What If They Gave Out Compassionate Conservatism and Nobody Cared? – "Why Blacks Should Give Bush a Chance" sounded like the punch line of a joke

John McWhorter | Posted on 04/01/08

During the first months of the Bush administration, I wrote an article for the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal called “Why Blacks Should Give Bush a Chance.” I made reference to the administration’s plans to make public schools accountable for closing the racial gap in grades and test scores, and its intention to earmark funds for churches and other faith-based institutions to help poor communities help themselves.

I have yet to vote Republican myself. I was simply calling it as I saw it. The “compassionate conservatism” that President Bush was heralding included an ample amount of attention to black concerns.

Subsequently, I was frequently asked about that article by liberal talk-show hosts and panel chairs. I seem to have become established in such circles as The Black Conservative Who Isn’t Crazy, and so the discussion was friendly in itself. However, there always will be that moment: “So, Dr. McWhorter, what about ‘Why Blacks Should Give Bush a Chance’?” they query, having listed it on their index card of Possible Questions to roil the waters a bit. The subtext was always that however sane I may have sounded on assorted controversial issues discussed, this article was an indisputable no-goer. After all, Bush? Black people? Come now!

As the Bush administration draws to a close, the good-thinking consensus is that President Bush’s record with black America can be summed up largely by the name of a certain hurricane. The notion that Bush, as rapper Kanye West phrased it in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, “doesn’t care about black people” has settled into the American consciousness. Never mind that FEMA’s response to Hurricane Andrew, which in 1992 hit a predominantly white community, was exactly as slow and incompetent. Memories are short and Andrew occurred pre-Internet.

And I was getting those smug questions about “Why Blacks Should Give Bush a Chance” long before Katrina. By the end of his first term, it was considered a mark of sagacity to dismiss Bush as numb to race issues. Crucially, however, this point of view could only have made sense to people who hadn’t bothered to check.

The Bush administration’s policies relating to black America have demonstrated the very compassion that was promised six years ago. The problem is that what too many smart people would actually recognize as compassionate engagement with black America’s problems is an impracticable fantasy. All signs are that black America is in the process of overcoming without knowing it.


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The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), for example, took on, without flinching, the lagging performance of black students in schools nationwide, including in middle-class districts. In holding schools responsible for bringing black students’ test scores up to par with other students’, NCLB even addressed the problem as one with “the system” rather than with black parents or black students’ attitudes toward schoolwork. This, one would think, might have been considered a compassionate policy indeed.

More to the point, surely there was at least a droplet of compassion in a policy that arranged for students stuck in public schools where no learning goes on to be able to transfer to private or charter schools. Of course, on the ground, there are typically not enough such schools to accommodate all seekers. But then, this is hardly traceable to President Bush’s presumed compassion deficit.

In one locale after another, it is teachers’ unions, preserving the status quo for public school teachers and administrators, who lobby against the opening of more charter schools. Nor does absence of compassion have anything to do with the fact that although NCLB has also funded tutors at failing schools, quite often administrators and parents have not taken advantage of them.

It is true that so far NCLB’s results have been minor. However, it’s easier to believe change never happens than to acknowledge that it happens slowly. Again, its problems are not ones tracing to absence of compassion from on high (unless “on high” is school districts more concerned with complaining about new administrative procedures than helping black kids do better in school).

In evaluating whether the Bush administration’s compassionate conservatism has been a joke, when it comes to NCLB, the point is that it was instituted at all. Twenty-five years ago, the notion of the Reagan administration developing a program to close the performance gap between white and black students would have sounded like science fiction. Nothing of the sort happened under President Clinton, nor would it have, by all indications, under a President Gore.


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Then there have been the faith-based and community initiatives, which the Bush administration proposed with great fanfare. Although nominally race-neutral, these initiatives were promoted via high-profile summits with black ministers, and their primum mobile was helping poor minority communities get on their feet through the intervention of churches, rooted geographically and culturally in neighborhoods in a way that impersonal social service agencies can rarely be.

The faith-based and community initiatives did not get off the ground in the dimensions that Bush originally intended. Ironically, this was predominantly because of opposition from liberals, who were suddenly appalled at the possibility of their clients being discriminated against for religious reasons, but were unmoved by the same kind of discrimination against whites stemming from racial preference policies at universities.

However, more to the point is that the faith-based initiatives did not die; they went underground. One current manifestation is a program called Ready4Work, funded principally by the Department of Labor. Ready4Work began as a pilot program in seventeen sites across the country, designed to provide ex-cons with a network of services, with an emphasis on mentoring and on channeling religious faith as a source of purpose and direction. Programs like this are compassionate indeed in terms of what black communities need. Ex-offenders typically return to inner-city communities with no job skills, no high school diploma, and substance dependencies. Most of them end up arrested again after a few years, and a good portion end up back in prison (in New Jersey, for instance, the recidivism rate is 33 percent).

The results of Ready4Work speak for themselves: after a year, only half as many of its clients were back in prison as the national average, and testimonials are glowing. This was the spark for the Prisoner Re-entry Initiative that President Bush mentioned in his 2004 State of the Union address. It wasn’t just words; it’s been in operation since, and there is currently a full-bore effort in Congress, called the Second Chance Act, to take prisoner re-entry efforts to a national scale.

Not so long ago (as late as 2000) prisoner re-entry initiatives were a matter of scattered, understaffed local outfits doing their best in assorted cities. Calls to address the reintegration of ex-cons into their communities on a national level were dismissed as devoting excessive funding to the “undeserving poor.” Something happened under Bush’s watch, despite those giving in to the callisthenic self-gratification of unfocused cynicism and insisting that Bush doesn’t care about black people.


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Yet the No Child Left Behind Act is processed as an abstraction and the Second Chance Act is unknown. In my experience, when Bush detractors are informed of prisoner re-entry efforts, their attention is of a dutiful, genuflective kind, contrasting with their bright-eyed commitment to getting in yet more tart jabs about the administration’s response to Katrina.

The reason for this is that they are operating under a mental schema that has for decades blunted the imagination and commitment of too many concerned people, white as well as black. The schema is that meaningful compassion for black America will arrive in the form of a rapid, dramatic, and awesome rescue operation, similar in its form to the sort that they wish had occurred more locally immediately after Katrina hit. We are, supposedly, to call for, wait for, long for, and eternally bemoan the absence of a second civil rights revolution.

The guiding idea is that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a step in the right direction but did not quite do the trick. According to this script, the removal of factory jobs from city centers, combined with the ravages of the crack epidemic, did blacks in despite the outlawing of formal segregation and disenfranchisement. As such, while a certain number of blacks have “gotten lucky,” less fortunate ones are powerless to change their fates, and will be able to do so only with a vast upending of our civic structure, so that black people will finally truly be “acknowledged” and the institutional racism that renders all black success a matter of serendipity will be dismantled.

I have written about the flaws in that analysis elsewhere, but for the purposes of this discussion, the key fact is that this summation of black America’s current situation is highly influential, preached in universities and on op-ed pages across the nation. Rarely is it put explicitly that a revolution is necessary. However, various common phrasings have the same meaning, such as the prevalent idea that there needs to be a “conversation” about race. Given that race is not exactly a rare topic in the media or among individuals in this nation, and that under the Clinton administration there even was, of all things, something actually overtly labeled as a National Conversation on Race, it is clear that those still asserting that there needs to be some “conversation” of another kind are referring to something more, well, revolutionary.

The “conversation” in question will presumably be one that deeply transforms our social landscape in some way. Apparently there is something black people know that whites still do not, despite the almost dazzling flood of what most would consider “conversation” about race in America 365 days a year. A truly significant conversation, in other words, would be one that sparked another civil rights revolution. Now, there would be compassion.

Leaving aside just what such a revolution would consist of in 2008, the problem with this conception of meaningful compassion toward blacks is that a starkly transformative revolution of this kind will never recur in America. The issue is not whether it needs to, but that it simply could not, on a purely logical basis.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the result of a confluence of assorted particularities of its era. JFK was less on fire with compassion for black people than embarrassed by evidence of virtual apartheid in America while crusading worldwide against the injustice of Communism. Meanwhile, news footage on television of the brutal treatment of black protesters in Birmingham and elsewhere brought the injustice of blacks’ treatment home to whites in a way that had not been possible via newspapers and radio. In addition, before the Immigration Act of 1965, there were fewer minorities in America competing for attention with blacks.

Today, however, there are no conditions that could spark attention to black America alone. The Cold War is long over, and Islamic terrorists indicate little interest in America’s racial landscape. Television raised America’s compassion for blacks to a certain level now ordinary but unknown even under, say, an administration as committed to social reform as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s. However, it is difficult to see how television, or any other technical development, could raise that level of compassion even further.

Finally, today there is a Latino minority as large as the black one, as well as legions of Asian and even African immigrants. W. E. B. DuBois’s memorable observation that “the color line” was America’s most important issue, echoed over the years by James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and so many others, has a different meaning now. The color “line” in question is today more of a web, snaking amongst people of assorted ethnicities, all with their particular claims to attention. The idea that America is all about black versus white, the way it still was in the days of Norman Lear sitcoms in the 1970s, is becoming more obsolete by the year.


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As such, transforming black America today will be a matter of local and incremental efforts, lacking the catharsis of the civil rights victories of the 1960s. The tacit assumption that compassion for blacks will be meaningful only in a dramatic, revolutionary package dulls the alertness of black leaders and thinkers to how change is actually occurring here and now.

One highly placed official in the black American power structure is given, in public addresses, to grimly stressing that a major obstacle to improving life in black America is that explicitly race-targeted policies are politically out of favor. This view is based on an assumption that black uplift must necessarily consist of what it did in the 1960s: white America on its knees expiating for its sins in the past, bending the rules in order to do so.

That view has an undeniable dramatic appeal. However, it also requires one to assume that black Americans are the world’s first people who are powerless to thrive under less than ideal conditions, which is not exactly what most of us would recognize as Black Power. Worse, people holding this view cannot help but lack interest in black advancement occurring amidst modern realities.

The kind of policy that this official would surely classify as lacking “compassion” is the discontinuation of racial preferences at the University of California in the late 1990s. This was, indeed, a victory in a battle led by Regent Ward Connerly explicitly devoted to getting America out of the business of classifying people by race. The usual suspects warned that the University of California system was on its way to resegregation. At UC Berkeley, where I was teaching at the time, I recall one aggrieved professor whipping up a crowd comparing the ban on preferences to the depredations of the Ku Klux Klan.

In reality, however, the California system’s flagship schools in Berkeley and Los Angeles have maintained smaller but by no means tiny black and Latino populations. And most important, the ones who would have been admitted to these two schools in the past (and very often not graduating or coming out with meaningless degrees) are now admitted to the second-tier but solid schools, where they do much better. The year before the ban on preferences, at UC San Diego there was exactly one black honors student in a freshman class of 3,268. By 1999, one in five black freshmen was making honors, just as one in five white ones was. And it bears mentioning that UC San Diego is no gulag: it is a lush, green campus in a city with perfect weather, home to hundreds of top-quality scholars.

It would appear that black students were left, in this sense, better off by Proposition 209. Yet for those distracted by the fantasy that black people’s only meaningful salvation will be through a stark, dramatic break with today’s reality, with white people coming once again to a Great Realization of something or other, what happened at UC San Diego is of no interest.


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It must be said that President Bush was partly responsible for the fact that to so many today, “Why Blacks Should Give Bush a Chance” sounded like a punch line. Although No Child Left Behind and the faith-based initiatives are couched in race-neutral language, they were intended as legislation aimed at improving life for black Americans left behind. That is, they address the very “savage inequalities” in school quality that Jonathan Kozol tells us set black kids up for failure, and they turn around violent, depressed neighborhoods. If there were no racial performance gap in schools, there would be no NCLB program. The Second Chance Act was not written with white ex-cons in Appalachia in mind.

However, Bush has always been rather chary of being explicit about the racial aspect of these things. It should be more widely known that Bush has been behind legislation more directly affecting blacks than anything significant under the Clinton administration other than the five-year time limit on welfare in 1996 (which Clinton had to be strong-armed into signing). That this is a counterintuitive point to so many is partly because Bush appears to want to keep it a secret.

However, the fact remains that those truly interested in what is helping black citizens would sniff these things out themselves. They do not because they are distracted by a revolutionary vision, beside which incremental changes such as ex-cons getting real jobs or teenagers reading a little better each year seem uninteresting distractions. On the contrary, these things are today’s revolution, complete with compassion.

A few years ago in a National Public Radio interview, I mentioned in passing that too few black movers and shakers seemed aware of the pro-black policies for which the Bush administration was responsible. A week later I got a letter from the editor of a national black publication asking me just what pro-black policies I could possibly be referring to.

The writer has a doctorate, and presumably reads a newspaper every day. And yet he was genuinely baffled as to what I could mean in defending the record of compassionate conservatism, and piqued enough in his bafflement to go to the trouble of sending me a snail-mail letter about it. To him, Bush was evil because he is a Republican and a conservative, case closed (and this was before Katrina), such that this writer could read about No Child Left Behind and the faith-based initiatives for years and remain without an inkling that this was good news for his own people. He isn’t alone, and his ignorance is partly Bush’s fault.


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I dearly hope that the next president will continue such policies and even expand on them, as they indeed comprise compassionate engagement with black people left behind. They are part of what makes America a great country.

However, keeping these policies alive will also require compassion of an additional sort, of a kind that continues to deliver help to a people so many of whose best and brightest refuse to even notice it.