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Conservatism does not equal racism. So why do many liberals assume it does?
This explains why the second assumption is also wrong. Nixon made more symbolic than substantive accommodations to white Southerners. He enforced the Civil Rights Act and extended the Voting Rights Act. On school desegregation, he had to be prodded by the courts in some ways but went further than them in others: He supervised a desegregation of Deep South schools that had eluded his predecessors and then denied tax-exempt status to many private "desegregation academies" to which white Southerners tried to flee. Nixon also institutionalized affirmative action and set-asides for minorities in federal contracting.
Not surprisingly, white Southern leaders such as Strom Thurmond grew bitterly frustrated with Nixon. This explains what Gallup polls detected in 1971-72: A large number of white Southern voters preferred Wallace to Nixon. Only when the Alabaman was shot in May 1972 did Nixon inherit Wallace's voters -- not because of Nixon's policies on race but despite them.
After the mid-1970s, school desegregation and enforcement of the Civil Rights Act faded as the most decisive -- or divisive -- racial issues in the country. In the decades that followed, the conservative policy platform became the new focus of liberal cries of racism. Critics such as Thomas and Mary Edsall interpreted the Reagan agenda's major elements as indirect attempts to maintain white privilege: Tax cuts denied resources to a government that could be an agent of social change and lift up the underprivileged. Calls to limit government, especially federal power, stood to do the same. Reagan's attacks on "welfare queens" emphasized negative images of minorities and ultimately helped end an entitlement for the neediest. Campaigns against crime refreshed stereotypes of threatening African Americans and imprisoned millions along the way. Criticism of affirmative action assaulted a major mechanism of workplace advancement for minorities and women.
These policy positions remain central to the conservative domestic agenda, but calling them racist, the third assumption, presumes something very strange: that conservatives do not mean what they say about them. Welfare reform is deliberately anti-black (or anti-minority or anti-poor) only if conservatives secretly believe that welfare actually does help its beneficiaries and are being deceitful when they argue that long-term dependency devastates inner-city communities. Tax cuts are part of a racist agenda only if conservatives do not believe that lower taxes will enhance economic growth and social mobility for all. Conservative opposition to raising the minimum wage is anti-poor only if free-marketeers are feigning concern that increases will price less-skilled people out of the workforce (as when Milton Friedman called the minimum wage "one of the most . . . anti-black laws on the statute books") and secretly agree with liberals that increases will benefit the working poor over the long term.
By such reasoning, conservatives should oppose all government programs that they believe help minority groups. But at least one expansive policy area defies this expectation: education. Most conservatives, even as they turned against busing and welfare, continued to support large public education budgets. Many conservatives may support issuing school vouchers and shutting down the federal Education Department, but those positions concern which level of government should control schools -- not whether government should pay for education for all. Overwhelming majorities of Republicans joined Democrats in 2007 to reauthorize Head Start, the early-education program in which well over half the students are from minority groups. And substantial majorities of whites (conservatives as well as liberals) have voiced support for what sociologist William Julius Wilson calls "opportunity-enhancing affirmative action," policies that would unofficially but inevitably direct disproportionate benefits to minorities.
All these programs aim to give beneficiaries not guaranteed incomes but better chances to succeed by boosting their skills. (It was George W. Bush, after all, who insisted that academic achievement by minority students had to factor into measures of school performance.)
Finally, there is reason to be skeptical of the latest assumptions of conservative prejudice. Conservatives have taken the lead in two major recent controversies: opposition to a planned Islamic center near Ground Zero and support for Arizona's law requiring immigrants to carry their papers and requiring police to question those they suspect of being here illegally. Liberal critics swiftly labeled both positions bigotry: Islamophobia and prejudice against immigrants from Latin America. To these critics, the racial resentment of past decades has simply been expanded into a more generalized prejudice against racial and religious minorities.
Of course, conservatives don't see it that way. A long-held conservative belief holds that a minimal amount of shared cultural content is required for a healthy American society. This content includes an understanding of the nation's history and virtues, including the opportunity and social mobility it has offered so many. This helps explain, for instance, why conservatives were long skeptical of bilingual education, suspecting that it slowed assimilation. They have logically been concerned about large numbers of immigrants whose presence in the United States is often transitory and whose relationship with the country is purely economic. And they have been cautious about high levels of even legal immigration when it involves people who arrive in large enough numbers and in a concentrated enough time and place to create zones in which pressures to assimilate are mitigated.
Most conservatives do not understand how Arizona's move to enforce federal immigration laws can be deemed bigoted -- especially considering that they have long supported crackdowns on lawbreakers of all types. The planned Islamic center near Ground Zero raises alarms, in part, because the insensitivity of its architects to 9/11's emotional legacy suggests their deeper distance from American sensibilities. Lest that position seem anti-Muslim, conservatives of every stripe, including those who have led the charge against the center, roundly condemned the planned burning of the Koran by a Florida pastor. They did so on the same grounds: Just because someone has a legal right to do something (build a center, burn a book) does not mean it is a wise, desirable or respectful thing to do.
There is no doubt that the contemporary Republican electorate contains some out-and-out bigots, just as the Democratic electorate contains people who hate others on the basis of class. These very real prejudices occasionally erupt into public expression, whether in remarks about Jews over the years by Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton or in shocking signs at tea party rallies.
But most conservatives have been less concerned with the "hardware" of people's race or ethnicity and more concerned with the "software" of their values or culture. This is why the white Protestant core of the modern conservative movement has not merely integrated Catholic "ethnics" but also rallied behind the Irish American William F. Buckley and the Italian American Antonin Scalia. Jews, women and Hispanics have been similarly integrated into both its ranks and leadership; indeed, many white conservatives swoon when members of minority groups proudly share their values. This explains why, in the 2008 campaign, conservatives were at least as roused by Obama's ties to the white former radical William Ayers as the black Jeremiah Wright, both of whom seemed to make a living out of damning America.
Liberal interpretations that portray modern conservatism as standing athwart the "rights revolution" of the 1960s are hard pressed to explain the growing number of minority and female candidates favored by the conservative rank and file. Marco Rubio, Nikki Haley, Susana Martinez, Brian Sandoval, Tim Scott, Ryan Frazier, Raul Labrador and Jaime Herrera are GOP nominees for the Senate, governorships and the House because Republican voters preferred them over their white opponents. Allen West in Florida and Jon Barela in New Mexico were the consensus GOP choices to run for competitive House seats. Many of these candidates are well-positioned to win their races and help change the public face of modern conservatism.
The old conservatism-as-racism story has outlived all usefulness and accuracy. November might be a good time to start a rethink.
Gerard Alexander is an associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His most recent Outlook article, on Feb. 7, was "Why are liberals so condescending?"