Blacks and Conservatism

May 31, 1994|By ADAM MEYERSON

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- An earthquake could rock American politics at its foundations sometime before the end of this century.

Consider: Except when local black leaders wanted to punish the Democratic Party, Republicans since the mid-1960s seldom have won more than 10 percent of the black vote. But in May 1993, conservative Republican Bret Schundler was elected mayor of Jersey City, New Jersey, despite a local black leadership that strongly backed the Democratic candidate. Mr. Schundler netted 40 percent of the black vote, running on a platform of lower taxes, educational choice and better crime fighting.

Next, growing support for law-and-order candidates in black neighborhoods gave conservative Republican George Allen 20 percent of the black vote in his successful race for governor of Virginia last November. His call to abolish parole for three-time offenders was especially popular in black districts.

Then conservative Tom Fetzer was elected mayor of Raleigh, North Carolina, also in November, the first Republican to carry the city since Reconstruction. Mr. Fetzer ran on a platform of low taxes, privatization and crime control -- with his margin of victory coming from a 20 percent showing on Raleigh's black southeast side.

Polls confirm what these recent elections appear to indicate: that nearly a third of voting-age blacks now identify themselves as politically conservative. Indeed, on a range of issues, blacks are weighing in on the conservative side: 88 percent of blacks familiar with school-choice proposals favor them; 88 percent support evicting tenants from public housing if convicted of using or selling drugs; 57 percent oppose additional benefits for single welfare mothers who have more children.

Moreover, cracks are beginning to appear in black liberalism that could contribute mightily to a future collapse. For example, it is eminently clear that liberalism is unprepared to take charge of the next stage of the civil-rights revolution: The restoration of strong families and communities in America's poor and working-class neighborhoods.

It is impossible to equalize opportunities for black children when 70 percent of them are growing up without fathers. It is impossible to share in the American dream when mothers fear to let their children play outside, when businesses are afraid to open shop, when secretaries and mail-room clerks are afraid to work overtime lest they be shot or robbed on the way home. Liberalism has no answers for these catastrophes.

Conservatism, at least, is asking the right questions. Blacks increasingly sense this, as indicated by the elections and polls cited above. Conservatives believe the collapse of the family -- white and black -- is the most serious problem facing America today, the most important root cause of crime, poverty, academic failure and personal unhappiness.

One of society's highest priorities, according to conservatism, is to provide moral authority to young people. Boys and girls need and want to be told, lovingly but firmly, what is right and wrong. That means they need fathers, uncles, churches, mosques, Boy Scout troops, Little League coaches and even jobs at McDonald's that teach teamwork, discipline and customer service.

Conservatism looks to two institutions to provide greater opportunity to black America. One is black-owned businesses -- not businesses artificially sustained by minority set-asides or Small Business Administration loans, but entrepreneurs directly serving families and other businesses on the basis of high quality and low price. The conservative dream is for African-Americans to be full participants in the private-enterprise economy.

The second institution is religion. Black religious leaders have an indispensable role to play in the moral and economic restoration of their communities. No one is in a better position to bring men and women back together, foster responsible parenting, teach virtues to children and alter self-destructive behavior.

As Robert Woodson of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise has argued, a deeply conservative tradition runs through African-American history. Until the 1960s, blacks had strong marriages, a strong entrepreneurial culture, strong neighborhoods and strong churches.

All these institutions have weakened under liberalism. Contemporary conservatism seeks to restore them. And when they are restored, Americans of all races will build their lives on sturdier bedrock.

I believe that for all these reasons, sometime before the end of this century a very substantial minority, if not a majority, of African-Americans will begin identifying with political conservatism rather than political liberalism. The benefits to either political party will be mixed -- many of the new black conservatives will remain Democrats -- but the epicenter of American politics will move sharply rightward.

Adam Meyerson is editor of Policy Review, the quarterly journal of the Heritage Foundation, from which this article is adapted.

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