Conservatives, race and ‘unrequited love'


Recently, there’s been some back and forth among Jonathan Chait, Ross Douthat and Timothy Carney over the film “12 Years a Slave” and the persistence of racism. All three posts are worth reading, with Douthat and Carney holding up the conservative high-end of a discussion that typically consists of two circular questions: Why do conservatives continue to abet racism in their ranks? And why do liberals insist on calling conservatives racist?

Perhaps the most eloquent response is found in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, which seems to have inadvertently stumbled into the argument. Like a drunk walking home with a lantern, the paper’s review of Timothy N. Thurber’s new book, Republicans and Race, is enlightening if you can follow the staggered trail of logic.

The headline nicely sums up the review by Lee Edwards: A Love Unrequited. The love in question is that of the Republican Party for black Americans, who have incomprehensibly spurned the Republicans’ warm embrace. A more apt title might be: “A Concise History of Conservative Self-Delusion.”

Here is Edwards’ remarkable take on the 1960s: “During this period, African Americans, long denied the most basic rights, demanded that Republicans act decisively on a variety of fronts, including civil rights, voting rights and economic rights. When Republicans didn’t respond to blacks’ satisfaction, they were called racists, although the real racists were almost exclusively Southern Democrats.”


Casting of guilt onto racist Southern Democrats without acknowledging that approximately 100 percent of racist Southern Democrats switched parties to become Republicans between 1960 and 1980? Check. Implication that demands by a systematically oppressed minority for “civil rights, voting rights and economic rights” were militant and excessive? Check.

Edwards musters a mention that the Republicans’ 1964 presidential nominee, Sen. Barry Goldwater, opposed the Civil Rights Act, but the context in which he presents it is truly awe-inspiring: “One flaw in ‘Republicans and Race' is the failure to stress sufficiently that Barry Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act on constitutional grounds and that in his 1964 presidential campaign he refused to play the race card, although he was urged to do so.”

It’s amazing that blacks were too obsessed with voting and eating at lunch counters and whatnot to appreciate Goldwater’s “constitutional” opposition their freedom. The racist Southern whites who gave their votes to Goldwater, beginning the transformation of Dixie into a Republican stronghold, were certainly paying close attention.

Edwards provides Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy with an equally twisted treatment: “Mr. Thurber makes a critical point when he says that pundits and historians err when they assert that the GOP adopted a ‘Southern Strategy' in the mid-1960s. Nixon believed, as the author puts it, ‘that whites in Chicago were not much different from those in Atlanta or Los Angeles.’ Whites who didn’t want more federally mandated racial changes found their champion in Nixon.”

So it seems the Southern Strategy is a myth because Nixon made the same racial appeals to resentful northern whites that he made to resentful southerners. (I guess when Pat Buchanan wrote a memo calling for Nixon to use racial polarization to “cut the Democratic Party and country in half,” it was just one more self-lacerating act of “unrequited love.”)

Carney and Douthat are admirable writers. But part of the reason political conversations on race go nowhere fast is that the Republican Party, and the conservative movement, remain safe havens for people devoted to whitewashing the past and remaining insensate in the present. In 2005, then Republican Party Chairman Ken Mehlman apologized for his party’s polarizing history. In the prior year’s presidential election, George W. Bush had broken double digits with black voters and captured more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote – both landmark achievements. It looked like the dawn of a new day. It wasn’t.

The raft of (still shocking) qualitative racism that has bubbled forth in response to Barack Obama’s presidency is rarely acknowledged by conservatives. Political scientists say racial resentment among whites has increased. Meanwhile, Gallup reports that almost one in six whites (and one in 25 blacks) still opposes interracial marriage. There is no public principle at stake in this sentiment — no claim on the treasury or adjudication of past or present grievances. There is only rank tribalism and unreconstructed racial animosity. When so many people can still admit — admit! — to denying the basic equality, dignity and humanity of others, what should we conclude about the prevalence of more subtle forms of racism, conscious and unconscious?

Racism is no longer at the center of American culture. But it persists. And as long as it does, it demeans and diminishes. The death of Nelson Mandela reminds us that Ronald Reagan, William Buckley and other conservative heroes were on the wrong side of history on racial politics in South Africa. (Here, by the way, is how you own up to the past.) Those two men, who spoke incessantly of freedom, were stone deaf to its most piercing call. That’s not unrequited love. That’s moral failure.

© 2013, Bloomberg News

Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.

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