11 July 2012

Romney, the NAACP and equality of opportunity

The headlines this afternoon report that hecklers at the NAACP convention booed Mitt Romney while the presumptive Republican presidential candidate addressed them. That's probably the story everyone wants to see. Democrats seem to feel good when Republicans are heckled -- they tend to see such displays as deserved rebukes from the masses -- while Republicans will consider themselves confirmed in their belief that the African-American establishment is a bunch of ignorant, intolerant boors. What interests me more about Romney's adventure today is his attempt, as a Republican, to reach out to the voting bloc least likely to support him. The transcript available from Fox News includes plenty of standard GOP rhetoric about Romney's desire to improve conditions for everyone, including African-Americans. The speech also includes some interesting comments on equality of opportunity in the U.S. Romney told the convention that despite what Barack Obama's election seemed to signify, true equality of opportunity has not become a fact in this country. In saying this, the candidate seemed to stray from Republican orthodoxy, which as I understood it insists that equality of opportunity is an accomplished fact -- the corollary being that no one ought to whine about discrimination anymore. Romney, however, pointed out that black people's disproportionate misfortune during the recession belies talk about equal opportunity.

If equal opportunity in America were an accomplished fact, then a chronically bad economy would be equally bad for everyone. Instead, it’s worse for African Americans in almost every way. The unemployment rate, the duration of unemployment, average income, and median family wealth are all worse for the black community. In June, while the overall unemployment rate remained stuck at 8.2 percent, the unemployment rate for African Americans actually went up, from 13.6 percent to 14.4 percent.... If equal opportunity in America were an accomplished fact, black families could send their sons and daughters to public schools that truly offer the hope of a better life. Instead, for generations, the African-American community has been waiting and waiting for that promise to be kept. Today, black children are 17 percent of students nationwide – but they are 42 percent of the students in our worst-performing schools.

But if equality of opportunity doesn't yet exist in the U.S., what prevents it? To answer that question, Romney got back on the partisan track. He isn't about to blame white bigotry for racial inequality -- though he was happy to remind his audience about his father's good deeds for civil rights in the 1960s.  In short, he largely blamed teachers' unions, those oppressive entities that fearfully resist all innovation or experimentation in education. The former governor of Massachusetts reminded the crowd that, while in office, he had collaborated with that state's Black Legislative Caucus to defend the rights of charter schools. Union teachers and their Democratic stooges alone block real reform, he suggested. In addition, he believes that "economic freedom" will equalize opportunity by bringing jobs back to the cities and to the country in general.

For Romney's own purposes, the key passage of his speech was probably this: "The point is that when decades of the same promises keep producing the same failures, then it’s reasonable to rethink our approach – and consider a new plan." This is his appeal to pragmatism and against a presumed prejudice among the delegates to Republican ideas. He talked his usual talk about free enterprise and family values, but he was really promising results rather than promoting values. I'm not sure how successful such an approach can be -- whether Romney can hope to change black votes without challenging their values. While admitting that the Republican party's record on race relations was "not perfect," he didn't linger on the topic. But I'd think that if a Republican really wants African-Americans to vote for him, he'd have to address both what blacks believe about Republicans and what Republicans believe (or are believed to believe) about blacks. It's taken for granted that the black community in general has different ideas about society than the Republican party. There may be more convergence than is usually recognized on subjects involving personal and sexual morality, but the assumption, at least, is that blacks have a stronger sense of communal solidarity than Americans as a whole, and more commitment to a role for government in the redistribution of wealth and the provision of goods for the survival and well-being of everyone. A further assumption would be that African-Americans have heard and comprehended fifty years of Republican arguments against the regulatory welfare state and rejected them -- though Republicans may blame that rejection on an unjustified, prejudiced identification of the modern GOP with white supremacy. In short, blacks are believed to expect something else, and almost certainly something more, from society and government than Republicans either expect themselves or believe anyone else justified in demanding. If I'm correct about this, than someone like Romney, no matter how sincere he may be in his appeal, will find it hard to win over blacks with promises of results so long as his moral commitment, as a Republican, to the well-being of everyone remains in question. This intellectual or moral divide may seem starkest when a Republican confronts an African-American organization, but the honest discussion Romney would need to have with the NAACP about what Americans can or should not expect from government also needs to take place all over the country. Disputes over "entitlement" are the kind that can divide a house against itself -- and a representative of the Party of Lincoln should know well what might result.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Is it truly "misproportionate misfortune" really for African Americans or for EVERYONE in the United States who is living at or below the poverty level?

What a disgusting and lame attempt by a repugnican conman to further exploit the black community.