Political Hay

Jack Kemp’s White Guilt

The former conservative star supports a Congressional seat for D.C. to put Republicans "on the right side of history." How insulting.

By 6.15.06

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Recently, in Human Events, the New York Sun, and several other newspapers, former Republican Party vice-presidential candidate Jack Kemp has been arguing that Republicans need "to get on the right side of history" on racial matters, by supporting the creation of a permanent seat in the House of Representatives for the District of Columbia. Mr. Kemp's article is an outrage. His premise -- that the Republican Party is on the "wrong" side of history on racial matters -- is deeply flawed, both as a matter of historical fact and political philosophy. And his proposed "solution" -- to grant representation in Congress to D.C. (a majority black city) -- is grounded not in sound political analysis, but in what Shelby Steele calls "white guilt."

First, a little history. The National Review's Deroy Murdock has laid out many of the facts regarding the Republican Party's strong support for black Americans, both after the Civil War and more recently. Significantly, Republicans were responsible for the two most important events of the modern civil rights era: the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which declared public school segregation unconstitutional, and President Eisenhower's decision in 1957 to use federal troops to enforce school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas.

President Eisenhower's actions, in particular, marked a key turning point in American history. From that day forward, the full power of the federal government would be employed to ensure that black Americans were accorded (in the words of the great slogan inscribed above the entrance to the Supreme Court) "equal justice under law." Have black Americans always enjoyed such treatment? Obviously not. But responsibility for this failing hardly falls on the Republican Party any more than it falls on the Democratic Party.

Nevertheless, Mr. Kemp's article slanders the Republican Party's good faith and commitment to racial equality. Why? Oddly, because of events that happened more than 40 years ago. First, during the 1960 election, Republican candidate Richard Nixon did not call Coretta Scott King and offer his sympathy when her husband was jailed for a parking violation in Atlanta, whereas the Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy made such a call. And second, Barry Goldwater voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That's it. According to Mr. Kemp, these two actions "betrayed" the Republican Party's civil rights legacy, and "reduced the Republican Party to mere insignificance in the eyes of black voters."

This is absurd. Nixon's failure to make a single telephone call, whatever its political impact in the 1960 presidential election (a matter of pure speculation), could not have "betrayed" the Republican Party's long history of supporting civil rights for black Americans. As for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Deroy Murdock explains that Barry Goldwater voted against the bill on principled libertarian grounds (didn't Mr. Kemp fancy himself a libertarian at one point?), but previously voted for both the 1957 and 1960 civil rights bills. Moreover, the 1964 act passed despite a filibuster by Democratic Senator (and former KKK member) Robert Byrd and the opposition of 22 other Senate Democrats. Indeed, a larger percentage of Republicans voted for the bill than Democrats, which was true of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and other 1960s-era civil rights legislation. Hence, Mr. Kemp's focus on Goldwater's single vote is selective history at best, and political demagoguery at worst.

Mr. Kemp also grossly exaggerates the importance of these two events to black Americans' current electoral support for the Democratic Party. Although black voters supported the Republican Party for several decades after the Civil War, this support began to wane during the 1912 presidential election, when many black leaders endorsed Woodrow Wilson. The shift in black support from Republicans to Democrats became complete under FDR, who garnered 23 percent of the black vote in 1932 and 71 percent in 1936. True, black support for the Republican Party hovered in the high-20s to low-30s in the decades after FDR (compared to a paltry 10 percent today), then completely crumbled during the 1964 presidential election. (See here.) But this development had much more to do with events during Kennedy's presidency (including his assassination) and Lyndon Johnson's wholesale embrace of the "Great Society," than with the two isolated incidents cited by Mr. Kemp. For such a smart guy, Mr. Kemp's simplistic reading of black voting patterns is disappointing, to say the least.

Even more disappointing is Mr. Kemp's failure to acknowledge that the Republican Party's commitment to individual freedom, advancement by merit, and a single standard of excellence for all Americans (to borrow Shelby Steele's formulation), has done -- and will do -- more for black Americans than the Democratic Party's support for multiculturalism (racial and ethnic separatism), affirmative action (lower expectations for minorities), an ever-expanding welfare state (dependency on government), and grievance-based politics. As Charles Murray, Thomas Sowell, and others have noted, since the 1960s -- when the contemporary liberal agenda became firmly ensconced in American politics -- black Americans have experienced much higher levels of violent crime, single parenthood, teenage pregnancy, venereal disease, unemployment, welfare dependency, and declining academic achievement. In short, the liberal agenda -- and the political ideology that undergirds it -- has been a disaster for black Americans. Yet Mr. Kemp claims that Republicans are on the "wrong" side of history on racial matters!

WHILE IT REMAINS DEEPLY TROUBLING that black voters continue to support Democratic policies that have caused them such terrible harm, the goal for Republicans should not be to engage in the same feel-good pandering and racial spoils politics as Democrats. Rather, Republicans must reaffirm their commitment to the bedrock principles of individual freedom, limited government, and personal responsibility -- and then redouble their efforts to spread this message to the black community. Moreover, Republicans must remain confident, both in the intrinsic power of their ideas, and in their ability to persuade black Americans to embrace these ideas. It already is starting to happen.

Mr. Kemp used to be a believer in these ideas. For example, he was a strong advocate of "enterprise zones," which combined tax and regulatory incentives to encourage local entrepreneurs to bring new businesses, jobs, and related development to blighted inner-city neighborhoods. This was brilliant public policy, which not only reflected core conservative ideas but promised real, practical results for black Americans. We could use more of this kind of creative, principled thinking today.

But instead, Mr. Kemp is proposing a purely symbolic gesture -- creating a seat in Congress for the District of Columbia -- that obviously will do nothing to improve the condition of black Americans, in D.C. or anywhere else. Rather, the main beneficiaries of this proposal, if passed, will be those whites (and Republicans), like Mr. Kemp, who can point to their actions as proof that they are not racists -- or, to use Mr. Kemp's words, that they are on "the right side of history" on racial matters. This is a perfect example of the phenomenon of "white guilt" described by Shelby Steele, which is more concerned with redeeming whites from their racist past (hence Mr. Kemp's focus on events more than 40 years old) than addressing the actual needs of black Americans today.

As Steele explained in a recent interview with the American Enterprise Institute: "White guilt, which I think defines liberalism, is a response to the stigma that white Americans bear for practicing racism for four centuries. Whites live with this constant pressure of having to demonstrate to the world that they're not bigots, and this manifests itself in many facets of American life. You see it in our politics, you see it in war, you see it in our immigration debates -- the real topic at hand is always secondary, because we're first trying to prove we're not racist."

In a perversion of the true historical record, the Republican Party has been branded by the liberal intelligentsia as the "white" party that must atone for the nation's racism. How? By enacting the liberal political agenda, of course. No other approach will do. Certainly not any policies (like enterprise zones) grounded in concepts of limited government and free market capitalism. Mr. Kemp plainly feels the weight of this burden. Sadly, his article positively screams out with a yearning to be approved by the arbiters of "black" opinion in this country, like the ultra-liberal Eleanor Holmes Norton who co-sponsors the bill (H.R. 2043) to give D.C. a permanent seat in Congress -- which she undoubtedly will fill. Norton calls this a "civil rights" issue. Not surprisingly, so does Mr. Kemp.

I DO NOT NECESSARILY DISAGREE with the proposal to grant a seat in Congress to D.C. residents. I just do not think this is a civil rights issue in the manner framed by Mr. Kemp. Indeed, if the majority of D.C. residents were white, I doubt this would be an issue at all. After all, D.C. residents can vote for members of their own local government, including mayor and city council, and also for President of the United States (pursuant to the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution). They also have been given a "shadow" seat in the House, filled by the afore-mentioned Eleanor Holmes Norton. So they are hardly lacking a "voice" in local or national politics. Moreover, D.C. residents always are free to move across state lines to Maryland, Virginia, or any other state, if they prefer the full panoply of political representation. Disenfranchised they're not.

Consequently, Mr. Kemp's focus on this issue, while apparently heart-felt, is nevertheless motivated by the perceived need to expiate the Republican Party's "guilt" on racial matters. I completely reject this assumption. Furthermore, Mr. Kemp is delusional to believe that passing this legislation will "resonate throughout America among people of color, that Republicans are serious about civil and voting rights for all people." On the contrary, Mr. Kemp's proposal will do nothing to persuade black Americans to vote for Republicans. Why not?

First, because Eleanor Holmes Norton will receive the credit for the bill, not Mr. Kemp or any of the Republican co-sponsors of the bill. To believe otherwise is to ignore completely how the liberal propaganda network (mainstream media) operates. Second, because if the choice is between a real liberal and a faux liberal, black voters will continue to choose the real liberal, unless and until Republicans convince them that supporting conservative candidates and policies is in their (and the nation's) best interest. And third, because the proposal to add a seat in the House of Representatives for D.C. is "balanced" by also adding another seat for Utah -- one of the least "diverse" states in the country. Regardless of the rationalizations offered to explain this "compromise," the apparent racial politics of the entire scheme is breathtaking in its cynicism and stupidity -- and will undercut any positive message Mr. Kemp hopes to convey to black Americans. Indeed, I predict this proposal will backfire badly on Republicans, who should not support this bill as written.

In sum, the greatest civil rights challenge of our time is not granting congressional representation to the District of Columbia. It is helping black Americans throw off the chains of liberalism, which for nearly 50 years has caused enormous harm to the black community, and held back the social and economic advancement of blacks while other minority groups in our society were developing, achieving, and prospering. Liberalism, both as an ideology and as a set of public policy prescriptions, is more responsible than anything else -- certainly more than anything Richard Nixon or Barry Goldwater ever did -- for the gulf that still exists between whites and blacks. As Americans who love their country and believe fervently in its greatness, Republicans must continue to spread the message of individual freedom, limited government, and personal responsibility. This is a message that all of us, but especially black Americans, need to hear.

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About the Author

Steven M. Warshawsky frequently comments on politics and current affairs for The American Thinker and other conservative websites. He can be reached at smwarshawsky@hotmail.com.