President Bush spoke before the Urban League recently about how African-Americans have helped this country achieve the ideals of freedom and equality embodied in our Constitution: "The stolen sons and daughters of Africa helped to awake the conscience of America. The very people traded into slavery helped to set America free. The moral vision of African-Americans and of groups like the Urban League caused Americans to examine our hearts, to correct our Constitution, and to teach our children the dignity and equality of every person of every race," said the president to rousing applause.
Bush's remarks reflect recent efforts by the Republican Party to build bridges into an African-American community, which voted overwhelmingly Democratic during the 2000 election. Economic empowerment and equal opportunity are the twin themes of this outreach effort. Not surprisingly then, both terms studded the conversation of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay when we sat down in his Capitol Hill office to discuss the mysteries of skin color in this country and what it would take for America to huddle together as a more equitable society.
"The Democrats' policies for the last 30-40 years have failed African-Americans and have failed the rest of the country," DeLay said. He also admitted that the Republicans have done a poor job communicating their commitment to the civil rights movement. Despite getting only 9 percent of the black vote in the last presidential election, DeLay is optimistic that the Republican Party is uniquely poised to communicate its ideas about racial equality and that these ideas will be the engine of progress.
Throughout the conversation, one key phrase kept repeating - "equal opportunity." This is the embryo of the Republican outreach agenda. For DeLay, equal opportunity doesn't mean embracing racial quotas or other policies that link victim status with skin color. Nor does it mean supporting bottomless entitlement programs that dispense money to the underprivileged like some government-subsidized tranquilizer. Simply handing money out to the needy fails to create equal opportunity because it does not confront the problems that underlie poverty, like deteriorating family values and the absence of future expectations in poor neighborhoods.
That's why DeLay supported reforms to the welfare system that increased the work requirements and funneled federal resources into state-run programs geared toward strengthening family values. According to DeLay, such changes imbue children with a sense of pride and future expectations. "Children are looking up to their parents because they are getting a paycheck not a welfare check," says DeLay. Additional resources could be used to empower charities and religious organizations to provide positive role models. In short, equal opportunity starts with strong families and a child's ability to affix value, hope and meaning to his or her existence.
Government programs that embrace victim status for individuals or subsidize laziness are violations of equal opportunity. The ultimate violation is racial quotas. "Affirmative action had a good idea to begin with and that was to level the playing field so that everyone could have equal access," says DeLay. The problem occurred when the government hijacked the program by focusing on quotas, rather than on those social conditions that undergird inequality.
"The government decided to come in and provide equal opportunity by numbers rather than equal opportunity by stopping people from discriminating, or equal opportunity by assuring that African-Americans have access to decent schools or by making sure that job opportunities were based on equal opportunity not race or gender," says DeLay. We need to "come together as a color-blind society where the government doesn't pick winners of losers but the government mandates that everyone have an equal opportunity based on the capacity for each individual to grab opportunity and make something of themselves."
Yes, racism exists. But that does not mean we need to legislate group rights. Common rights derive from a common humanity. That means eschewing the victim status that is inextricably bound up with racial- and gender-based quotas. As Justice Thomas once observed, "the (civil rights) revolution missed a larger point by changing their status from invisible to victimized. . Minorities and the poor are humans, capable of dignity as well as shame, folly as well as success. We should be treated as such." For men like Tom DeLay and Justice Thomas, the equality and essential dignity of all human beings, not just African-Americans, is the point. These are the ideas that are embodied in the Declaration of Independence. And these are the ideas that are the lifeblood of an equitable society.
Whether or not leading Republicans can adequately convey these ideas to black voters is another story. President Bush garnered less than 10 percent of the black vote in the last election. At least part of the problem is a cultural stereotype that equates the Republican Party to an old boys network that is out of touch and indifferent to the chief concerns of black America. "That's absolutely false," demands DeLay, who promptly adds, "There were a larger percentage of Republicans voting than there were Democrats voting for the Civil Rights Act. . The Republican Party has always been the party of equal opportunity and has always protected those who have been oppressed. Perhaps we just haven't done a good job of telling our story."
Perhaps. But a good place to start would be to back black Republicans for elected office. Currently, there are no black Republican representatives in the House or in the Senate. About one-quarter of the membership of the Democratic National Committee, by contrast, is African-American. This strong representation proclaims to African-Americans that they are part of the Democratic Party.
DeLay has it right when he says public policy should provide the opportunity for an individual to haul along his own life. But unless the entire Republican Party (White House and Congress) does a better job of telling their story, few minorities will bother to listen.