by Joseph Coletti
Senior Fellow, Fiscal Studies, John Locke Foundation
In his 2015 book The Conservative Heart, Arthur Brooks argued that conservatives should explain their good intentions and offer policy proposals that would demonstrate them. His suggestions were good as far as they went, but they started with explaining. And as the old political adage says, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.”
Gunnar Gundersen wonders why conservatives have criticized individual policies for their racist intents and effects, but have not tied them together to argue that systemic racism is a problem. Our peers, our foes, our past, our values, and our vision of the future all influence our perceptions and our readiness to consider race as a factor in policy decisions. Some conservatives have found ways to overcome these challenges, and they started by listening to others.
Because there are not many African Americans in the conservative movement, conservatives have less opportunity to know the daily challenges. Regardless, those of us – conservative, libertarian, or otherwise who support free markets and limited government – need to be more comfortable learning and speaking about the racial and other distributional effects of our policy recommendations.
We have ample opportunity. On the value of school choice, the dignity of work, and the need for criminal justice reforms, we have found more friends among low-income families and people of color than among wealthier white families who benefit from the status quo. Housing reforms similarly will resonate more with young people and other new market entrants than with long-time homeowners who have been forced to live in cramped conditions or take long commutes because the only way to have sustainably affordable housing is to allow more housing in more places at more market-defined prices.
Despite the intentions and policy outcomes, conservatives’ support of school choice has often been deemed racist or a campaign against public schools. This is so even when the supporters of school choice send their children to public schools and when the opponents send their children to private schools. But conservatives have become accustomed to double standards based on attributed intent.
There may be plenty of historical reasons to see bad intentions at every turn. For example, James Johnson at the Kenan-Flagler School described his involvement in academic and administrative search committees that set the bar higher for black candidates than for white candidates. Research has also found hiring discrimination against certain names, all else being equal, and other characteristics when hiring managers cannot ask whether someone has a criminal record. DJ Ashley “Dotty” Charles, author of the book Outraged, said on a recent Intelligence Squared podcast, that she tries to question her own reactions and readiness to take offense, so there may be hope if conservatives take steps to acknowledge past and present challenges.
White privilege does not mean that all white people can easily get ahead. That is one reason why J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy struck a chord with enough people to become a New York Times bestseller and, soon, a Netflix movie directed by Ron Howard. Vance’s description of growing up in a broken home with little money resonated with conservatives and others. I grew up in a mixed-race and mixed-income suburb of Detroit where four-year degrees were not the most common next step after high school graduation regardless of the color of one’s skin.
Many conservatives grew up in similar circumstances and have no animus against people because of skin color or socioeconomic status. They often are married to someone of a different race or have adopted children who do not look like them. Their friends and family are just as likely to be black, Salvadoran, Cuban, Brazilian, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Egyptian, or Thai.
Conservatives value liberty and equality of opportunity while acknowledging that people and the institutions we create are fallible. Human fallibility is actually an important component of the conservative argument for liberty, as it is much better to limit the power one person or group of people has over others. Equality of opportunity breaks down when politicians pick winners and losers either through specific giveaways like $450 million for insurance company Centene or through policies that force students to attend a designated school, however harmful it is. At the John Locke Foundation, we have argued against targeted tax breaks and incentives and for school choice for the same reason: equality of opportunity.
Of course, they might still lose their jobs when the truth comes out just as LGBTQ people can, but political philosophy is not a protected class. Their political philosophy is based more on individual rights and responsibilities, so while they feel aggrieved, they generally feel less comfortable arguing for changes based on group identity even if they occasionally make arguments for a diversity of thought as well as a diversity of condition.
Conservatives are more likely to look beyond the challenges to see genuine progress on economic opportunity and race relations. Cities from Charlotte and Atlanta to Detroit and Chicago have African-American mayors, police chiefs, city councils, district attorneys, and judges. Poverty is down to 2% when properly measured, though earned income poverty is still 12 to 15%.
Even as people focus more on race, the boundaries between races are becoming less clear. Interracial marriages were 10% of all marriages between 2012 and 2016, according to the Census Bureau. Moreover, Pew Research Center found, “In 2015, 17% of all U.S. newlyweds had a spouse of a different race or ethnicity.” The Census 2019 population estimate found 60% of people identify as only white, non-Hispanic, 19% as Hispanic of any race, 13% only black/African American, 6% only Asian, and 3% two or more races.
America’s survival to this point without religious conflicts like in the Balkans or Ireland, without genocidal campaigns like in Rwanda, without a common culture already instilled in immigrants because they do not come from former colonies, is remarkable. Across Latin America, discrimination is based on skin color more than racial or ethnic identities and Hispanics continue to travel north for the chance of a better life in America. Conservatives feel the pain, but they also see the alternatives tried in other times and places are worse, and they have little reason to trust that we can create a new and better system out of whole cloth.
Conservatives know how far America has come on racial issues, but they also know we have far to go before we can fully redeem the promissory note of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Conservatives can show they have a heart and by balancing hope for the future and appreciation for the past with compassion for the pain others still feel because America has not been America for them.