"Black people must be stupid"

A black writer takes issue with David Horowitz's criticism of African-American bloc-voting in the last election.

Published December 1, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Black people must be stupid. That's the conclusion implied by David Horowitz's "Baa Baa Black Sheep" column following the November elections. Horowitz is baffled that blacks continue to vote for Democrats in majorities "like the populations of communist countries." He complains that Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., won 94 percent of the vote in his Harlem district and suggests there would be uproar if a white candidate defeated a black candidate because more than 90 percent of whites voted for the white candidate.

Horowitz follows in a long tradition of lamenting the willingness of black people to vote their interests. I can understand why he's upset: Unusually high black turnouts in key races had a lot to do with upsetting the Republican apple cart in November. Until the day after the election, the impact of black voters was barely discussed on the talk shows, a state of affairs reflected on election night, when being white seemed to be the primary qualification for on-air pundits.

Lamentations about black voters are often thinly disguised efforts to set them aside. In 1984, after Ronald Reagan won reelection with majorities among all constituencies except African-Americans, a number of political experts suggested that blacks were isolated because of their unwillingness to join the coronation. Yet within weeks, this same "isolated" group launched protests that would force a change in the Reagan administration's "constructive engagement" policy toward South Africa -- protests that eventually helped end apartheid and free Nelson Mandela.

One of the favorite devices of conservatives is the mythical "double standard." Blacks get away with behavior that would not be acceptable among whites because of white guilt. "Black Sheep" is full of such insinuations. Massive black support for black candidates is one example. Yet in races involving black candidates who are not incumbents, 80 percent of the white vote usually goes to the white candidate -- no matter how qualified the black candidate. Even Andrew Young, that paragon of integration and moderation, could barely gather 15 percent of the white vote when he first ran for Congress in 1972.

The red herring of the double standard is actually a cover for another favorite conservative hot button: moral equivalency. The fact that most black people only got the right to vote in the last 30 years; that they represent just 12 percent of the population; or that they are the only ethnic group whose rights were specifically limited by this nation from its inception seem not to matter to critics like Horowitz. So 90 percent of blacks voting as a bloc is rendered equal to 90 percent of whites voting to maintain their dominance.

While Horowitz laments the refusal of blacks to vote for most Republican candidates (strange that he doesn't mention the Govs. Bush), he ignores the GOP's long history of race baiting and appealing to white interests. In fact, Republican gains in the South are largely the result of thinly veiled appeals to white voters who feared black political gains. From Richard Nixon's 1968 "Southern strategy" through Willie Horton to anti-affirmative action appeals in this last election, the message to white voters has been clear: Let's keep them under control. In other words, white voters are asked to vote their interests, although white voters' interests are usually equated with everyone's interests. Once again, black voters just don't seem to understand.

Horowitz cites welfare reform as an example of Republican policies that have helped blacks, but even many who favored ending the old dependencies warn that an unusually long economic boom may have masked the long-term effects of throwing tens of thousands off the rolls with little or no safety net. One of the issues he and other conservatives ignore is that African-Americans have been among the chief critics of the damaging effects of welfare. But blacks favored a more gradual, well-planned process to avoid the chaos that could hit many cities in an economic downturn -- cities still viewed as alien territory among suburban white voters.

Why is it that white conservatives use black conservatives to support their arguments? If their ideas can stand on their own merits, why must they drag in blacks making the same arguments? It suggests that for all the posturing about merit, white conservatives feel they need someone with a different skin color to make their positions more credible. Horowitz laments the harsh criticism of black conservatives like Larry Elder, Clarence Thomas, Ward Connerly and others by mainstream blacks. But isn't the wholesale rejection of their arguments by African-Americans a sign of maturity? Blacks have looked beyond the color of their skin to the content of their character, and rejected their positions.

As one who has closely followed the arguments of conservatives of all colors for years, I think one of the problems with many of these black conservatives is that they simply restate old arguments made by white conservatives. When black conservatives try to make more nuanced arguments -- such as economist Glenn Loury's complaint that white conservatives offer no constructive alternatives to the programs they don't like -- they are expelled from the circles that initially welcomed them.

Conservatives like Horowitz cannot admit that black people have enemies. They are willing to give every opponent of affirmative action, set-asides and minority election districts the benefit of the doubt: that they are really taking positions because they have the best interests of black people at heart. Maybe that's why he doesn't bring up the cynical Republican strategy in the first part of this decade to push blacks into majority-minority districts -- so Republicans could win all-white suburban districts.

And like most conservatives -- and a lot of liberals -- Horowitz is willing to dismiss the worldview of the black majority as simply wrong. African-Americans live in a world more finely nuanced than conservative ideology can comfortably embrace. Polls show that black people believe they have friends and enemies in all colors. Black people feel they still need affirmative action because of their real experiences with white people. That is why middle-class black people are more ardent supporters of affirmative action than poor blacks. They find that even the most well-meaning whites cannot always overcome hundreds of years of legislated and implied superiority. Just as African-Americans see real progress, they also see continuing obstacles, slights, unintended insults and exclusions. And that is why they won't embrace the Larry Elders and Clarence Thomases as heroes, no matter how often they get called black sheep.

By Joel Dreyfuss

Joel Dreyfuss covers technology for Fortune magazine. He is a founder of the National Association of Black Journalists.

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