by William B. Allen
Barack Obama launched his meteoric political rise in 2004 by plagiarizing a message published in my 1991 essay, “Black and White Together: A Reconsideration,” which was included in the book Reassessing Civil Rights. Unfortunately, while Obama embraced the winning rhetoric, he did not embrace the argument. Otherwise, he would have transformed the political character of our nation. For the first thing he would have done would have been to lead the Democratic Party away from its practice of maintaining political ghettos for minorities.
This observation is important in the present discussion because it highlights the primary reason why American blacks should turn to the Republican Party. There is no alternative for them to stand on their own two feet in American politics.
To be sure, leaders in the Republican Party for several decades past have feebly tried to imitate the Democrats by pursuing “constituency groups” in their recruiting. That stupid endeavor, however, did not sink the party for the simple reason that the party was saved by the evident reality that the Democrats held a monopoly in that market.
It would now be timely for American blacks and Republicans to embrace the ultimate reality—the only winning opportunity that remains—which is to engage black men and women not on the basis of what the “party” or the “country” has to offer them but, rather, on the basis of what they have to offer the country.
It is time to displace the question, “What have you got to lose?” with the question, “What have you got to give?”
That is the question that acknowledges that American blacks stand in a crucial position to bring aid to a country very much in danger of losing its way in a sea of identity politics. Moreover, it engages American blacks as standing on their own feet.
No man or woman can be asked to shoulder the burden of deciding a country’s future when that man or woman is not thought to be capable of standing on his or her own feet. To address American blacks as competent—indeed, potential saviors of the nation—is to demonstrate for them that respect which their own self-respect demands.
It was always a mistake when people imagined of Booker T. Washington that his response to the question, “What is to be done for the Negro?,” “Leave him alone!” meant that he was a racial separatist. In reality, he was an advocate of self-sufficiency. He understood that it was only people who were self-sufficient who could command enough respect to the win authority in the society.
For American blacks to exit the political ghettos of the Democratic Party is far less a statement of disillusionment than it is an assertion of self-sufficiency.
I have recently pointed out, in relation to the “1619 Project,” that it is a myth that only black people descend from former slaves. Virtually all human beings everywhere are the descendants of slaves, serfs, peasants, coolies, or what have you. Yet, it is only contemporary, free black people who are expected to wear the symbols of their forebears chains. Those symbols will not be removed by the opinions of the people who impose the requirement for such self-identification. They can only be removed when they are thrown off by the people upon whom they are imposed.
A truly brilliant essay by Columbia University student Coleman Hughes, recently published in Quillette, “The Case for Black Optimism,” illustrates relative to current policy disputes just how far American blacks damage their own self-respect when their attention is deflected from their impressive attainments by the rhetorical invocation of the “racial gap” along almost every line of human accomplishment. Accepting the false “apples to oranges” comparisons across the spectrum of educational, income, incarceration, unwed childbirth and other dynamics produces a negative characterization of the state of black America that is completely out of step, in some cases, with the geometric improvements in the social condition.
What Hughes accomplished was to show how a people with a cause for pride and self-respect can nevertheless be induced to view themselves as helpless victims. In doing this he fulfilled my expectation when, in 1998, I led the Educational Testing Services to abandon the use of “racial gap” characterizations in reporting test scores and to employ the term “achievement gap.” I meant, then, of course, to induce an abandonment of racial comparisons altogether, something that did not occur.
This particular failure is related to the persistence of political ghettos maintained by the Democrats. The trope of racial comparison is so far ingrained in two important dimensions of our social and political life that there is virtually no realistic expectation they will ever willingly be abandoned by those most addicted to them.
Thus, the only corrective must come from the refusal of the victims of such tropes to credit them. And there is no way to begin doing that save by exiting the present political and social structures that depend upon making such comparisons. For that reason, a turn—a massive turn—to the Republican Party would easily and obviously be a major step in declaring independence from the subjugation of racial comparisons.
Such a step would work, however, only if there exists a Republican Party that could welcome the participation of American blacks as fellow citizens because they have a contribution to make to the welfare of the country.
Many years ago I delivered an address in which I channeled Booker T. Washington by observing that a special burden lay on the shoulders of American blacks. That burden was to become the country’s saviors—and thus the saviors of free government in the modern world. That was a lot to ask of a despised minority. The reality, however, was—and I believe, remains—that the country lacks any credible resources apart from what that despised minority can bring to the table to accomplish its full redemption.
Because the Republican Party lacks so much as a toe-hold in the political ghettos, it is ideally situated to become the vehicle for a new politics that would abandon ghettoization as a tool of political organization. It is, in fact, the only opportunity that exists for the emergence of the new politics. If American blacks moved to the Republican Party to a significant degree, they would become party to a new founding generation redefining the future of the United States.
That is the only option remaining, in my view.
As I said at the outset, Barack Obama failed. Although exposed to an argument that would have led him to embrace such a project—had he understood it—he spurned the argument. That is the reason I am certain of his plagiarism in 2004. He revealed in a subsequent address that he had, indeed, read the essay from which he drew inspiration without understanding.
In the subsequent address he attacked an argument explicitly made in the same essay, attributing it (as is his wont) to “some conservatives.” The specific argument that I—and I alone—had been making and had made in that very essay. The details of the argument are not germane in these precincts (though related to the general theme of self-sufficiency). What does matter, though, is to observe that it is now reasonable for us to inquire just how many opportunities shall arise to reform our practices in this country, before no opportunity at all remains?
What I describe as a burden resting on the shoulders of black men and women is not primarily an onerous duty. It is rather a call for them to distinguish themselves as being able to see beyond the immediate contexture of events, to take the long view, and to aim for the kinds of distinction that enable peoples to command the respect of others by reason of the dignity and excellence of their attainments. The reason to move to the Republican Party is to demonstrate that we are justifiably proud to be Americans.
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W. B. Allen is Emeritus Professor of Political Philosophy at Michigan State University and a pastor at First Baptist Church in Havre de Grace, Maryland.
Photo “Black Trump Supporters” by Johnny Silvercloud. CC BY-SA 2.0.