The Republican Retreat on Race

When are Republicans going to learn how to talk about race in America, and that they can’t avoid talking about it? Democrats talk about it all the time, and we can be sure that one reason they do so is that it puts Republicans on the defensive. It gives Democrats an edge, and the Republican response confirms it. When even Joe Biden starts opining about white supremacy in the American past and present, an issue that a former iteration of Joe Biden never dreamed of raising, we know that racism—specifically, anti-black racism—is a surefire political weapon. Why haven’t Republican leaders, consultants, advisors, and speechwriters taken it away? 

We saw it last week in the vice presidential debate. “Do you know that of the 50 people who President Trump appointed to the court of appeals for lifetime appointments, not one is black?” said Senator Harris when the issue of court packing came up. “This is what they’ve been doing. You want to talk about packing a court, let’s have that discussion.” 

Her statement was clearly prepared in advance, and the first instinct of the Republican commentators I saw afterwards was to accuse her of dodging the issue. They don’t realize that when Senator Harris or any other Democrat complains about the low number of African Americans in high institutional spheres, they are handing Republicans a great opportunity. Instead of seizing that opportunity, however, they seek to defend themselves against the implicit charge of racism, usually with some version of diversity talk, claiming, for instance, that President Trump has, indeed, appointed black judges to other posts.

This doesn’t work. It’s feeble. It plays the other side’s game, lets them be the interrogators, and you the accused. You can’t win, only wiggle out of the charge this time and stay vulnerable to the charge the next time it is deployed. 

Republicans need an offense, not a defense. The lesser outcomes for African Americans is now a fact in the Democrat’s favor. It must be turned against them—which can easily happen! The inequities African Americans suffer, their low representation in elite zones, is so clearly an embarrassment for Democrats, not Republicans, that one has to marvel at the rank incompetence of Republicans and their staff members for not recognizing and acting upon it. 

Let’s take Senator Harris’ point about federal judges. How is this for a response? 

“Yes, Senator Harris, we have very low numbers of African Americans in the ranks of federal judges. Why is that? Because of bias? Gimme a break.  

Judges come from the top levels of the legal profession, as you know, Senator, but how many African Americans are in that top 10 percent? How many of the top 10 percent of graduates of highly-selective law schools are black? Do you know? (See the LSAT chart in this report.)

It’s tiny. And why is that? It is because so many African Americans in this country pass through school systems that give them a poor education. And who runs those systems? Democrats! They live in neighborhoods with high crime and low opportunity and access, and who are the mayors and council members of those neighborhoods? Democrats! They grow up in homes with no fathers, and which party mocks and derides ‘family values’? Democrats! 

So when you wonder why we don’t have more African Americans in the professional classes, Senator Harris, don’t blame us. Look in the mirror.” 

Now, why haven’t Republicans been saying this for 30+ years? Why can’t they get aggressive on race and put the fault where it properly lies? Why do they still get nervous about it? 

Because too many politicians and their advisors belong to a political class that doesn’t know anything about low achievers. They grew up in stable families and nice neighborhoods, they attended top colleges and graduate schools, and they entered elite spaces at an early age. They have no idea how to talk about dysfunctional homes, deteriorating communities, and bad schools. If you were to tell a Republican operative that the black-white achievement gap improved significantly in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but stalled at the turn of the century, and actually has worsened recently, he will likely give you a blank stare. For example, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress math exam for 13-year-olds, the black-white score gap was 46 points in 1971, but dropped to 27 points by 1990. Since then, however, the gap has mostly remained in the high 20s—and it jumped to 32 points last year. But our operative hasn’t paid attention to those sorry facts. He’s been thinking about policy. Maybe he’ll say something about more charters and vouchers, or more accountability, or busting the teachers unions. What he won’t do is realize the political weapon he has in hand. 

I’ve seen this cluelessness many times. I was in a small meeting of college leaders and interested parties awhile back, a few presidents and donors and foundation people who were summoned for a loose discussion of higher ed matters and challenges. They were all moderates, most on the liberal side but perhaps a few conservatives of the establishment variety. At one point, one of them spoke up about the problem of too few minorities getting graduate degrees and suggested altering the nature and structure of those programs to make them more welcoming to underrepresented groups. To him, it was the programs’ fault that they did not produce more black and brown success stories. 

“Have you ever served on a graduate admissions committee?” I asked him. He said nothing, just looked around. I continued: “Don’t you know how hard we try to recruit and admit minority candidates? Believe me, every program in this country wants to boost the numbers. There’s a huge GRE score gap, so we minimize its role in the appraisal of applicants. We offer scholarships, write personally to them, assure them of flexibility and independence once they arrive.” I proceeded to note that to talk about what happens in graduate school without taking into account what happens during the many years before minority youths aim for college and beyond doesn’t make a lot of sense.  

This didn’t go down well. It was an elite group, and they like to believe that they can always change things for the better. They’re the ones in charge, right? They’re the best. But the problems they regretted in the meeting originate well outside the realms of Tier 1. They begin long before any of the people in that room encounter young members of historically-disadvantaged groups. They don’t want to hear about how wide the achievement gap already is in 4th grade; mention that progress has stopped for some 30 years and their eyes glaze over. It causes them great discomfort to know that African American applicants to graduate school who are ready to compete with white and Asian students are tragically few. 

That goes for the Republican elite, too. When it comes to disparate outcomes for African Americans, they’re ill-informed. That’s why they don’t know how to handle allegations such as Senator Harris’. They have no confidence. They actually believe that race is a weak point, not a strong one. After all, the media and entertainment worlds have said so for decades. 

It should be the opposite. Liberal ideas and policies in education, family life, and communities have damaged African Americans for a long, long time. The Sexual Revolution has been a catastrophe for the black family. The secular outlook of liberalism has weakened the status of black churches. Liberal influences on schooling, too, whether in curricula, discipline, and unions, have sent three generations of African American kids out of high school poorly prepared for college or work. 

We need Republican leaders who will say so. Don’t fear the racism charge—meet it with counter-punches. Make the Democrats defend the zones they control. Conservatives have much better race cards to play than liberals do. The Civil Rights Movement ended 55 years ago, and Democrats have attempted to revive it with spurious fancies such as “systemic racism.” Most Americans don’t buy it. 

So, Republicans, please hire some people to teach you how to seize the race issue, not run from it. The Democrat position is flimsy; it’s rhetorical, not empirical. This won’t be hard, but you’re going to need solid facts and good arguments that tie low outcomes to Democrat policies. William F. Buckley once said (I can’t remember where) that the only way to kill a government program is to convince recipients of largesse that the program is bad for them. Let’s hear a Republican declare to an audience of African Americans, “Liberalism is bad for you—really bad—and let me explain why . . .” 

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