I've been thinking about race in America these past few days, and I've wanted to make some comments about it. If you're my age, race is one of the few issues that has been on the forefront of the American political discourse for your entire life. This, despite the fact that race relations have improved dramatically during this time, beginning with the Civil Rights Act and continuing with the natural progression of cultural enlightenment that develops as generations mature.
During my childhood in the '60's race relations were undergoing dramatic change. Martin Luther King evolved from a civil rights activist to a national leader. While many initially did not agree with his goals, over time most developed a respect for his abilities, acceptance for his ideas, and admiration for his accomplishments. He, more than most, brought much needed change to this country and he is remembered today with a national holiday for his greatness.
Yet MLK was not alone. He was supported by several young aides including Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, and Ralph Abernathy just to name a few. Strong impetus for change also came from our country's white citizens so that demand for change had a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic base of support that created an unstoppable momentum. This base also included members of both political parties to the extent that Republicans provided greater support for the Civil Rights act than did Democrats. Indeed, without Republican votes the Act, promoted by a Democratic President, would have never passed.
My point is not to separate this historical view into a question of which party was more pure at the time with regard to race relations, but rather to make clear the simple fact that change resulted from a unified view of the populace about what quite simply was right. Minds did not change over night, which is no surprise since they rarely do. I can still remember members of the older generations acknowledging that the discrimination of the past was wrong saying, "well I guess they shouldn't have to be different than us". The old dislike (yes, hatred in some cases) was still there, but even those who were slow to change, saw a new world on the horizon and knew that the change would be for the better.
Since those days the awful specter of racism has been greatly reduced. This is not to say that racism no longer exists, it clearly does. The difference is that unlike the old days the kind of institutionalized racism that holds back entire groups of people has been eliminated. Where laws were once needed to enforce tolerance, the cultural norm has now been sufficiently strengthened so that it can act as an enforcement mechanism, and as a result we can seriously question whether equal opportunity laws are still necessary.
Yet all is not well with regard to race relations in America. The controversy that surfaced in New Orleans last week is only the most recent indication of this sorry fact. We all saw it happen before our very eyes. Flood waters hadn't even stopped rising when the drum beat of accusations began that the governmental relief response was somehow muted because a majority of the victims were black. A subsequent poll of African Americans indicated that a full 72% agreed with idiot rapper Kanye West that "George Bush doesn't care about black people".
The media, desperate in any situation to exploit controversy and build ratings, was happy to help us "begin a national discussion on race" and reported with glee America's latest racial debate. Absent in this discussion, however, were some simple facts that clearly show that whatever governmental failings existed, and no matter what level of government was most responsible the one undeniable fact that we could establish was that race had absolutely nothing to do with the government's efforts. Katrina impacted a huge portion of this country, and the government's response was equally criticized across the entire region. The truth is that the destruction from the storm affected far more whites than blacks, and all evidence points to the fact that both whites and blacks were equally under whelmed with the relief effort. Add in the fact that the local breakdown of relief in New Orleans was the fault of a government led by a black mayor and the racial angles of this story tend to be revealed for what they are; an ugly racist lie.
Why, in this age of enlightenment, does such a problem exist? In my view the answer is that it is the result of two factors that have worked together to hold a large portion of the black American populace back. Straight block voting for the Democratic party, and an entrenched racial activist bureaucracy both of which rely on black anger and yes, black bigotry to remain in power.
Let's look first at the impact of block voting. Ever since the Nixon initiated "Southern Strategy" in the late sixties and early seventies, black Americans have voted almost exclusively for the Democratic party. This loyalty not only has gone largely unrewarded, but in fact has been exploited by the Democrats and resulted in undue suffering by so many poor black Americans. The facts are clear. A majority of our cities have been controlled by the Democratic Party for years, and the buearacracy of those cities which includes the police departments, local education infrastructure and public housing authorities have failed their constituents. Crime has grown steadily in the inner city, test scores plummeted, and drop out rates increased. Public housing has been a disaster, and in cities like Chicago it has been used as a means of quarantining poor blacks in small controllable islands of despair and crime.
The effect on the Democratic party has been the exact inverse. Without the near exclusive support that black Americans have given the Democrats, it is doubtful that the party would have won any national election in the past 30 years, and the party's numbers in both the house and senate would most likely have been greatly reduced. For this reason Democratic leaders have been quick to exploit black resentment over the Southern Strategy, and have successfully labeled the opposition as the racist party. This exploitation continued during the Katrina disaster with Howard Dean leading the chorus of racial accusations even while flood waters rose, and people died.
An entrenched racial bureaucracy has also been built over the past half century that once served a useful purpose in breaking down barriers for all, but now serves only to enrich a select few. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson seem to have done quite well for themselves in their effort to fight the "white power structure", but their beneficial impact on poor black Americans has been less clear. Sharpton has achieved national status and even run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Jackson, when not garnering beer distributorships for his sons, or shaking down corporations for donations, has also run for president and seems to live quite well. Future success for each though is dependent on continued black outrage, and white fear of being accused of racism.
All of this has led us to a moment in time were bigotry seems to have shifted from the white culture to the black. Gone unnoticed by many has been the stunning growth in prosperity for black Americans that have left their outrage behind, earned a good education, saved children for after marriage, and taken advantage of the opportunity that our country offers all. Those that have listened to the Democrats and the race baiters have instead wallowed in a self limiting world where fear triumphs fact and allows the privileged few to control those who wrongly believe in them. I'm reminded of Orwell's Animal Farm, and I look on in wonder at how time and again history repeats itself.
Despite this sorry history I am hopeful for the future. Black leaders such as Jackson and Sharpton are getting older and a new generation will soon take over. Some members of the old generation are also beginning to speak the truth. Cosby, Connerly, Steele, Sowell, and Thomas have begun to question the orthodoxy, and while they have been excoriated by some, others are listening. In 2004 Bush increased his share of the black vote, and while the Democrats and some of their media cohorts have been quick to announce that Katrina has set back Republican efforts for another generation, I'm not so sure this is true.
And what of these Republican efforts? So far all one can say is that they have been sorely lacking. I've been hard on the Democrats and the race baiters in this posting, but Republicans are not at all blameless. Blacks were rightly outraged by the Southern Strategy and I strongly believe that it would be both right and beneficial for the party to acknowledge their error and begin to mend fences. Additionally, Republicans need to engage in the fight and stop fearing the racist label. Conservative policies which encourage achievement and self sufficiency have a role to play in eliminating poverty and elevating people in our society. Yet unless this message is heard and debated it will attract few followers.
What is clear is that we can not continue as a country with this state of relations. John Edwards famously campaigned in the last election on the idea that there are two Americas. Edward's speech dissected the country on socioeconomic instead of racial lines, but the result is the same in that such talk only serves to divide us. As the great Republican and emancipator Lincoln once said, "A house divided cannot stand".
UPDATE: Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse.