Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Want to Help? Be on Time, for a Change

by Leonard Pitts Jr.

And once again, into the breach.

Or if Shakespeare (misquoted, yes, I know) is not your cup of tea, maybe you’ll accept Michael Corleone: “Just when I thought I was out . . . they pull me back in!”

Either would serve as an adequate battle cry as I, for the third time in recent weeks, embark upon a discussion of the relationship between African Americans and social conservatives. And for the third time, I do this at the request of a reader.

This one’s name is David and he’s in West Palm Beach. He’s read my reasoning on why black voters tend not to support social conservatives (social conservatives have never supported them) and he has a follow up question.

”Okay,” he writes, “I get it. But conservatives need to bridge the gap and wouldn’t it benefit African Americans to have two parties, not one, competing for their votes? So here’s my question: Assuming there is an emerging group of conservatives who sincerely want to embrace the importance of civil rights and equal opportunity, what are the five things conservatives would need to do to begin to break down those barriers and build bridges?”

It’s a deceptively easy question. After all, it’s no secret what sort of things would be on black America’s wish list:

• Reform the criminal injustice system, whose well-documented biases destroy African-American lives every day.

• Support initiatives that help ensure stable, father-present families.

• Support job training for the poor.

• Support early childhood education.

• Crack down on discriminatory lending.

• Crack down on discriminatory hiring, crack down on discriminatory housing.

• Listen to black voters’ concerns and offer solutions instead of rationalization, justification and condemnation.

I’m over my five, but you get the idea. Still, the most important thing isn’t specific policy prescriptions. It is, rather, that social conservatives (I use the term to distinguish them from the conservatives of low taxes, small government and strong national defense) are never on time. Historically, whenever people have been oppressed, whenever people have cried out for help, social conservatives have been late. This is true whether we’re talking Native Americans, Jewish Americans, woman Americans or African Americans. They seem blind to the distress of all Americans except Fetal Americans.

Consider Richard Stearns of the Christian relief group World Vision lobbying President Bush for money to fight AIDS in Africa in 2003. Don’t get me wrong; it was a noble thing. But even Stearns and his fellow evangelicals admitted they had come late to a battle other Americans had been fighting for 25 years. They were slow to respond, he said, because AIDS initially afflicted only gays and drug users, and conservatives ”had less compassion” for those victims.

Or, consider the apologies Baptist groups issued in the ’90s for their support of slavery and of the racism of the Jim Crow era. Another noble gesture. But noble gestures decades after the argument has been settled are of limited value. If social conservatives are truly the champions of morality, then where are they in the moment of moral crisis? When the rubber meets the road, when the fat sizzles in the fire, when standing up for the humanity of some despised group would mean something and cost something, our would-be moral leaders are never to be found. They are always late.

I agree with David about the need for competition for black votes. And I hope he’s right about a new generation of conservatives willing to compete. But I don’t need five bullet points to tell you what that generation should do. I need just one: Be on time for a change.

Do that, and the rest will take care of itself.