Sorry, Not Buying

Not long ago, William Bennett -- former education secretary, self-styled moralist, and gambler -- philosophized, “If you wanted to reduce crime, you could, if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.” A few beats later Bennett reminded himself and his radio audience that such a crime-fighting method might be “morally reprehensible.” For me and other blacks, hearing Bennett uphold his racist “blacks = crime” premise was unbearable, and hearing him discuss black genocide in the language of tactical options was otherworldly -- a little like interviewing a slew of baby-sitters and having one announce, unbidden, that he would never think of throwing your infant around like a football. Thanks for the reassurance, but I'll pass.

His mistake was saying what too many Republicans still believe, Bill Clinton said of Trent Lott's remarks praising segregationist Strom Thurmond and his 1948 run for the presidency. But the same applies to Bennett. As Clinton's aperçu suggests, these Freudian slips are failures to work according to script and parrot the soothing code words of “compassionate conservatism” that have replaced the now-unfashionable racist rhetoric of decades past. Bennett's gaffe was the latest in a long parade of such comments by Republicans and conservatives since the GOP made its public gambit for racial inclusiveness under George W. Bush.

Sometimes Republican leaders profess deep sincerity about trying to erase their racial legacy that goes back to Richard Nixon's 1968 “Southern Strategy.” This past July, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman issued a public apology to blacks for that history. “Some Republicans gave up on winning the African American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization,” Mehlman said. “I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.”

Lovely words. On a personal level, he probably even means them. But the politics of race in this country are about a lot more than Mehlman's feelings, and you'll have to forgive me if I -- and a lot of other black people -- aren't quite as bowled over as Republican strategists would like us to be.

* * *

Remember the 2000 GOP convention in Philadelphia? It was quite a show. Bush had secured the nomination -- partly by beating John McCain in the South Carolina primary as rumors were circulated that McCain had fathered a black “love child.” But now his message was different. Diversity. Or, more precisely, “inclusiveness,” with its attendant connotation that blacks were no longer to be excluded from the country club. To say the 2000 convention was unlike any previous Republican one would be wild understatement: There before us was a sort of Grand Ole Opry meets 106 and Park spectacle, and at any given moment the convention stage rivaled a college brochure for its unflagging cheerfulness of ethnic folk represented. Black dude? Check. Hispanic singer? Check. Asian chick? Check.

Republicans seemed to realize that unless they peel off a percentage of black votes from the Democrats, they would always find themselves engaging in presidential elections on a near 50-50 split with the Democratic candidate; they'd always find themselves resorting to unsavory, Willie Horton-style politics. Siphoning off just enough votes to eliminate such dead heats could enable Republicans to win without illegally throwing voters off the rolls (Florida) or tabulating votes with machines made by companies in which Republicans have a stake (Ohio).

The key thing is this: The goal isn't to grab the black electorate in toto. If it did that, the GOP might find itself nominally beholden to blacks, the majority of whom cite health care, education, and joblessness as issues of most importance to them -- issues that are generally at cross-purposes with traditional GOP priorities such as defense, crime, and tax reduction. The GOP would lose its white voters if it for a moment considered pursuing policies blacks want to see in the above areas -- and, of course, if it considered relaxing its stances on civil rights and affirmative action. Republicans don't want or need that. They need only to convert 10 percent of registered black Democrats into Republicans or independents (the way station to the GOP for blacks) to accomplish what mobilizing the white fundamentalist vote did in 2004: put the GOP over the edge.

In other words, they can reach out to blacks a little bit, but only a little bit. And so, five years after the Ebony and Ivory and Everything In-Between convention, we still have comments like Bennett's -- and Ann Coulter's, who said last year, in an interview with The Independent, “To get into university without achievement or grades, you wanna have a name like Shafiqua, Jeffrika, or Leroy.” And above the level of fighting words from right-wing propagandists, there are concrete actions of the administration: the brief filed against affirmative action in the Michigan case, the revolting abandonment of the black people of New Orleans, the nomination to the Supreme Court of a man who will surely decide against affirmative action if and when cases come before him.

The nice words of Mehlman are a charade in light of these facts, and, even if the major media like the “black-vote-up-for-grabs” narrative, others are on to the charade. Ward Connerly, the California black conservative who spearheaded that state's drive to eliminate affirmative action on state campuses a few years back, thinks it's time to call it quits on affirmative-action conservatism, precisely because he recognizes that the tension between symbolism and substance is irreconcilable. In the National Review Online he writes: “Recent events in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina have reaffirmed for me … the complete folly of any Republican strategy to increase black representation in the Republican Party by appeals based on race … . [A]ny effort to attract blacks or any other ethnic group to the Republican Party, based on explicit or implicit appeals to race or ethnic identity, are not only a waste of time and resources, but are also misguided and potentially quite damaging to the nation.”

One admires Connerly's honesty, in a way. But Republican leaders can't afford to follow his advice to the letter for one simple reason: They can't afford to be seen as having been on the wrong side of history. When your fourth-grader is writing a paper on Martin Luther King Jr., you can't very well tell her that your party gained a stranglehold on the presidency for most of the last 40 years by deciding to oppose civil rights.

Today Republicans try to sidestep these questions by appealing to blacks in ways that intersect the party's appeal to white conservatives: through religion and values. Republicans hope to convince blacks, especially religious ones, that the gop closely mirrors their beliefs on abortion and gay marriage. This worked to some extent in Ohio last year, where Bush increased his black vote (and, of course, carried the state). But the black political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson put his finger on something when he wrote, “They dumped millions of faith-based dollars in the pockets of select ‘megachurch' black ministers, wined and dined them at the White House, and swayed to the gospel beat at their churches … [but] found that black Christians and their ministers were also just as passionate about backing affirmative action, having more federal aid for jobs, and education. Their conservatism stretched no further than family-values beliefs.”

And that is the key point. The difference between black conservatives and their white counterparts -- and the reason that the GOP's current theories about black outreach will never convert very many people -- is this: Most black conservatives don't deny that discrimination still exists, whereas white conservatives do -- even as they engage it. Colin Powell, at that same Rainbow-Coalition GOP convention, famously gave voice to black cynicism toward the Republican Party, when he said, “[S]ome in our party miss no opportunity to roundly and loudly condemn affirmative action that helped a few thousand black kids get an education, but you hardly hear a whimper when it's affirmative action for lobbyists who load our federal tax code with preferences for special interests.”

For the Republican Party to take advantage of many blacks' social conservatism, it would also have to admit that at every point in our nation's history when it was able to make good on the inalienability of blacks' freedom, it said, “No thank you.” The procession of abuses leading up to the present is staggering: the hijacking of the 14th Amendment, designed to protect the civil rights of newly freed blacks; the broken promise of the Homestead Act, which allowed squatters to acquire land wealth; the Jim Crow laws in the South and the race codes in the North; the GI Bill, which served as an assimilating tool for Irish and Italian immigrants, promised to compensate service in the armed forces with an education, while that promise was effectively broken to blacks by the pervasive racism of universities. The list continues from federally sanctioned redlining (which essentially funded white flight), to abstinence programs targeted mainly to black girls -- courtesy, no less, of William Bennett's wife.

Not only do Republicans often refuse to own up to the truth of our nation's historical wrongs; they conflate racism and inequality. While the Civil Rights Act may have outlawed de jure racist acts, it was only the first step toward addressing pervasive inequities. Yet conservatives behave and talk as if the act abolished both racism and inequality; as if, with a wand, it erased all the property lost in places like Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Rosewood, Florida -- both cities in which prosperous black parts of town were burned to the ground to teach “uppity” blacks a lesson.

* * *

The above has only to do with the past. It's the present that's even more problematic. Conservatives can't win blacks over if they continue to deny the current inequities facing blacks in America today. If America had racial equality in education and jobs, Franklin Raines of Fannie Mae calculates, “African Americans would have 2 million more high-school degrees ... 2 million more college degrees ... nearly 2 million more professional and managerial jobs ... and nearly $200 billion more income. If America had racial equality in housing, 3 million more African Americans would own their homes. And if America had racial equality in wealth, African Americans would have $760 billion more in home-equity value, $200 billion more in the stock market, $120 billion more in their retirement funds, and $80 billion more in the bank. That alone would total over $1 trillion more in wealth.”

But the GOP leadership does not craft its message from the standpoint of these very real facts. It may speak of helping blacks build an “ownership society,” citing a commitment to greater homeownership and “school choice” programs such as vouchers, but blacks understand better than anyone that job security is requisite for homeownership, and that the affirmative action that conservatives rail against has acted more as a safeguard against covert hiring discrimination than it has redressed any past wrongs. Likewise, more blacks now realize that school choice has its roots in the vitriolic anti-busing movements of the 1960s and '70s, that it has always been code for programs intent on keeping white schools white. While vouchers are tempting for some blacks, others who've done the math know the impossibility of an entire nation of private-school attendees -- those who are more affluent will always be able to opt out and finance alternative education, while the subsequent drain from the public schools will starve them out of existence.

Finally, blacks remain all too aware of how too many conservatives still use rhetoric that taps into the resentment of whites who feel that equal rights for one group somehow means fewer rights for them. They take King's call to be judged “not by the color of [our] skin but by the content of [our] character” and pervert it into a rallying cry for whites who feel they've been on the losing end of affirmative action and civil rights. As my mother says of these people, “Where were they when King was in jail?” Where was their rage when their self-styled “race-color preferences” benefited them? Blacks see that there is only one African American in the U.S. Senate, and they see that it is a lot easier for a white “C” student to become president than the black woman who tutored him on geopolitics. As long as the empirical evidence that blacks experience in their daily lives differs from the rhetoric that conservatives deliver, Republicans will remain unconvincing to the majority of blacks.

Even Clarence Thomas understands this much. In No Room at the Inn: The Loneliness of the Black Conservative, he wrote: “Blacks are not stupid … as long as they view conservatives as antagonistic to their interests … nothing we say will be heard.” Later, on this same point, Thomas sounded nearly penitent: “There was much many of us who were in the Reagan administration since the beginning could and should have done.”

In a column published in 1996 in The American Enterprise, “What's Wrong With the Right,” Glenn Loury, once a prominent black conservative, explains his defection from the right. “Liberals sought to heal the rift in our body politic engendered by the institution of chattel slavery, and their goal of securing racial justice in America was, and is, a noble one,” he wrote. “I cannot say with confidence that conservatism as a movement is much concerned to pursue that goal.”

Many blacks could not agree more with Loury. Legislative equality, while an immense liberal victory, is not enough if similar discriminatory acts can be practiced covertly. The GOP party line essentially licenses whites to practice the sort of covert discrimination that further cripples blacks -- sometimes unintentionally. In denying the many forms of covert discrimination, the present inequities between blacks and whites, and the effects of history, Republicans become the enemy to actualizing racial justice, and thus suspect in the minds of many blacks. Mehlman may appease the GOP's white base one day and apologize for employing the “Southern Strategy” the next, but as long as the party speaks with a forked tongue, and as long as the party's Freudian slip shows every so often as with the Bennett comment, blacks will be awfully unlikely to give the devil his due.

Novelist ZZ Packer is the author of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, a collection of short stories, and a recent Guggenheim fellowship recipient.