Observations: Ramblings on the Plantation

Some time ago, a friend and I were discussing his recent switch to the Republican Party. As a life- long black Democrat and civil rights activist, he said that the decision to switch was one of the most difficult he had ever made. When I asked what, finally, made him decide to change parties, he said that he simply could not support a party that backed such policies as abortion – on-demand, pornography, and homosexual rights.

For many African-Americans, the dilemma which caused my friend to make his final decision is not unusual. In fact, many of us find ourselves at loggerheads with much of the social agenda of modern liberalism. For example, in a 1988 survey of black opinion, conducted by the Northwestern University Laboratory for Richard Clark & Associates, 72 percent of African-Americans favored the death penalty as an optional sentence for most serious crimes; 62 percent said that they would favor a law requiring public school children to say the Pledge of Allegiance each day; and 70 percent thought that blacks could best improve their lot in life through self-help or individual initiative, rather than through civil rights groups.

Other findings are equally striking. A report by Michel McQueen in the May 17, 1991 Wall Street Journal cited research that 50 percent of African- Americans believe abortion is always wrong, and 38 per­cent do not. Among whites, however, only 43 percent say abortion is always wrong, and 47 percent do not. Also, in a 1988 study by the Times Mirror Company, the data indi­cated that about one-half of black Americans scored high on religious faith; by contrast, only one-fifth of whites were highly religious.

Despite these statistics, the overwhelming majority of African-Americans remain loyal to liberal groups and can­didates. They also remain supportive of liberal policies that call for greater government intervention when it comes to such issues as housing, unemployment, and civil rights. Even so, when contrasted with their attitudes of almost two decades ago, the attitudes of African-Americans towards such policies are beginning to change, indeed to move in the direction of their socially conservative convictions.

For example, according to findings by the National Opinion Research Center, between the years 1972-76, 67 percent of African-Americans felt that more government intervention was needed to solve the country’s problems; between the years 1985-89, this figure had fallen to 52 percent. In the earlier period, 70 percent of African-Americans felt that there should be greater government intervention in improving the living standards of the poor; by the late ’80s, however, this figure had fallen to 54 percent. Today, African-Americans remain politically liberal but morally conservative. Nevertheless, like most ethnic groups gradually entering the mainstream or middle class, this gap between their moral opinions and their political beliefs is slowly diminishing.

Traditional conservatives have now become an influen­tial constituency of the Republican establishment and have been greatly responsible for the control that, for almost two decades, Republicans have had over the presidency. De­spite this fact, when it comes to reaching out to African- Americans with a socially conservative agenda, the GOP seems to assume that there is no point in mounting an aggressive campaign.

William Keyes, a black conservative activist, points out that conservatives fail to get African-American support because they have not been aggressive enough in demonstrating that African-Americans agree with them on many issues, especially moral ones. To illustrate, Keyes tells how, in 1984, the political action committee he headed was able to arrange for black football star Rosey Grier to do several campaign appearances on behalf of President Reagan, Senator Jesse Helms and several other conservative hopefuls, because, in his words, “the school prayer issue had moved Grier from the liberal to the conservative camp.”

The liberal establishment, on the other hand, seems to feel that it can ignore the conservative moral opinions of African-Americans. Fred Barnes of The New Republic recently suggested that liberal activists “think they can keep the allegiance of black voters by playing up the issues of civil rights and racism. These issues overshadow the moral, family, and social issues on which blacks are more conservative.” The reason this approach has worked in the past is explained by Joseph Perkins, a journalist and black conservative, in a 1987 monograph entitled, “A Conservative Agenda for Black Americans.”

Perkins states that “blacks have been very unsophisticated politically. They have relied on their leaders to tell them what to think politically and how to vote at the ballot box. In short, black politics has been the politics of hegemony.”

There is evidence, though, that the liberal establishment may be in for a rude awakening if it continues to neglect the conservative moral trends among African- Americans. For conservatives, however, these trends can only be beneficial. But that Republican Party is going to have to be far more aggressive, and it must not give in to the current pressure to moderate its stands on moral issues. In fact, it may need to intensify many of its positions on such issues, to gain more support from African-Americans. Perhaps the Clarence Thomas hearings will provide a glimpse into what progress has been made.


  • Preston L. White

    At the time this article was published, Preston L. White wrote from Washington, D.C.

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