Commentary

Bridging the Unbridgeable Gap

The 2000 election was essentially a tie. President George W. Bush won among whites, but received only about 10 percent of black votes. What he should do to reach out to minorities and even whether he should try to do so has generated a torrent of political commentary.

The president seems sincere in attempting to bridge the gap. Yet, kind words, photo opportunities and even top Cabinet appointments are not likely to have much effect. The wall between the Republican Party and the African-American community seems insurmountable.

Black leaders blame efforts to reform welfare and curb affirmative action. However, welfare programs have become a trap, turning many families into long-term government dependents.

Encouraging work is neither discriminatory nor punitive. To the contrary, employment promotes the dignity and independence of blacks and whites alike.

Observes John McWhorter of the University of California at Berkeley: “Surely, the predictable difficulties (of reform) are preferable to a 3-generation-old culture in which children grow up in a world where work is an option rather than a given.”

Few people object to affirmative action, when that means looking for qualified minorities and evaluating their qualifications in light of the barriers they faced. But, in practice, affirmative action has often turned into a racial spoils system, with college acceptances and scholarships, government contracts and jobs, and even private employment distributed based on skin color.

These programs have done far more to benefit middle- and upper-income blacks, such as the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, who used his political connections to grow rich, than the poor. At the same time, by ostentatiously discriminating against whites, racial preferences have inflamed racist sentiments and cast doubt upon the accomplishments of every African-American.

What poor blacks most need is opportunity. The opportunity to participate equally in America’s vibrant civil society and private economy.

That requires the government to return to African-Americans control over their own destinies. Empowerment rather than paternalism is the right strategy.

Bush has correctly identified education as a bedrock issue. But, the federal role is limited; most changes must come at the state and local level.

A number of public school reforms might do some good. More effective, however, would be to allow black families to decide their children’s education.

Today, the wealthy attend elite prep schools and the middle class moves into suburban neighborhoods with better public schools. Poor people also need a chance to choose a better alternative, to remove their children from failing schools and enroll them in institutions that teach. Most important, that means creating an out from the public system through tax credits and vouchers.

Economic opportunity, too, is critical. The issues are many, including licensing, which tends to hinder minorities seeking to enter established businesses, such as taxicabs, and to form new ones, such as hair braiding. Unnecessarily rigid regulations of all types fall most heavily on small enterprises.

The capital gains and Social Security payroll taxes discourage capital formation and employment. A host of government subsidy programs, especially those, such as the Export-Import Bank, which target corporate behemoths, also drain credit and investment away from smaller and less influential enterprises. Trade protectionism on products like clothing and shoes poses a particular burden on lower-income people, as do restrictions on agricultural production designed to enrich farmers.

The drug war has often turned into a campaign against minorities. Controversial practices such as racial profiling are an integral part of drug enforcement.

The violence that has devastated inner cities largely stems from drug prohibition the decision to turn a health problem into a legal problem which has created endless gang warfare, as during Prohibition. In some cities, upward of 40 percent of young black males have been ensnared in the criminal justice system.

There are no easy answers to substance abuse. But, African-Americans would most benefit from de-escalating the conflict, eliminating the obscene profits of the drug trade and reducing the civil liberties abuses of law enforcement.

There is much about which minorities are justifiably angry. Neither America’s odious history of slavery nor the persistence of white racism, however, explain the many serious problems afflicting the black family and community.

Ultimately, as the Hoover Institution’s Shelby Steele explains, it is critical to separate ”minority identity from a victim-focused ideology of preferential liberalism.” That requires a concentrated effort to bring African-Americans and other minorities into the civil and economic mainstream.

Bush will never be able to outbid spendthrift Democratic politicians and outdemagogue independent race-baiters like Al Sharpton. However, he can use the great bully pulpit of the presidency to criticize racism and promote reconciliation. He can use the GOP’s narrow congressional majority to push policies that will free the black community from misguided paternalism. If he succeeds, votes for Republicans will follow.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.