- - Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The left and the right have wrangled over why the majority of African-Americans have rejected various conservative political movements that have arisen in the aftermath of the civil rights era up until today. The predominant view on the right is that African-Americans have fallen victim to a liberal plantation mentality that makes them over-reliant upon government and unable to do for themselves. Another view is that the broad coalition between liberals and African-Americans beginning with the anti-slavery movement, continuing through the civil rights movement and up to the present has reaped significant dividends — ending slavery, lynching and segregation, extending the franchise and enforcing the Voting Rights Act, and implementing remedial programs in higher education and corporate hiring practices to help African-Americans establish an economic foothold that had historically been denied them. 

The upshot of the conflicting impulses within the black community is that African-Americans tend to be socially conservative, wedded to traditional values in their personal lives, and yet decidedly liberal in their voting preferences. This somewhat paradoxical reality has to be a starting point for analyzing African-American receptiveness to a potential presidential candidacy by Dr. Ben Carson

This is not the first time a conservative black messiah has arisen with a message of self-reliance and traditional values as a cure for the social pathologies that plague the black community. The roots of black conservatism can be detected in the writings of slave poet Phillis Wheatley, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, educator and institution-builder Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, the Nation of Islam and many others throughout America’s history.

Thus, Dr. Carson’s prospective candidacy should be viewed through the prism of black America’s flirtation with, and ultimate repudiation of, American conservative politics. A debate raged in the aftermath of Reconstruction about whether blacks should continue to wage a civil rights struggle in the midst of a white Southern backlash, or instead put down the bayonet and pick up the broom. The country as a whole was weary from an internecine war that had almost destroyed it, and there was little appetite among the Northern victors to further antagonize the South by insisting that it protect the rights of the newly freed slaves.

Perhaps sensing the tide of events, black leaders such as Booker T. Washington decided to strike a compromise that would enable blacks to repair and rebuild their lives economically while saving the civil rights battle for another day. Washington spoke of earning dignity and respect based on proving one’s usefulness to industry through work ethic and industriousness. 

At the World’s Fair in Atlanta in 1895, Washington spoke of a grand compromise on civil rights, in which black and white society could be as “separate as the fingers” on matters of social equality, but unified as a fist on issues of economic development. And so began a tense and fraught relationship between black labor and the American power structure that lasted from the turn of the century until that relationship became so frayed by violation of blacks’ human rights that it no longer served as a freedom suit. 

Blacks under de jure segregation were able to lift themselves up educationally (primarily through segregated land-grant colleges supported by corporate philanthropy) and economically (by serving the needs of the black community, which were largely ignored by the mainstream economy). But the ultimate limits to this were tested as the rising black middle class — generations who had been exposed to foreign travel and education, who had made major contributions to America’s victories in World War I and World War II — found themselves nonetheless excluded from the full rights of citizenship and subject to indignities and outright oppression. Ultimately their education, exposure and sacrifice for the good of this country rendered such treatment intolerable. The lesson: There was only so much that bootstrap-pulling could accomplish before social agitation was needed to break through the system of racism and white privilege that permeated American society.

The question African-Americans must now ask is whether the time has come for a second major change in strategic focus from civil rights to economic development. Several facts may militate in favor of that position. First, the American public is war-weary and coming out of a protracted economic recession. Chronic unemployment among working-age black males especially has reached epidemic levels — levels which indicate that the majority of black males are not earning enough to support healthy families. 

This trend is not only affecting the black community, however. It is also affecting the society as a whole. Labor force participation among males is at an all-time low, and projected to fall even further by the year 2020. The millennial generation (25-34 year-olds) has delayed marriage and home ownership far longer than any preceding generation, which could potentially have dire consequences for future economic growth. Illegal immigration has created a class of workers who have helped undercut U.S. wages, and who live in the country without formal rights or redress from workplace abuse.

So the question is how we can unify the nation and reignite the economic engine of this country. What items are essential to national unity, and what can we agree to disagree about while moving forward together?

A broad-based coalition bringing business, civil rights coalitions and conservative politics together would have to have as its central pillar economic development and job creation. That might mean, for example, that reductions in the corporate tax rate could be exchanged for the repatriation of jobs from abroad, and the institution of worker training and vocational programs aimed at reducing the chronic unemployment. It might mean that we begin to shrink the national debt with across-the-board cuts to both defense and social benefits, and use some of the savings to invest in public infrastructure and sustainable energy solutions that would make us less polluting, more efficient and less dependent upon military interventionism to protect oil interests. There are a whole host of areas in which compromise could produce significant dividends to the nation as a whole.

Where the deal will fall apart is on issues such as voting rights and due process under the law. It makes no sense whatsoever to have economic development if you cannot protect your gains with political power. That lesson is evident from the post-civil rights era. Furthermore, it is clear that police abuse of authority is becoming a major problem, not just in the black community, but nationwide. The police are not an army and should never be on military footing in the normal course of protecting and serving. There should be a broad-based coalition between Second Amendment advocates and the civil rights community on the rights of citizens to protect themselves from illegal search and seizure and detainment without cause. Prison reform is another issue on which civil rights activists and fiscal conservatives can find common ground. It costs more  than $50,000 per year to house a prisoner, and less than $10,000 per year to provide a child with a quality education. We cannot continue to grow our prison population and expect to be able to have a truly free society.  

For Dr. Carson to successfully incorporate significant portions of the African-American vote within a broad-based national coalition, he has to identify issues that will be motivating and energizing enough to overcome the social inertia that has kept many segments of society from interacting with each other. This will require creative use of technology and messaging, and a strategic orientation that goes beyond mere compromise. Compromise assumes a zero-sum game in which each side settles for less, but both get something. Dr. Carson should try and create a coalition in which everyone gets more by working together than by standing apart.

Omari West is a frontier markets private equity consultant at the Horus Group and resides in Venice Beach, Calif.

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