Artur Davis: What Conservatives Need To Take From Obama’s Race Speech

Having had the ill-timing of criticizing Barack Obama’s limited reactions to the Zimmerman trial at precisely the moment he was making extended comments on the subject, I’ll add a few updated thoughts, some tough on Obama, some equally tough on conservatives.

First, I read Obama’s 16 minutes on race not so much historically (the Jeremiah Wright speech was substantially more decisive to his career, and the entirely peaceful, mostly civil furor over the verdict does not begin to compare to the drama around either Lyndon Johnson’s “We shall overcome” epic a few days after Selma, or John Kennedy’s masterpiece the night after George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door) but as a pretty fair brief for what he does and does not bring to the national debate. When engaged, the president ratifies the convictions of his admirers and the roughly half of the country that sees the world as he does compellingly, more so than any public figure not named Bill Clinton. Given that successful politicians need to keep their base inspired, that’s no small thing.

But what Obama has been perpetually unable to do is to break down the resistance of Americans who don’t share his worldview. He has, in fact, no history of shifting public opinion on any single cause he adopts: from health care, to immigration reform, to expanded gun background checks, to tougher climate change regulations. Obama’s defenders aren’t off-base in their insistence that he has the misfortune of presiding during a hyper-partisan time, but that excuse seems to conveniently wish away Obama’s 2008 rationale that he was singularly equipped to reverse that same polarization.

So, the responses to even Obama’s best speeches disconcertingly resemble the old split screens after the OJ Simpson acquittal a generation ago: rapture on one side, stone cold indifference or hostility on the other. It does not help that from a hard tactical perspective, Obama has not been adept at the Clintonian maneuver of telling tough truths to his base that build credibility across the divide. Instead, he has taken the easy route of addressing black on black crime in the context of gun availability but rarely through the larger prism of young men devaluing their neighbors and themselves to the point of making violence routine. He has infrequently, at least since his 2008 Philadelphia speech on race, evoked the mutual recriminations between blacks and whites that are so pervasive that they have degraded casual language and can ever so often still produce fatal outcomes. For instance, I’m in the camp that thinks something like this circle of shared hostility is really the proximate cause in Sanford, Florida that turned suspicious looks into words, and that segued into a confrontation that ended in death.

davis_artur-1But whatever Obama’s inadequacies as a national persuader, conservatives are wrong to dismiss Obama’s talk as just so much “divisiveness” or “race-baiting”, to pick out a few choice adjectives. It’s a revealing error of judgment, though: to see Obama’s observations about the persistence of racial indignities as something unduly provocative is to purchase a myth much too common on the political right—that racial limitations are nothing more than a proxy for something else, perhaps class or educational differences, and that stressing over discrimination is just a liberal wedge tactic. While, as Gallup just documents, well below a majority of blacks describe bias as the most significant obstacle they face, the number who genuinely believe race has vanished altogether as an impediment is infinitesimal, well below the roughly 900,000 or so African Americans who voted for Mitt Romney. The evidence against too pollyannish a thesis on race is sweeping, from surveys documenting the large numbers of whites who harbor stunningly stereotypical views of blacks on subjects ranging from intelligence to work ethic, to the rickety foundations black owned businesses enjoy even when they are propped up with government loans, to astonishingly low numbers of blacks on some of the most prestigious fast tracks in America (elite law firm partnerships, Wall St brokerage firms, senior leadership at Fortune 500 firms to signal out a few).

The right’s tendency to embrace too sanguine a view of race, and to brush off consternation over profiling and stop and frisk as the lament of professional activists, may actually be the single most intractable reason why Republicans fall flat with parts of the black population who are affluent enough that their security doesn’t depend on Obamacare, welfare, food stamps or some other element of the safety net. And the fact that a good chunk of the conservative base is resistant to the notion that there are institutional barriers that flow from those cultural suspicions of blacks has opened a blind spot: precious few on the political right are willing to update their vision to contain reforms that might alleviate some of those burdens, or to acknowledge the reductions of those burdens as a price of restoring a freer market and a more cohesive culture.

Lastly, as ineffectual as Obama’s policies have been in actually diminishing some of the harshest gaps between blacks and whites, the euphoria in the African American community around Obama’s remarks are a reminder of why blacks have not punished him for those failures electorally. For the overwhelming majority of blacks, Obama’s emergence and survival has itself validated their confidence in the inclusiveness of the American system. But while conservatives universally assume that attachment has to do principally with race solidarity, it is much more rooted in admiration for a black politician succeeding without trading off a populist/fairness-oriented agenda, or short-changing race-centric themes like health disparities or income inequality: Obama’s bluntness just underscored that appreciation.

To be sure, there have been side-effects of such a mindset, including an unrealistic assumption that African American politicians running in conservative environments can travel an Obama-like ideological path (a small cost to some, but a crucial headwind against black candidates holding their base while they try to construct broader coalitions in the South); and an unfair, exaggerated resentment toward Republicans for performing the ordinary ritual of partisan opposition.

But it is worth understanding that post Obama, when it will be meaningful, perhaps decisive, for national Republican candidates to return to high double digit, Bush 43 performance levels in states like Ohio, that the GOP will need to demonstrate that inclusiveness and fairness are to at least some degree, conservative values too. Whether that requires dialing back the enthusiasm for particular initiatives like voter ID, or regaining confidence in engaging issues like poverty and healthcare, or reemphasizing priorities like vouchers or school choice, or scaling back the libertarian/austerity pitch in the party’s rhetoric, each Republican campaign team can debate: but a programmatic case that is too easily depicted as reversing the past eight years will very likely keep African America turnout and Democratic support levels where they were in 2012.

That will be no small adjustment in a Republican universe where Obama remains so intense a lightning rod, especially when fresh wrongs and blunders keep popping up. But it’s about time for conservatives to come to grips with the fact that much more than specific economic policies, the ideal of a more cohesive, fair society will be the legacy claim that Obama and the next decade of Democrats keep campaigning on; and both winning and deserving to win will demand that Republicans gain traction on that same high ground.


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