Us? But some of our best friends are black...

By Radley Balko
web posted May 1999

I was watching "Meet the Press" recently and saw something I found rather disturbing. The guest was David Duke, the former Klansman, racist, anti-Semite and all-around ignoramus. The host was, of course, Tim Russert.

Duke had him for lunch.

Russert let emotion get the best of him. He set out to make Duke look foolish and Duke, oddly intelligent in spite of his rhetoric, put up a strong defense. A journalist of Russert's experience should know that men like Duke are great at making themselves look foolish. They don't need any help. Russert should have sit back and let Duke talk. Allow him to drop his guard. Fools like Duke only reveal themselves when they're comfortable. Instead, Russert looked decidedly less like a journalist and more like an angry (if justified) partisan. Duke came dangerously close to making sense.

That's what frightens me. As a conservative, I shudder when an idiot like David Duke can go on national television, espouse conservative philosophy, and nearly make sense. I guess what most frightens me is that someone like Duke can appear on national television as a Republican to begin with. It's no secret that the Grand Old Party has some serious problems with race-related P-R. They should be saturating the media with press releases every time the David Dukes of the world open their collective mouths. "He is no Republican," the party should be saying, "this man is a moron." That's what common sense suggests. But then, the Republicans seem to be in short supply of common sense.

Wake up, boys. White folks will soon be a mere plurality in the U.S. of A.(though likely still a voting majority). Political survival dictates a more moderated tone.

Conservatives have long had an aversion to symbolism, and with good reason. Public policy should be dictated by empirical evidence, by experience, by pragmatism. What feels right, what sends the right message, those aren't usually what makes the best policy.

But policy is different from politics. In politics, symbolism is important. And Republicans need to realize what messages they're sending to minorities.

You know who has his own talk show out west these days? Mark Furhman. He's also fairly popular on the conservative lecture circuit. Now we can go on about how Mark Furhman was or wasn't mischaracterized in the Simpson trial, about whether or not he really is a racist. It doesn't matter. The black community sees Mark Furhman as racism incarnate. When he speaks to conservative audiences, when he appears on the Michael Reagan Radio Show and similar conservative programming, black folks sit up and take notice.

Then there's Martin Luther King, Jr. Conservatives always seem to have a hard time honoring him. He was a rumored Marxist. Probably a communist sympathizer. He may have been a philanderer, an adulterer, a bisexual. So why should we honor him? Because it doesn't matter who he was. What matters is who he is. Never mind the man. The name Martin Luther King has come to define the dream of equality, mutual coexistence, the dream of the death of racism. When conservatives oppose his veneration they, in the minds of many, oppose the veneration of the ideas he's come to symbolize. Historical realities are meaningless. This, friends, is the political reality.

It's also time we rid ourselves of these semi-racist "conservative" organizations. The Republican Congress, in an act of singularly striking stupidity, refused to condemn the Council of Concerned Citizens in an official piece of legislation. This is a group that promotes white supremacism, racial separatism, holocaust revisionism and various other theories of lunacy.

To his credit, RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson did at one point condemn the group and its supporters. But why shoot down a chance to condemn them as an official act of congress? Yes, it's a waste of time. Yes it accomplishes nothing practical. But congress is always passing symbolic but impractical legislation, from National Adult-Diaper Awareness Week to naming post offices after local dead people. Seems that severing ties with a decidedly repugnant organization wouldn't be all that more frivolous. And it would send a politically important message to blacks.

On the issues too, conservatives need to be more aware of the messages they're sending. A good first step would be for us to start admitting that there really is still racism out there. We need to admit that a black kid from Cabrini Green really doesn't have the same opportunities a white kid born in Bellaire has.

We need to admit there really are cops who pull over black people for no other reason than that they're black people or, worse, black people who happen to be driving an expensive car. And we need to admit there really are cops who beat the hell out of black people simply because they're black people. We can say these things without disparaging cops. Because we're only disparaging the bigoted ones (and why do we even care about disparaging cops? The F.O.P. regularly endorses the Democrats anyway).

We need to start coming up with answers to the questions blacks have about the positions we take on the issues. For instance, why are sentencing guidelines so much tougher for dealers of crack cocaine (who are usually black) than for powder cocaine (who are usually white)? Aren't they equally dangerous and addictive? And why are there a disproportionate number of blacks on death row? And why do statistics suggest that the race of murder victims usually determines the punishment for their killers (killers of whites are statistically more likely to be sentenced to death than killers of blacks)?

Maybe there are benign answers to such questions. But conservatives aren't addressing them. Take affirmative action. Conservatives insist that affirmative action is reverse discrimination. And it is. They insist that the only truly equitable selection process is one based on merit. And they're right. But when it comes to issues like the preferential treatment of (usually white) legacies and the children of (usually white) wealthy donors in the college admissions process, conservatives are conspicuously quiet. Aren't such preferences inconsistent with true meritocracy? Absolutely. And it sends a poor message to minorities when we conservatives support preferences that benefit white and upper-class people but oppose those that benefit middle-class blacks and Hispanics. We should oppose them all.

It's also important on issues such as affirmative action that we recognize why such policies are in place to begin with. It's fine to oppose racial quotas. But it's disingenuous to ignore the fact that blacks and Hispanics are getting decidedly inferior secondary education. Thankfully, the movement has finally realized it needs to send a fuller message and we've started addressing issues that could remedy the problem. Issues like vouchers, education reform and charter schools. But we need to address all race-related issues in a like manner.

On the first day of my first job out of college, a co-worker asked me, in a moment of down time, "hey, you mind of I tell a nigger joke?" And he said it as if he were showing sensitivity by asking if I minded before he went ahead with the joke. Instantly, my worst fears about conservative politics came rushing to a head.

It's been something of a mixed bag since then. Conservatism seems to be a conglomerate of opinions on race.

There are of course people in the movement who are well-educated, well-exposed and well-versed in race and politics. They believe in fighting bigotry in all its forms and that conservative philosophy is wholly consistent with a meritocratic, equal society. I'd like to think I'm one of them.

There are also unabashed racists in the movement. They are the red-necked buffoons who try to hide their bigotry behind a guise of moderation but reveal themselves when a Freudian "nigger" slips out now and then. There are more of these than I'd like to admit.

There are also people whom I believe are unintentionally racist. That is, they haven't had enough exposure to different ethnicities and cultures to be aware of their own prejudices. "Naïve" would probably be a better characterization of them than "racist." They're the sheltered, proper types who reveal themselves with gaffes like "gays are different from blacks and Jews because blacks and Jews can't help it-they were just born that way."

These folks have a chance to enter the human race, but aren't quite there yet.

Then there are those who aren't at all bigoted, but who don't know and don't care what type of message they're sending. Those who do what they believe is right policy-wise regardless of symbolism or emotive consideration. This, I believe, is the majority of the movement, and those who most need to reconsider the symbolic element of our message. They are the ones who need to condemn the true racists and educate the naïve.

The right has ground to make up in regard to race. We were on the wrong side of civil rights in the 1950's and 60's. We put a black face on crime and welfare in the 1980's to win the middle and lower class south. I believe evidence supports both of these assertions. There are probably some who would disagree. But it doesn't matter. Whether we were right or wrong on those issues isn't as important as that we were perceived to be wrong. Evidence? Blacks and Hispanics vote overwhelmingly Democratic.

It's time we checked our message. Hopefully we'll do it because it's the right thing to do. Hopefully we'll do it because we believe conservative policies are best for everyone, not just ourselves.

Probably we'll do it because our political viability will soon depend on it.

This piece was originally published at Journal X. Permission to reprint kindly granted by the author.

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