragtag minority of sociopaths who superficially resemble them. And Republicans only reinforce this line of thought when they attempt to woo black voters as a homogeneous block defined by epidermal loyalties. Indeed, the entire idea of wooing groups of voters is self-defeating. Republicans are faithful to their core values only when they woo individual voters by saying plainly what they stand for.
Until black voters begin to think of themselves first and foremost as individuals, the Republican Party will have little to offer them.
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JWR contributor Mark Goldblatt' teaches at SUNY's Fashion Institute of Technology. His new novel is A Africa Speaks. Comment by clicking here.
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© 2002, Mark Goldblatt