March 17, 2009

The Great Liberal/Conservative Divide on Equal Opportunity

A pair of recent Op-Eds highlight the divide between Liberals and Conservatives on race and equal opportunity.  In one of the most insightful articles I have read on the divide between conservatism and minorities, Shelby Steele lays out the foundation of the problem.

"When redemption became a term of power, "redemptive liberalism" was born -- a new activist liberalism that gave itself a "redemptive" profile by focusing on social engineering rather than liberalism's classic focus on individual freedom. In the '60s there was no time to allow individual freedom to render up the social good. Redemptive liberalism would proactively engineer the good. Name a good like "integration," and then engineer it into being through a draconian regimen of school busing. If the busing did profound damage to public education in America, it gave liberals the right to say, "At least we did something!" In other words, we are activistsagainst America's old sin of segregation. Activism is moral authority in redemptive liberalism.

But conservatism sees moral authority more in a discipline of principles than in activism. It sees ideas of the good like "diversity" as mere pretext for the social engineering that always leads to unintended and oppressive consequences. Conservatism would enforce the principles that ensure individual freedom, and then allow "the good" to happen by "invisible hand."

And here is conservatism's great problem with minorities. In an era when even failed moral activism is redemptive -- and thus a source of moral authority and power -- conservatism stands flat-footed with only discipline to offer. It has only an invisible hand to compete with the activism of the left. So conservatism has no way to show itself redeemed of America's bigoted past, no way like the Great Society to engineer a grand display of its innocence, and no way to show deference to minorities for the oppression they endured. Thus it seems to be in league with that oppression.

Added to this, American minorities of color -- especially blacks -- are often born into grievance-focused identities. The idea of grievance will seem to define them in some eternal way, and it will link them atavistically to a community of loved ones. To separate from grievance -- to say simply that one is no longer racially aggrieved -- will surely feel like an act of betrayal that threatens to cut one off from community, family and history. So, paradoxically, a certain chauvinism develops around one's sense of grievance. Today the feeling of being aggrieved by American bigotry is far more a matter of identity than of actual aggrievement.

And this identity calls minorities to an anticonservative orientation to American politics. It makes for an almost ancestral resistance to conservatism. One's identity of grievance is flattered by the moral activism of the left and offended by the invisible hand of the right. Minorities feel they were saved from oppression by the left's activism, not by the right's discipline. The truth doesn't matter much here (in fact it took both activism and principle, civil war and social movement, to end this oppression). But activism indicates moral anguish in whites, and so it constitutes the witness minorities crave. They feel seen, understood. With the invisible hand the special case of their suffering doesn't count for much, and they go without witness."

Picking up on this theme of the liberal view of "opportunity," George Will discusses the resent decision in Bartlett v. Strickland that reigned in racial gerrymandering.  At issue was a North Carolina voting district that divided two counties.  North Carolina was attempting to achieve a "majority minority" voting block to ensure the election of a minority.  Will notes,

"In 1982, the act was amended (Section 2) to say that a violation occurs if nominating and electing processes "are not equally open to participation" by minority voters in that they "have less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice." Note that there is no mention of "vote dilution."

But the amended VRA has been construed as follows: Equal "participation" of and "opportunity" for minorities means their ability to elect candidates of their choice, and that must mean minority candidates. Otherwise there has been illegal dilution of the minority vote. Such repellant reasoning expresses two tenets of liberalism's racial fatalism: identity politics (your political identity is your race, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation) and categorical representation (members of an identity cohort can be understood, empathized with and represented only by members of that cohort)"

Bartlett represents a typical example of the left's idea of equal opportunity.  It isn't about equality or opportunity.  It is about one thing: the appearance of doing something, which they believe only comes through contrived results.  It doesn't even matter whether these results lead to a positive outcome.  As Steele said, it is about doing something, anything.

Next month the Court will hear the case of Ricci v. Destefano (Curt previously blogged about the case here, and I covered Obama's amici here.)  It offers another look at liberal "equal opportunity."  After spending millions of dollars to ensure the test was race neutral, no African-Americans scored high enough on the test to be promoted so the results were simply thrown out.  As Stuart Taylor noted, “Politically powerful African-American leaders made it clear that if not enough blacks were eligible for promotion, then no whites should be promoted either." 

These cases set a troubling backdrop as Obama moves to nominate judges.  He wholeheartedly believes in the liberal view of "equal opportunity" achieved through judicial activism. However, even former Clinton Solicitor General Walter Dellinger realizes that "the judicial philosophy issue breaks in favor of conservatives across the country."  But we already knew that.

As I read these articles, I keep coming back to the founders belief that all men are created equal and are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  But to a liberal, you don't have those unalienable rights if you happen to live in a North Carolina "minority majority" voting district or you are not an African-American firemen in New Haven, Connecticut.  This should come as no surprise because liberal politics is identity politics. 

Steele eloquently expresses the appeal of conservatism, especially to minorities. 

"The appeal of conservatism is the mutuality it asserts between individual and political freedom, its beautiful idea of a free man in a free society. And it offers minorities the one thing they can never get from liberalism: human rather than racial dignity."

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