Playing with Colors

In celebration of Get-That-Black-Vote month, the Republican Party has begun its push to reach out to black voters nationwide by characterizing Democrats as racist and recalling its historic role as the liberators of slaves in the Civil War era. Even our local California Review did its part to break down the racial barriers that have kept blacks and Hispanics from reaching their full potential. Sadly, the conservative overtures for minorities to escape a liberal victimization trap rest squarely on maintaining the notion that these people are victims, when they are long overdue for emancipation.

Jennifer Hsu/Guardian

Distrust of the government is a proven tool that Republicans have used to successfully muster votes from a number of unlikely demographics, most recently blacks and Hispanics. It shouldn’t work, and not simply because the equation of social programs with slavery are clearly problematic. For the sake of the nation’s poor, who currently comprise a large portion of the nation’s black and Hispanic minorities, the Republican drive must fail.

Many of the social institutions that poor minorities depend on are actually being attacked as racist programs. Mason Weaver, a conservative black pundit, joins Star Parker, founder and president of the Coalition on Urban Renewal and Education, and Stanford business school professor Thomas Sowell, in decrying the welfare state that they claim has left blacks dependent on government, their new “plantation master.”

A year ago, in his daring, comprehensive push to take Social Security off the backs of poor, hard-working Americans, President George W. Bush sloppily argued that Social Security hurts blacks and Hispanics, who don’t live long enough to collect all the benefits they paid into the system. The core of that canard was a 1998 study by the Heritage Foundation, which was quickly impugned for its unscrupulous accounting, and the fact that blacks’ life expectancy is lowered by high infant mortality, not because elderly blacks are any less healthy than whites. In reality, as a joint demographic, blacks and Hispanics do well with Social Security benefits, because the benefits are weighted toward people who haven’t earned as much throughout their careers. That these minorities are generally poorer than other demographics is a present-day circumstance, based on history. As Paul Krugman of the New York Times pointed out, to ask blacks to oppose Social Security on such grounds also presupposes that over the coming decades black Americans will continue to suffer the same income inequality and child mortality as they do today.

For all its articles lamenting racism, the California Review does not cover the visceral issue of black infant mortality (1.5 percent as opposed to whites’ 0.7 percent, as reported by the Center for Disease Control). Pundits like Weaver complain that low expectations keep blacks down, but when the infant mortality of your demographic is as high as Panama’s, the pedestal of public sorrow is nothing like a clean and ready maternity ward.

National health care, perhaps in the form of insuring everyone under the age of 30 for regular physicals, basic maternity care, vaccinations and broken bones, would save thousands of black babies every year and generally improve the health of children in low-income families, helping them be more productive later. To be fair, it’s not just Republicans, but a deeply ingrained, anti-government culture that prevents America from creating social institutions that are basic in most other developed countries.

Nevertheless, the Republicans have surely known the negative consequences of the tax policies they’ve implemented over the past five years on minorities, especially those living in particularly poverty-stricken states from Florida to Louisiana. Mere cuts in programs such as Medicaid will not close the budget gap they have created. It’s difficult to say if personal feelings of racism motivated any portion of the tax cuts (and hence, the budget cuts), but it is certain that the net effect of recent Republican policy will be to reduce and eliminate programs that poor minorities depend on more than any other demographic.

The Republican response to such criticism is to lump it with coarse accusations of party racism, against which they can present many Republicans who are not racist, or as “class warfare,” which they know will elicit Pavlovian, anti-communist responses. But America built its prestige on being more than “not bad.”

The Republican Party has done a masterful job of conscripting minority pundits over the past decade, but that’s been the entirety of their policy. Meanwhile, all they’ve accomplished is eroding or imperiling liberal programs that conflict with their economic ideology, such as socialized medicine and public pensions. Minorities will have to decide whether they want to be governed by sophists who are not overtly racist or legislators who will actually serve them.

Just as nodding at black people won’t cut their infant mortality in half and shaking hands with Hispanics won’t secure their retirements, bashing Republicans won’t bring about social equality. National health insurance and pension systems are good for America as a whole; they just happen to be especially good for poor minorities.

To be sure, safety nets cut out for particular minorities are not much different in principle than drinking fountains designated for colored people, despite the vastly different intentions behind such policies. Such is the case with affirmative action programs, and the Republican Party has been right in opposing those.

In the absence of such programs, the fundamental problem remains that America does not provide a level playing field, even in terms of basic health care. The way to level it is to build a government that prevents debilitating problems, such as catastrophic illness or an elderly ball-and-chain, from afflicting its citizens. After that, as Republicans have said in deed if not in speech, “You’re on your own.”

Unfortunately, some of the nation’s most prominent minority leaders have failed to embrace the idea that their constituents must not make victims of themselves, but should demand universal government services that they in particular would benefit from. Bernice King, daughter of the great civil rights leader, has stood in the way of transforming Atlanta’s ailing King Center from a tourist attraction that holds her father’s tomb into a think tank that gives life to his ideals. Notably, she cites distrust of the government, which already runs most of the other memorials to her late father, as a reason not to turn the center over to the Park Service.

King’s stubbornness bears striking similarity to the bling and rims that adorn today’s minority culture. Image is important, substance secondary. Her platitudinous speeches contain an image of victimization and an utter lack of future direction. It’s why the Republican message of “government equals master,” despite the party’s lack of positive achievements or plans for the integration of minorities, is so appealing.

Fifty years ago, the Democratic and Republican parties swapped the black and segregationist votes (it’s the biggest elephant in the room when Republican pundits get together to talk about how racist the Democrats are). Today, Republicans claim to be inviting blacks into a new era of freedom and equality based on the principle that they are the victims of programs that help not only them, but Americans in general. America’s blacks and Hispanics must eschew their victimhood, or forever find themselves the object of February’s California Review.