Conservatives have become bystanders in racial discourse because we have consciously chosen that path. We don’t have to make the same mistake going forward.
Jamelle Bouie believes Donald Trump’s victory ended the ‘racial détente’ that has presided over American politics for decades. In an insightful response, David Marcus agrees with Bouie, and blames “minorities and progressives” for embracing privilege theory and systemic racism:
As these theories took hold, every white person became a racist who must confess that racism and actively make amends. Yet if the white woman who teaches gender studies at Barnard with the Ben Shahn drawings in her office is a racist, what chance do the rest of have? Many whites began to think that no matter what they did they would be called racist, because, in fact, that was happening.
While this analysis contains much truth, it doesn’t explain why so many minorities embraced an idea that the data suggest they don’t even believe in. Many probably liked the détente, and disagree with the current regime. But their views were, and are, not accounted for.
Conservatives Ignore Race to Their Detriment
Conservatives deserve some of the blame for this outcome. Because we rarely address racial issues, we allow the extreme left to monopolize the debate. Note Marcus’s argument: racial discourse in America has suffered because of liberal theories promoted by liberals. Conservatives played no meaningful role as these changes occurred.
This framing is sad but true. But it’s important to note that conservatives have become bystanders in racial dialogues because we have consciously chosen that path. We don’t have to make the same mistake going forward.
As a minority and a conservative, I partly understand our stance. We like to think of ourselves as a coalition built on principles: small government, religious freedom, the right to bear arms, the rule of law, and so on. We like to think that these principles apply to everyone, that America’s history of racism corrupted these universal ideals, and that the best way to correct for our history is to downplay the importance of race.
We are especially reluctant to engage on race because doing so tends to lead to identity politics, the antithesis of an ideas-based movement. Jonah Goldberg articulated the conservative position in a recent interview: “I’m against identity politics full stop, which means I’m against white identity politics at least as much as I’m against minority identity politics.”
We Can’t Avoid Racial Identity Politics In America
While this sentiment might make sense in the abstract, in practice it is delusional. You simply cannot avoid racial identity politics in America. It is too ingrained in our history and will occur whether we like it or not. Conservatives should assume that everything in American politics will become racialized.
Conservative rhetoric and policies that ignore this tendency are as inert as liberal rhetoric and policies that ignore supply and demand. Conservatives who get upset when our allegedly universal beliefs become racialized are like liberals who get upset when rent controls fail. I would say to both groups: Why would you expect anything else?
Perhaps it would be nice if we could make arguments without addressing race. But that’s not the country we live in. By refusing to engage proactively, we make identity politics worse than it otherwise would have been, and many minorities tragically end up believing conservative ideas aren’t for them.
My Childhood Shaped My Understanding Of Guns
Here’s a personal story to illustrate this point. I was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and lived there until I was 12. Outside of tourist areas, and especially in Kingston, Jamaica is a high-crime country. My family was robbed at gunpoint twice. The first time I was just over three years old and I don’t remember what happened. But my parents do: my mom was afraid of getting raped, and my dad will never forget the feeling of a gun against his temple.
I vividly remember the second incident, when I was around six years old. My parents were hosting a small party with friends from the Jamaican-Indian community. As I played inside with the kids, my mom and her friend burst into the room, started removing and then hiding their jewelry: an armed man had entered our house and demanded money. I can still picture the look of terror on their faces. My mom told us to get under the bed, and we squeezed together in the back corner. That night, my brother, my parents and I slept in one bed because we were too scared to be alone.
Less than one month later, my father bought a gun. One of his good friends at the time, a black Jamaican police officer, pushed him to get one, recommended the Colt 38 Police Special, and helped him with the paperwork. My father had a gun of some form for the next 23 years, almost until the day he left Jamaica in August 2010. In fact, he technically still owns one and will probably reclaim it if he ever returns.
We Can’t Ignore America’s Messy Racial History
So when I think of gun ownership, I think of my family. I think of other Jamaican-Indians who owned guns. I think of the time I accompanied my dad as he practiced shooting his. I get why so many Americans treasure their Second Amendment rights. As far as I’m concerned, the desire to protect yourself and your family, and to procure a weapon to do so, is universal. I suspect that people in all cultures can relate to this idea. To this Jamindican (Jamaican-Indian-American) at least, there is nothing intrinsically racial about wanting to own a gun.
But some South Asian-Americans I know believe otherwise. They think guns are just white people. I beg, beseech, and plead with my fellow conservatives to recognize that their attitude isn’t crazy or unreasonable. Rather, it’s a symptom of America’s toxic racial history. In America, unlike many other countries, beliefs that should not be cast in racial terms will be. Conservative ideas are not as widely adopted as they should be because we ignore this fact.
Heck, even I can see where my friends are coming from. In my mind, I picture NRA rallies and their leaders. And despite what I intellectually believe, I viscerally feel I wouldn’t be welcome. And if a minority like me—who supports the 2nd Amendment and whose father owned a gun—is wary, you’ll have no chance convincing some of my friends. You can say that I’m being irrational and unfair. But you can also say that gun rights groups should anticipate this reaction and spend more effort on minority outreach.
We Should Diversify the Conservative Movement
Which brings us to one way conservatives can make progress on race: conservative institutions can take the lead in diversifying the conservative movement. While the left undoubtedly race baits, conservative institutions have made it easier by abandoning the topic altogether. America’s liberals do not control the diversity budget for the NRA, National Review, AEI, the Acton Institute and The Federalist. If we claim to value civic institutions and lament their decline, we must embrace them as both a cause of and solution to conservatives’ problems with minorities.
Our national inclination to split along racial lines will continue unless we fight it.
I know conservatives get uncomfortable around questions of minority outreach and diversity. But that’s the problem. Our national inclination to split along racial lines will continue unless we fight it.
When it comes to racial diversity, conservative institutions should embrace the same mindset and attitude we have towards the media and ideological diversity. Conservatives often make three points: first, that the uniform liberalness of the mainstream media undermines its credibility, even if it is unintentional and not driven by conscious malice. Second, the media themselves must work to correct the imbalance—it’s their job. And third, as so much in life, the first step is admitting they have a problem. Few things frustrate us more than the media’s pretending otherwise.
These arguments apply to conservative institutions and race: their uniform whiteness weakens them and undermines their credibility. It’s their job to address it. And they must first admit that their lack of racial diversity is a problem.
We Need to Include More Minority Voices
After we agree on these points, then we can discuss the best ways to achieve our goal. The specific approach will necessarily vary from case to case. Some institutions may want to hold events in minority venues. Others might decide to select minority spokespersons. But these tactical decisions are less important than accepting they have a problem.
Conservative institutions have no choice but to consciously and deliberately engage with minorities.
Imagine conservative institutions had adopted this mindset years ago. Perhaps then the face of anti-illegal immigration would have included the 52 percent of Hispanics, the 57 percent of Asian-Americans, and the 50 percent of African-Americans who support enforcement rather legalization. Consider how these debates would have played out if everyone knew that 35% of Hispanics want to decrease immigration, and that both working-class blacks and whites oppose illegal immigration.
What if white evangelicals had worked harder to racially diversify, and could count among their supporters the 52% of African-Americans who are worried about religious liberty? In this world, liberals would have found it much harder to carelessly analogize Jim Crow to religious freedom laws. And American evangelism probably would not seem so white. You could argue that such efforts are what God wants Christians to do.
This Doesn’t Just Hurt Republicans—It Hurts Minorities
Last April, T.P. Carney described Republicans’ continued inability to win African-Americans voters. As happens so often in such analyses, Carney described it as a Republican problem: it’s so sad that Republicans can’t win the votes of people who already agree with them.
Yes, it is sad for Republicans. But it’s even more sad for the African-Americans who are neglected by both parties. It’s sad for pro-life Hispanics. It’s sad for my mom, whose social conservatism and disdain for illegal immigration will also be neglected. It’s sad for me. It’s sad for our country.
American conservatism will not become more racially diverse just with heroic exhortations about our principles. In a country fraught with racial strife, conservative institutions have no choice but to consciously and deliberately engage with minorities. This approach would show that we accept responsibility for our predicament, that we recognize we can’t simply blame others for it, and that we believe we have the power to change it. If nothing else, it would be the conservative way to respond.
Prajwal Kulkarni works at software company and lives in Denver, Colorado. He blogs and tweets about science and religion.