Thursday, February 13, 2003

Towards a Positive GOP Policy on Race

Here's a piece I wrote for Slate's Fraywatch, about what I wish President Bush had put in the State of the Nation Address. (Unfortunately, Slate split it in half). I've edited and reformatted it a little.

Placement: near the end of the domestic policy laundry list.

My fellow Americans, I would like to talk about the ongoing problem of race in America.

I know that many Americans are concerned about the current debate in our courts about affirmative action. Together with majority of Americans, including the majority of African-Americans, I believe that addressing our racial history by granting preferences solely on the basis of race should be a last resort, if any. I promise to do my utmost to bring us all together as Americans by doing everything I can to reach the underlying problems that separate us -- discrimination, poverty, unequal education, and unequal opportunity.

We know that government can only do so much to address this problem, and that most of the work that must be done is in the hearts and minds of all of us Americans of every race. Nevertheless, I pledge that what government can do, it will do.

Over the next six months, my administration will be announcing a series of initiatives - mentoring, targeted tax initiatives, educational scholarships, worker retraining, and welfare reforms - that are designed to make it easier for every person of goodwill to improve his or her lot in life.

To Americans that are sceptical of affirmative action or quotas, I issue a challenge. I agree that it is wrong to favor one person over another because of her race, so long as there is an alternative. I challenge you to look into your hearts and find understanding for people who look at the white faces in this room and other like it and conclude that they don't have a chance. It's our job as Americans to show them that they do, through programs that give all Americans in need some help changing their lives for the better.

To Americans who are sceptical of the government, I say give us a chance. We will be announcing a "report card" of statistics, including the relative educations and incomes of black, minority, and white America, police shootings, and other statistics. If that report card doesn't show that we are closing the gap in America, we will reevaluate what else we can do to make this nation's promise of equal opportunity for all a reality. And through it all, we will be listening for new ideas in the town halls, churches, synagogues, mosques and public streets of America.

Together with the drive and dynamism of the American people, we pledge to continue the legacy of Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and so many others to bring the opportunity for the American dream to every American.

Here's what I have been thinking:

  1. Affirmative action and other race-based programs do hold us back. They encourage people to see the government as a racial spoils system. If there is an alternative, we should consider it.

  2. That said, America (and especially the Republican party) shouldn't ignore the significant portion of the population that feel that the deck is stacked against them. Any time a child gives up on school because she thinks she can't make it, it weakens the country. It's also a personal tragedy that we shouldn't allow.

  3. In fact, I don't think we are kidding ourselves about race in America, I just don't think we're talking about it. Most of the conservatives I know are frustrated by victim politics and affirmative action, but they also feel terrible that there are people left out of the American dream. They just don't know what to do to fix it. George Bush could challenge conservative America on race the same way that he has on AIDs.

  4. The Republican party also needs to get stronly out in front of racial healing as a matter of both conscience and public relations. This means more than just proposing a "top 10%" plan or faith-based initiatives - it means we need to think hard about why people feel that minorities aren't given a fair shake and what we can do to address those concerns. If we believe that affirmative action is actually bad for the county, including for minorities, we need to propose a serious set of alternatives, both so that we can crack the Democratic stranglehold on minority votes and because we need to convince the country that we're right.

  5. In other words, the GOP should be proposing aggressive programs that address the root causes of racial tension. Where possible, we should do this in a race-neutral fashion. Worker retraining or welfare reform helps everyone. To the extent that minorities are disproportionately poor or on welfare, it helps them more. Similarly, we need to have an honest conversation about racial profiling. In cases where we need it (national origin as a factor in terrorist profiles, for example), we should be honest, and in cases where we can do without it, we should.

  6. I think an essential element is that we offer a "scorecard" of statistics to grade our progress. One untold secret is that things are basically getting better for race in America - the disparity between black and white salaries is improving, violent crimes committed against minorities are dropping, police shootings are dropping, etc. It would be great to have a State of the Union or a presidential debate where Bush could say "two years ago, I gave you a scorecard. We have work to do, but on 7 of the 8 statistics, we're better off as a country. I promise to keep working to improve things.

  7. Another essential element is "listening." We should be flexible about which numbers to use in the scorecard, and keep community leaders in the loop. (Hillary's "listening tour" was a great example of this). We should also make clear that as part of the bargain, if our proposals don't work, we're committed to exploring other ideas until we get it right.

  8. As a final step, and particularly if he could establish some credibility on this issue, Bush could use the platform and the statistics to challenge individual Americans. Companies - outreach to find qualified minorities. All Americans - make an effort to make friends with someone you now just say "hello" to. Minorities - make a connection with your police department, and vice versa.

  9. There would be some serious opposition to any groundbreaking program. People receiving government patronage now won't want a change, and the Democrats may oppose anything that has a serious risk of breaking up one of their core constituencies. Most importantly, plenty of people don't trust the GOP on race. However, George Bush is actually pretty good for this. He expresses compassion well, and I believe he feels it. With Karl Rove behind him, he's turned out to be a very savvy politician. I think he could pull it off.

It's just a dream, but it's one I would love to see come true. I would feel even more proud to be a Republican and an American if we could take the lead in improving the racial conditions in American for a third time in our country's history.