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E-Letter To The Wall St. Journal And Shelby Steele Re: Ideology As Identity


I was very impressed by your opinion editorial, "Ideology As Identity" that ran in the Wall St. Journal last month. I think that you raised a very important subject by questioning whether or not Black identity has become synonymous with liberal ideology. Much of what you wrote about the relationship between the Black electorate and the Democratic Party was true. However, I was surprised at how little you seem to realize or are unwilling to admit that Republicans and conservatives are as guilty of not accepting Blacks, on the basis of politics, as are liberals and Democrats - Black or White.

While you focus on the inability of some Blacks to "accept" Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice as Black and the refusal of these same Blacks to credit President Bush with diversity, like they did with President Clinton, you totally ignore the reality that conservatives refuse to accept Black leaders as authentic leaders unless they too, openly accept the establishment version of conservative or Republican Party ideology. I have found this to be true of both White and Black conservatives.

In your piece you wrote the following:

"Why don't Mr. Bush's minority appointments win him the same moral authority with the left that President Clinton's won him? Why are Mr. Powell and Ms. Rice disparaged by many blacks as "not really black," and Ms. Chavez by many Hispanics as "completely out of the mainstream" of the Latino community? And why was Mr. Bush, who reached out to blacks more than any Republican in memory, also rejected more completely by blacks than any Republican in memory?

I believe that the answer to these questions begins in the fact that minority identities, since the 1960s, have become far more defined by ideology than by culture. Especially for blacks, but also for many Hispanics, Native Americans, and Asian-Americans, group identity is now shaped more by a liberal politics in which past victimization is deferred to, and for which redress is sought with preferential treatment, than by a unified culture.

In fact, this politics has gone a long way toward becoming the fundamental culture of these groups. What makes you "black" today is not membership in an apolitical culture but a belief in this politics. Today ideology is identity. Thus, it is not altogether absurd for President Clinton to consider himself black. Nor is it absurd for many blacks to agree with him even as they question Mr. Powell's blackness.

This is true despite the fact that black Americans tilt conservative on many surveys of values and issues. Even the humble black grandmother, who sings in the church choir and struggles to raise a grandchild abandoned to her care, must assert ideological liberalism in order to make others comfortable about her blackness. All blacks are accountable in this way because this is the identity out of which the group bargains with the larger society."

Mr. Steele where is your justification for the statement, " All blacks are accountable in this way because this is the identity out of which the group bargains with the larger society."?

I beg your pardon, I for one am among an enormous group of Blacks in this country who do not "bargain with the larger society" out of "ideological liberalism", as you put it.

Mr. Steele, I find your comments to demonstrate that you are as guilty as the Black Democrats, of what you accuse them of. While they ignore Black skin color and a Black cultural identity if it is not married with liberal and Democratic Party politics, you ignore Black cultural identity because it, in part, is connected with a liberal ideology.

But instead of taking the time to consider the significant differences between the political ideology of Black independents who agree with Black liberals on some points and disagree with them others, you uncritically lump all of Black America together in a "ideological liberalism".

You too, reject Black people on the basis of political ideology.

And even deeper than that, you ignore that there exists a Black political ideology that subsumes the convenient liberal and conservative political paradigm that you and your Black intellectual liberal counterparts are so comfortable with.

It is obvious, by what you have written, that you have no use for the majority of Blacks who either do not vote, are not members of the Democratic Party or who only vote Democrat occasionally.

They are the majority in Black America, yet you do not even recognize them because they do not show up on your radar screen as "liberal" or "conservative".

I also gather that it is far more convenient for you to assert a Black conservative victim status than to admit that there are legitimate reasons in the Black community for not voting for President Bush or for rejecting the notion that Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice's appointments should be viewed by the Black community as a form of diversity.

But how do you handle the fact that there are numerous Blacks, like myself, who recognize the qualifications of Rice and Powell and their enormous capacity to perform their jobs but who refuse to transfer their appointments as paying a race dividend for the Black community because neither Rice and Powell have a track record of working in the Black community on a daily basis.

Mr. Steele, does that make us liberal in your opinion? Is that all that you can see in the resistance that some Blacks have to seeing the appointment of Powell and Rice in racial terms?

How superficial it is for you to only see the challenge in the Black community to the Powell and Rice appointment's racial dimensions, as marketed by Republicans, in liberal-conservative terms.

I suggest that you read our editorial, "On Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice Republicans Sound Like The NAACP". You may find that on Bush's cabinet selections that you conservatives have not been as conservative as you think you claim to be.

And you might come to understand some of why your colleagues and associates have failed so dramatically in connecting with a group of people that, in many respects, agree with you.

Your opinion that somehow Blacks were illogical in their rejection of President Bush reveals the Black cultural and political ideological blind spot that conservatives suffer from. You wrote, "And why was Mr. Bush, who reached out to blacks more than any Republican in memory, also rejected more completely by blacks than any Republican in memory?"

Mr. Steele, you and other conservatives seem to have a genuine problem with the concept of "reaching out", but only when it comes to Black America.

Conservatives seem to have no problem understanding the basics of human nature and marketing when they "reach out" to senior citizens, Jewish-Americans, Christian conservatives and members of the business community.

Conservatives and Republicans execute the process of reaching out masterfully when it comes to these groups. 1) You form relationships with opinion leaders in these communities 2) You seek input from these opinion leaders and their membership 3) You propose policies and initiatives that are consistent with the shared principles and values of both conservatives/Republicans and 4) you advertise the synergy.

President Bush violated this principle by ignoring steps one and two. He did little to form relationships with Black cultural and political leaders and he did not seek input from a cross-section of Black opinion leaders who have a connection with the Black electorate.

And while the Republican Party bought $1,000,000 worth of ads on the American Urban Radio Network, the Bush campaign, on its own, did no significant advertising on Black gospel, talk, R&B and hip radio stations.

And he did a horrible job in reaching out to influential Black ministers, pastors and Imams who are trusted in the Black community. (He of course, has done a far better job in that regard since becoming president)

However, instead of admitting the obvious shortcomings in the Bush "outreach" to Black America which contributed to his poor showing, and instead of conceding that White conservatives and White Republicans approach the Black community in a far more tentative and inconsistent manner than they do other communities whose support they want, conservatives would rather craft a neat argument that somehow they were rejected by the Black community simply because they weren't liberal enough.

Mr. Steele, that is too easy and is really a phony argument...maybe even intellectual cowardice.

And it all goes back to my point that conservatives just like liberals, only want Blacks around them who think, walk and talk just like them.

You are disingenuous to try to act as if this something that is only unique to liberal Democrats.

You further reveal the bankruptcy of your position when you write, "that black Americans tilt conservative on many surveys of values and issues".

Mr. Steele, I hear this tired argument all of the time and do believe it to be true. But the question that begs to be asked is: If it is true, why can't conservatives attract the support of Black America?

You would like us to believe that this is true because the vast majority of the Black community now equates being Black to being liberal or Democrat.

You are in denial.

The reason why conservative Republicans can't garner more support from the Black electorate is because you conservatives, especially the White ones, like so many others, want to hand-pick which Black opinion leaders you will deal with, as the door by which you will "enter" the Black community.

You make "ideological conservatism" the litmus test for who you will deal with which makes you no different than the White and Black liberals that you criticize.

If you were really looking to make inroads with the Black community you would not just look for card-carrying conservatives to deal with; you would consider Black independents whose worldview, in many respects, is conservative in nature.

Instead, you hide behind the excuse that you can't get around the Black liberal establishment. I suggest that if you would go after Black opinion leaders with a significant relationship with the Black community and grassroots you would be able to reach Black people and no Black liberal establishment could stop you.

The question is, maybe, do you really want to deal with the Black electorate?

Conservatives act as if intellectual agreement is all that they seek from the Black community and Black opinion leaders. If that attitude is sincere, then why don't conservatives in general, and you Black conservatives in particular, embrace or seek a dialogue with Nation of Islam Leader Minister Louis Farrakhan?

Be honest.

He is obviously pro-family values, pro-life, and against welfare as we knew it. He is for tax elimination, even the capital gains tax. And although he is for fixing the public school system, he is a strong supporter of private schools and vouchers where appropriate. He is against filth and degeneracy in the arts - music and, television and movies. And he is death on drug abuse.

With the exception of conservative commentator Armstrong Williams, who has publicly supported Minister Farrakhan on points where they share agreement, you can't hardly find a conservative willing to approach the enormous Black constituency that Minister Farrakhan represents, by dealing straight up with the Minister.

However, I have noticed Black liberal Democrats, Black civil rights leaders and Black socialists who have approached Minister Farrakhan for a dialogue and even to "recruit" him in support of their causes, even though they knew he did not agree with all of their philosophy and approach. Instead, they focused on the fact that he does agree with them on certain points and more importantly, the constituency that he represents agreed with them on many points. They respected his authentic connection to the Black community enough to meet with him.

Why aren't you black conservatives beating down Minister Farrakhan's door?

He certainly does not equate his Black identity with a liberal Democrat ideology. He certainly does not place any political party above his cultural and political identity as a Black man.

So how would your argument about Blacks who forfeit a cultural identity for an artificial political one apply to him and the millions of Blacks, who just like him, reject a pure liberal Democrat ideology? What is really the problem?

The problem is that conservatives have no room in their community for an independent Black man who is not willing to tow the party line and who is not willing to be a surrogate for a political movement and ideology which claims to be color-blind but which really has no room for anyone who is race-conscious.

And furthermore, I believe that Black conservatives who may privately agree with Minister Farrakhan and who know and have felt the racism that exists in the conservative movement, are afraid of what their White counterparts and backers would say if these Black conservatives were to embrace Minister Farrakhan and publicly work with him on issues of common interest.

What reason other than race, that he is not a card-carrying conservative and that he is not a Christian, as most would define it, do you have for not working with arguably the most influential Black leader in America?

Apparently, it is not just the liberals who equate race with victim hood. Conservatives do it as well - totally ignoring the reality that race is a natural phenomenon with real cultural and group identity implications that have been so poorly managed in America that there exists a racial divide.

Mr. Steele, there are plenty of Blacks who see their Black skin color and culture as adding up to more than a membership card in the Democratic Party.

There are also numerous Black people who believe in a Black political identity that may find us in agreement with conservatives on some issues and liberals on others.

However, because we think of ourselves as Black first and conservative second or even third, you wouldn't give us the time of day.

Mr. Steele, you should understand that there is more to being Black than just skin color or victimhood status used to "bargain with the larger society".

Some of us are Black, all day long, in skin color, culture and political ideology.

I know that may be hard for you to accept because it blows the illusion that if you are Black you should either be liberal or conservative but get used to it…you will be seeing a lot more of us in the future.

And we are willing to work with White conservatives and White liberals where appropriate - but not as junior partners who read from a script or talking points memo, which ensures that we stay in a box.

Some of us don't need to check with conservative, libertarian and liberal think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the CATO institute, the Hoover Institute, Brookings, or the Center On Budget and Policy Priorities before we speak our mind on a subject.

Haven't we all seen enough of the Black surrogates, both liberal and conservative, who can't think for themselves?

I hope that you can move beyond the narrow confines of the real hyphenated Americanism: liberal-Americans vs.conservative-Americans, and begin to honestly deal with the reality that "Black" means more than you give it credit for, politically and culturally speaking.

It is a new day and some of us in Black America have decided to act like it.

Sincerely,


Cedric Muhammad

Wednesday, February 21, 2001

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