Conservatives, Crime Policy, and the Black Vote

A little while ago, Shelby Steele wrote an op-ed discussing the problems that conservatives have appealing to minorities, and especially African-Americans. As long as the black experience is shaped by a sense of grievance and alienation, Steele suggested, there will always be an essentially "anti-conservative orientation" to minority politics, and liberals will always be able to outbid the Right for their votes. There's no way, in the end, for a conservative party to be more activist than the Left, more outraged about the sins of the past, and more redemptorist in its vision for what American politics should do to remedy injustices historical and structural. Instead of trying to out-liberal liberalism, Steele wrote, conservatives need to be true to their best selves as conservatives, and hope that minorities eventually come around to a political vision that treats them as individuals rather than members of a caste, offering "human rather than racial dignity," and "the discipline of ordinary people rather than the virtuousness of extraordinary people."

Treated as a view from 30,000 feet, I basically agree with this argument. You cannot expect the descendants of slaves and the heirs of segregation to embrace a conservative politics en masse until we're much, much further out of those institutions' shadow than we are today; by the same token, it would be bad for conservatism, and for America, if the Right were to seek black votes by jettisoning its core premises, and simply giving up (as the Bush Administration sometimes seemed eager to do) on its long-running critique of the diversity-and-dependency two-step that undergirds modern liberalism's approach to racial issues. Given where the two groups are starting from, in other words, conservatives shouldn't hope for more from African-Americans, and African-Americans more from conservatives, than either group is likely to deliver.

But drop down to ground level for a moment, and consider Ta-Nehisi's response to my post on prison reform. Here we have an issue - the design of our criminal-justice system - that's of burning concern to the African-American community. It's not an easy issue to wrestle with by any stretch: My preferred approach to reform, for instance, would marry a reduced incarceration rate to a substantial increase in the police presence on America's streets, which if implemented clumsily (as most policy shifts are) could mean fewer black men behind bars, but more tragedies like the death of Ta-Nehisi's friend. But it's also an issue where conservatives could embrace policy shifts without compromising their core beliefs - the question of where to strike the "build prisons or hire cops" balance is a practical rather than a philosophical one - and in the process, I think, substantially change the way the Republican Party is perceived in the black community. Also, it would be the right thing to do. 

This is something I think that arguments like Steele's - which are common on the American Right - lose sight of. As I remarked in the context of the Europe-or-America debate, there are a lot of big-picture political issues that boil down to philosophical differences, and that can't (and shouldn't) be resolved or finessed through clever policy thinking. But there are also a lot of political issues that boil down a question of resource allocation: We're going to spend X dollars on prisons and police (or on the military, or on the school system or the highways or what-have-you), and the question is how. And getting that "how" right can make an awfully big difference - to the African-American community, and to many other people as well.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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