In his essay “Why the GOP Can’t Win With Minorities,” conservative scholar Shelby Steele almost nails the half-question in the title. An African-American, Steele contrasts the “moral activism” of liberals with conservative calls for personal discipline.
He notes that blacks and Hispanics often poll conservative on social issues and that many Great Society programs meant to help them were obvious failures or worse. Yet conservatism can’t seem to gain much traction with these groups.
Steele’s explanation: Blacks especially are “often born into grievance focused identities,” a response to four centuries of racial persecution. School busing and other liberal attempts at social engineering at least acknowledge that mistreatment. The conservative emphasis on self-control does not.
“Even failed moral activism is redemptive — and thus a source of moral authority and power,” Steele writes. But “conservatism stands flat-footed with only discipline to offer.”
Missing in this fine analysis is recognition of what happens when conservative politics takes over from conservative theory. The call for more individual discipline is compelling to most everyone. But in the political reality, the demands for discipline tend to rise the poorer and darker the individual. And the politicians are not above nurturing grievances among working whites by flogging racial preferences that don’t exist.
Many are to blame for the housing disaster. Mortgage bro- kers pushed expensive and complex mortgages loans onto people with no hope of repaying them. Wall Street grew fat passing the risk onto others. Government programs promoted homeownership to people who could not afford to buy a house. And, yes, there were reckless, greedy, lazy and/or dishonest borrowers.
But to the conservative punditry, the true villain was a 1977 law that stopped banks from discriminating against creditworthy homebuyers who lived in minority neighborhoods. The crazy subprime activity didn’t go into high gear until almost 30 years later, when most of the bad loans were not subject to Community Reinvestment Act rules. Nonetheless, conservative bullhorns framed the meltdown as some racial preference gone wild.
There’s a sliding racial scale of standards regarding what constitutes a healthy family unit. Conservatives may rightly tie high poverty rates among minorities to the prevalence of families headed by single mothers — and wring their hands over the troubling, out-ofwedlock birthrates among black and Hispanic teens.
But when the Republican candidate for vice president paraded her pregnant unmarried teen before the party’s convention, religious conservatives broke out in applause. They saw a pro-life message.
The less appealing message was that of another unwed teen mother — and in a family that professed to support old-style sexual abstinence. Sarah Palin addressed those concerns by sternly announcing that her daughter and the teen father would marry.
The cynic in me said that the couple would wed right before the election and quietly divorce two years later. But I was not cynical enough.
November came and went. Even the birth of the baby in December did not prompt a marriage. The public was fed bizarre romantic talk of a spring wedding. We learned last week that Palin’s daughter and the father had broken up.
It is inconceivable that conservatives would toast the legion of unmarried teen mothers rolling their baby carriages in poor neighborhoods. But if a person is middle-class, white and talks a socially conservative game, inattentive parenting (or, in the case of some leading presidential contenders, trading one’s wife in for a younger model) gets a pass.
Shelby Steele is right that the high value conservatism places on self-discipline should appeal to more African-Americans. But beyond “grievance-focused identities” are neon-lit examples of standards that are unevenly applied. Until Republicans pull the racial code out of their politics, minorities will simply not come around.
©2009 The Providence Journal Co.