How Can Conservatives Engage the Black Community?

A new study made available to The Washington Examiner suggests that “nothing the Republican Party does, even nominating African-American GOP candidates, works to win them over.” It found that black voters turn out in troves to support Democrats, even when Republicans run an African-American candidate, and especially when that candidate opposes an African-American Democrat.

The study might lead Republican operatives to conclude that blacks should be abandoned as a potential constituency. That’s the easy way out. The tougher road leads through uncharted territory, employing unconventional methods which diverge from conservative orthodoxy. Let’s consider a few ways in which conservatives could engage the black community and invest in a brighter future.

It Can’t Start with Politics

For as long as I’ve been involved in Republican Party politics, activists and operatives have cited the need for “minority outreach.” In practice, such outreach typically entails getting Republican candidates in front of minority audiences to tell them why they should vote Republican. It hasn’t worked thus far, and the study cited by The Washington Examiner suggests it won’t work anytime soon.

Politics builds upon a cultural foundation. No amount or quality of political operation will counter cultural predispositions. “Black citizens appear to conclude that they do not share common political values with Republicans, whether black or not.” Divergent values cannot be overcome by a political campaign, only by personal relationships built at the grassroots level. Campaigns don’t foster trust. Trust fosters successful campaigns.

Whatever way that conservatives begin engaging the black community, it must be apolitical. It must start not from a dominant posture of telling and selling, but a submissive posture of listening and receiving. Anecdotally, the encounters I have seen between black community leaders and conservative activists has been perceived as white people telling blacks what their problems are and how best to solve them. You need stronger families. You need to get a job. You just need to try harder. These messages, actual or perceived, come off as condescending. Conservatives need to start listening to black problems as blacks describe them, and not rush to invalidate or delegitimize the black experience.

Acknowledge the Folly of the Drug War

While much progress has been made dragging critique of the Drug War into the mainstream, the default position of most conservatives remains in support of the status quo, the criminalization of substance abuse rather than treating it as a health problem. So long as this remains the conservative position, blacks will likely remain skeptical of conservatism.

Fortunately, conservatives have good reasons to oppose the Drug War which having nothing to do with “minority outreach.” First, just from a fiscal standpoint, the War on Drugs has been an unmitigated disaster. A trillion dollars have been spent at all levels of government over the past 40 years without making a dent in drug use. Meanwhile, we’ve gone from 50,000 people incarcerated for drug law violations in 1980 to 500,000 today.

The larger reason for conservatives to oppose the Drug War stems from its inherent immorality. The production, distribution, and use of drugs violates no one’s rights. Employing force against individuals who have not harmed others violates a core tenant of conservatism.

It stands as historical fact that the Drug War and substance prohibitions in general emerged from the Progressive Movement, serving the same state-expanding purpose as the modern Green Movement. It’s simply an excuse to grant government more power. Conservatives who support the Drug War have served as agents of their own political destruction.

Most relevant to the issue of race, the Drug War disproportionately affects the black community. Blacks stand four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana use despite using at the same rate as whites. That’s because the prosecution of drug crimes proves inherently subjective and arbitrary. Since there is no victim to complain in a drug crime, law enforcement must proactively seek out violators. This leaves them free to look for violations wherever they please, and ignore violations wherever they please. Is it really surprising, under such circumstances, that blacks are more likely to be arrested for drug crimes?

Acknowledge Need for Drastic Criminal Justice Reform

Aside from the Drug War, the overall criminal justice apparatus needs fresh and thorough scrutiny. While reactions to actual or perceived police misconduct have not always been appropriate, the fact remains that these incidents occur far too frequently to be dismissed as “a few bad apples.” There’s a systematic problem that needs to be addressed. Again, conservative principles apply.

Conservatives tend to romanticize law enforcement and the military. Serving their proper role of protecting individual rights, men and women in uniform serving in our streets and abroad deserve our appreciation. However, conservatives would do well to remember that these institutions are manifestations of government which ought to be scrutinized as skeptically as Congress.

Law enforcement should serve at the pleasure of the community, not within a cone of immunity. Three categories of reform would go a long way toward restoring accountability and trust.

First, Congress and state legislatures need to attack the root of the problem by scouring statute, repealing laws which do not address violations of individual rights. Fewer, more objective laws will remove much of the pretense for law enforcement to engage subjects on the street. We need fewer reasons to pull someone over or detain them while walking down the street, not more. Encounters with law enforcement should stem from rights violations which any reasonable person would implicitly perceive as wrong.

Second, law enforcement should submit to strong civilian oversight. We can’t have self-government if we can’t govern those governing us. Smaller communities should consider dispensing with municipal police departments all together, deferring to elected county sheriffs. Elected civilian review boards should be established with the authority to dispense meaningful discipline and shape law enforcement policy.

Lastly, police unions should be abolished. Like any public employee union, police labor organizations present a clear conflict of interest. People who earn their living from government should not be organizing to elect their bosses. More to the point regarding misconduct, a community should not be compelled by union contracts to retain an officer they don’t want on the force.

Rethink the Welfare Narrative

Welfare has presented a conventional divide between conservatives and liberals, with the former generally opposed and the latter generally supportive. A predictable debate takes perennial form, with Republicans cast as villains unmoved by the plight of the poor.

Conservatives could shake up this narrative tomorrow by shifting their focus from personal welfare to corporate welfare. If the goal is ending public subsidy and establishing a free market where individuals succeed or fail on their own merit, why start by taking checks from those who need them most? Why not start with the fat cats? Why not start with the billionaire sports team owners or the corporate cronies?

The numbers offered in the above clip may be exaggerated, including such things as tax revenue “lost” to tax shelters and such. However, even if you consider only the $870 of direct corporate subsidies the average American family pays in taxes each year, that’s still 20 times more than that same family pays for food stamps and other welfare to the poor.

The open secret is that partisan politics has polarized along an axis of dependents, rich and poor, each demonizing the other as the source of fiscal woes. We need to break the cycle and undermine the conventional arguments by committing to end welfare from the top down rather than from the bottom up.

Hammer on Education Reform

Perhaps the best opportunity for conservatives to win converts among the black community rests with education. The status quo is profoundly failing black students, so much so that all but the most strident of ideologues will concede that something new must be tried.

Conservatives can point to real success stories which exhibit incredible promise. Minneapolis boasts one such example in Cristo Rey Jesuit High School. With a student population that’s 93% black and Hispanic, hailing from families with an average family income of $36,657, Cristo Rey has a 83% student retention rate and a 98% senior graduation rate. By contrast, Minneapolis Public Schools graduate only 47% of their students on-time.

All students could have access to a quality education if the taxpayer funds applied to their education followed them to the school of their choice rather than the school of closest proximity. School choice empowers parents and provides a resource which its opponents only pay lip service to – hope.

These are just a few ways that conservatives could begin to develop a serious outreach to blacks and other minorities. Fundamentally, it will require abandoning entrenched conservative dogma and discovering how to apply conservative principles in new ways. It’s not as simple has “showing up” or telling people how your ideas might make their lives better. It’s a process of listening and then reforming. We can’t sell a product that people aren’t willing to buy.