Why is it, Republicans keep asking me, that blacks continue to cling to liberalism -- even in the face of its obvious failure to solve their problems? Wouldn't it make sense, they ask, for blacks to give conservatism a chance?
It probably would, I tell them, and yet it probably won't happen.It isn't because blacks reject such conservative principles as hard work and self-reliance, or that they wish to be cared for, or that they revel in the inflation brought on by too much government spending.
The problem for blacks is not conservatism but conservatives. Think of the government officials, now and in the recent past, who are strongly identified with conservatism. Now name one of them who seems really to give a damn whether a black person makes it in America or not.
Liberals seem to care. They talk and govern and legislate as though they care. Conservatives, on the other hand, are so caught up in their market theories and macroeconomic dicta that they seem unaware of such non-theoretical problems as poverty and discrimination.
Conservatives love to attack big government and excessive governmental meedling in private affairs. Blacks are more likely to remember that, but for the meddling of the federal government, parks, movie houses, hotels and voting booths in the South would still be off-limits for them. It was liberals, not conservatives, who got the government involved.
Talk about bloated government (even if true) doesn't make much sense to people who routinely expect the government to be a fairer employer then the local businessman.
To the extent that government is a more cordial employer for blacks than it used to be, credit liberals, not conservatives.
But to say that blacks are likely to see liberals as nicer people is not to say that blacks necessarily buy unreservedly into liberalism. As a matter of fact, black disappointment in liberal approaches to problem-soloving seems to be growing.
Blacks, no less than Americans generally, are growing weary of governmental interference in public education, of excessive taxation and regulation, of inflation-spawning policies that make it ever harder to own a house or feed a family.
Blacks may be as quick as conservatives to see welfare as a sort of economic methadone -- more pacifier than cure; as convinced as the most avid supply-sider that the only true remedies for what ails black America is a healthy American economy.
But blacks remain skeptical of conservatives. They fear that conservatives, in their zeal to cut federal spending, will reduce federal aid to the poorest Americans, disproportionately black. They fear that the programs at which conservatives aim their budgetary ax will be those programs most likely to hire blacks.
Welfare dependency may be bad, but it is better than not eating. Inflationary government spending may lead to long-term disaster, but it is better than near-term jobessness. A rising minimum wage may tend, over time, to increase unemployment. But workers in the lowest-paid jobs are willing to chance it in exchange for a slightly bigger paycheck now.
I am convinced that revitalizing American business -- "putting America back to work" -- would be the best thing that could happen for black Americans. As the Urban League's Vernon Jordan put it, you can't put America back to work without putting black America back to work. I believe conservatives are rather more likely than liberals to accomplish that.
My doubts have to do with the interim. Can a conservative administration install governmental austerity without abandoning governmental compassion? Can it fix the economy without forgetting that minorities have special problems that free enterprise will leave unaddressed?
If the Reagan administration can dream up conservative approaches that promise to help rather than hurt those who have been forced to depend on the government -- the enterprise-zone idea, for instance -- it might be surprised at the level of support it finds in black Americans.