WASHINGTON, July 23, 2013 — “Trayvon Martin is an example of what happens when these black boys and girls are raised in single-parent households,” conservative provocateur Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson recently said on CNN. This is the same man who, after Katrina called victims “welfare-pampered,” “lazy” and “immoral” who “waited for the government to bail them out.”
In an interview with the same host, conservative shock jock Larry Elder opined most black Americans’ problems would be solved if we stopped “wav[ing] the flag of victimhood.” “Hard work wins,” he lectured. “Get an education. Don’t pay attention to negative people. Stay focused. And you’ll be ok in America.”
After President Obama asserted racially discriminatory experiences many African-American men have experienced, ex-Congressman Allen West took to Facebook to declare he – a black man no less! – never had the experiences Obama described. “I am a black male who grew up in the inner city of Atlanta and no one ever followed me in a mall,” or clutched their purses. “I guess having two awesome parents who taught me to be a respectful young man paid dividends.”
All three – Peterson, Elder, West – advance a familiar argument from black conservatives: if the rest of black people would just be like us, everything would be ok. Skipping over Peterson’s factual errors – Trayvon Martin was not raised by a single parent – this discourse illustrates a deeper issue.
In this author’s hometown there is a woman about 90 years of age, whom we will call “Misses R.” This author once witnessed the followed exchange between Misses R and a friend whom we will call, “K”:
K [observes paper towel rolls on her floor with newspaper stuffed inside]: “Mrs. R, I’m going to throw away these paper towel rolls for you.”
MR: “No I use those [as a reacher] to pick up my shoes”
K: “Mrs. R, I’m gonna get you a new broom” [edges severely frayed on her current broom]
MR: “No, I don’t need a new broom. I use that one for scrubbing.”
K: “Mrs. R, you want me to put this bacon [on the counter] away?”
MR: “No, I’m letting it thaw.”
K [observes chair seemingly out of place]: “Mrs. R, do you have this chair like this to help you walk?”
MR: “No, for when someone’s here so they can sit facing the couch” [for conversation]
The conversation continued like this all afternoon.
The irony is from Big Gulps to guns to taxes to florescent light bulbs, conservatives are the ones who built a brand on tweaking “busybody,” “intrusive,” “Nanny State government” that “thinks they can run your lives better than you.” Yet, such voices see no contradiction in lecturing low-income or minorities or single mothers about what’s wrong with their lives.
What a discourse about supposed “social pathologies” of the poor often misses is the observation by civil rights legend Bayard Rustin: what, to middle class eyes, looks like a disease, may, but not necessarily, be “healthy adaption” to circumstances.
“Cultures,” the great scion of conservatism Thomas Sowell observed, “are not ‘superior’ or ‘inferior. They are for better or worse adapted to a particular set of circumstances.” The only way we black Republicans will reach more than marginal numbers amongst African-Americans is to bring about a diminution in the prominence of Peterson, Elder, and West’s ideas, and fuse, build upon, and elevate the much better thought currents among us.
This journey from the margins begins with Sowell’s observation. It is built upon by research of people like Right-leaning linguist John McWhorter who explains we should have a utility view of language. All languages are ever-evolving. Pure language is a chimera. The proper tools of analysis to judge the English spoken by Rachel Jeantel or minority youth, in general, is not correct versus incorrect, but rather effective versus ineffective with an understanding of what social scientists call “code-switching,” or using different rhetorical registers as situations require.
What we need is revival of John Lindsay Republicanism who, as mayor of New York, ventured into parts of Harlem and Brooklyn that politicians before and since tread nary a foot. “I think it’s important for the people of the ghettos to see their mayor,” Lindsay intoned, and responded to crime in inner-cities not with longer jail sentences but building renovations, better city services, and after-school activities for teenage boys.
We need Steve Goldsmith Republicanism from Indianapolis and Dick Riordan Republicanism from Los Angeles who brought low-income community leaders into the governance process to solve their own neighborhood’s problems. Their approach didn’t parachute in theory of supposed “experts” about how to fix low income people’s problems.
This is, a conservatism that can explain as Yuval Levin does in “The Hollow Republic,” what is wrong with President Obama’s economic view. He, “[conflates] doing things together with doing things through government,” a view which sees “citizen and the state, and nothing in between — and thus sees every political question as a choice between radical individualism and a federal program.” But truly “unprecedented human flourishing” emanates from those entities occupying the middle ground between state and individual: nonprofits, religious institutions, the private economy, schools, civil society (organizations like Operation HOPE, the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise and Philadelphia-based ESPERANZA). This is to treat seriously the conservative principles of federalism in republican theory and subsidiarity in Catholic social teaching: submit to the humility of learning from the people actually suffering the problem.
One implication of this is: conservatives will have to get comfortable with the fact conservative principles in action won’t look the same in all places. That means, for example, conservative social policy should be focused not on the structure any particular family takes, but focused on the function family performs in our lives regardless of structure—non-nuclear, single parents, same-sex-headed, etc.
“Never tear down a fence until you know why it was built,” goes an old proverb. The reason we should first listen and learn rather than be condemnatory with respect to other people’s life choices is because we may well find, like Ms. R’s chair, paper towel roles, bacon, and broom –those fences were built for reasons not obvious to someone not living in her shoes.
In this, too many black Republicans miss an opportunity to provide what could be our unique voice in these debates. That is, to stand athwart the competing currents of racial skepticism, inconsequential-ism, and denial on one extreme and racial overstatement on another.
There surely are those charlatans — black people for a living — who prefer to see the continuation of racial issues rather than their abatement because their book deals, speaking fees, and camera-chasing rely on it. Yet when J.L. Peterson calls Trayvon Martin “a pot-smoker” and “a thug” he’s engaging in a “me-too”-black-conservatism, that parrots the likes of Ted Nugent, rather than pointing out contradictions.
Further, to then strike the pose of persecuted truth-teller and “wave the flag of victimhood” when criticized is engaging in a ‘Woe-Is-Me’-black-conservatism (and hypocritically, so).
Most pernicious, is the self-righteous tone too many fellow black conservatives take with respect to the rest of black America with, the worst offense being the ad infinitum abuse of the plantation metaphor. Deneen Borelli book title Blacklash: How Obama and the Left Are Driving Americans to the Government Plantation illustrates, and Star Parker’s gaudily self-congratulatory titled Uncle Sam’s Plantation and Pimps, Whores and Welfare Brats: From Welfare Cheat to Conservative Messenger, and Herman Cain’s assertion that he “had left the Democratic plantation.” These tendencies to lay on thick the self-flattery are necessarily turn-offs, because they are insulting.
To clarify, this is not an endorsement of Leftist cultural relativism. The “It’s-Wrong-to-Judge” trope is exceeded in silliness only by its vacuity. Rather, conservatives—of all colors—must avoid assuming the solution to all low-incomes people’s problems is to just be more like middle class people. We know now from Pew that 40% of all American families are headed by single mothers. We know that despite persistent cultural policing of low-income women’s bodies, circa their out-of-wedlock birthrates: hook-up culture is, in fact, disproportionately the preserve of privileged and affluent white women. Any such condemnation of urban “social pathologies” also misses the lesson of Richard Watts’ Fables of Fortune: What Rich People Have That You Don’t Want.
As in the case of Ms. R, we should first ascertain if people need what we’re offering before assuming lacking it is their problem.
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