Over the last few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about something Eric Holder said back in early 2009, soon after he was confirmed to serve as Attorney General:
Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.
This statement rang in my ears as I read recent articles in The Atlantic Monthly about the de facto re-segregation of urban public schools, and a new theory for seeking racial reparations; as a once-respected African-American entertainer and educator, who had argued for the exercise of greater self-responsibility in African-American neighborhoods, fell from his perch amid continuing accusations of past sexual assaults; as the NFL clumsily dealt with domestic violence accusations involving two African-American players; as a confrontation between a young, white police officer and a young, unarmed black teenage robbery suspect in Ferguson, Missouri, turned into a national event and a local tragedy; and when both the District Attorney of St. Louis County and the President of the United States on the same evening called on our country to engage in a dialogue about the causes of such confrontations and our reactions to them.
And I’ve thought to myself, “am I a coward for not saying or doing something about our continuing racial divide?” “If I am to say something, what should I say and to whom should I say it?” “Would anything I say or do make a difference?”
Cowardice is a reaction based on fear. I can honestly say that I have no fear about discussing this issue (so, at least applied to me, I believe Holder’s statement was wrong). Instead, as a white, male American conservative of Anglo-Saxon descent, my concern is that even if I had something to say, no one would listen because distrust rather than fear controls our perceptions of, and our ability to discuss, race relations in this country.
Based on this assumption that the root problem is distrust, I am not even going to try to engage in a discussion at this moment with an audience that is not predisposed to listen and discuss this issue with someone like me. Instead, I want to start by sharing some thoughts with fellow conservatives and Republicans about this dilemma we refer to as “race relations” in America and the distrust that exists. I do so with the hope that, in some small way, sharing these thoughts might cause some of the readers of this website to think about this issue and start to engage in the dialogue our leaders are soliciting, because any meaningful dialogue eventually must have our input.
All of my thoughts are based on the following, painful observation.
Although there are many causes for the deep distrust that exists between African-Americans and our larger society, we Republicans need to look in the mirror and shoulder some responsibility for the current predicament. Like the wish granted to George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life, the vision of the America of Ferguson, Missouri—or of hundreds of other neighborhoods across the country—presents us with the reality of communities that most Republicans and conservatives abandoned decades ago. Like the George Bailey who didn’t exist, we weren’t there as these communities were left alone to succumb to progressive social experiments that helped them decay into Pottervilles. While we moved to gated-communities, luxury high-rises, suburbia or small towns, and to the better schools and safer streets that our tax dollars would buy, we weren’t there to help build the businesses, serve on the civic and school boards, and form the private associations that provide the social capital necessary to maintain vibrant, productive communities. Our absence left behind too many of our African-American neighbors to fend for themselves as their neighborhoods turned into urban Pottervilles that, at their worst, became Detroit. What we watched on TV on the Monday evening before Thanksgiving from the safety of our distant living rooms was Ferguson as Potterville in full bloom.
As I’ve tried to say over several years on this website, you can’t sustain a society of free people—Reagan’s “Shining City on a Hill”—without sustaining relationships between neighbors; you can’t build such relationships without trust; and you won’t trust someone you don’t know. Our whole Madisonian theory of federalism only works if we know and trust our neighbors. We Republicans no longer know our neighbors in communities like Ferguson, and, predictably, they don’t trust us or our ideas.
While we supported the expansion of legal protections of civil rights for all of our neighbors, we disengaged from their lives just when they needed us to help them use their new access to their God-given rights to assimilate and prosper in our society. Yes, I said “assimilate.” You see, through centuries of bondage and Jim Crow, African-Americans were never given the same opportunity and support to assimilate into the American society that other waves of immigrants were given. Regardless of the spectacular accomplishments of a few like our current President, the perception of and the reality for most African-Americans is that they still live parallel, segregated lives from the rest of society. And the unfortunate result of this reality has been predictable—it was even the excuse the supporters of Jim Crow used to enforce segregation.
To explain what I mean, I am going to refer to something that very few people would dare to reference today–the majority opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson. Unfortunately, few people–even few law students–have really read it (just like few have read the Dred Scott and Roe v. Wade opinions–but everybody has an opinion about them). Most people rightly read only the first Justice Harlan’s dissent, if they read any portion of the case at all. Harlan’s opinion was right on history and principle, and the country would be better off today if we had adopted his clear reasoning as the law of the land in the 1890’s. However, the majority opinion, though legally and morally wrong (and in most passages, abhorrently so), discussed a painful truism about people’s preferences of association, which should be read and understood by people of goodwill who honestly want to have a dialogue about the current state of race relations.
The majority noted in Plessy that changing preferences of association would take time and require a voluntary change of attitudes, which government was ill-equipped to force on individuals:
The argument also assumes that social prejudices may be overcome by legislation, and that equal rights cannot be secured to the negro except by an enforced commingling of the two races. We cannot accept this proposition. If the two races are to meet upon terms of social equality, it must be the result of natural affinities, a mutual appreciation of each other’s merits, and a voluntary consent of individuals.
(emphasis added). What the majority ignored (besides morality, the Constitution and the Civil War) was that law could and should be used to break down barriers impeding the races from assimilating, and do all it can to promote assimilation; but it was right, unfortunately, that the ultimate work of assimilation would still require private, individual action. And assimilation is hard work—a uniquely American task, embodied in the motto E Pluribus Unum.
Assimilation doesn’t just happen, and it certainly won’t happen in an atmosphere that separates and alienates neighbors from each other. Even when it has worked in this country, it took a generation or two for each new wave of immigrants to assimilate completely.
After all these centuries, after all the promises we’ve made and the laws we’ve passed, isn’t it time now for us to make the effort to get to know our African-American neighbors, to build the relationships with them that lead to mutual trust, and then to engage with them in the great American experiment of self-government—that is, to take the hard actions needed in our communities and our states to assimilate our African-American neighbors into America? Isn’t time that we go back into these communities as friends and mentors to help break the cycle of progressive social experiments that have left generations of young men and women under-educated, under-employed and over-incarcerated, and placed too many Darren Wilsons and Michael Browns in life-or-death confrontations?
Yes, if we offer our hand in neighborly love, it must eventually be accepted by our neighbors for assimilation to finally occur—but the “fear” of being rebuffed must not stop our effort. It may take time and will require a lot of effort, but it is the right thing to do.
The midterm election results gave our party—the Party of Lincoln, Reagan and Kemp—a gift: the opportunity at the state and local level to give a new birth of freedom to all Americans—including our African-American neighbors. Let’s finally accept this gift with all the challenges and hard choices it presents. If we do accept this gift and meet the challenge of assimilating all our neighbors, we will be a lot closer to leaving a “Shining City on a Hill” to all our children. And, in the end, isn’t that what we’ve been fighting for over all these decades?