I would like to thank Lee Walker and The New Coalition for having me here today. I have had a chance to talk with Lee on a number of occasions, and I am not sure if I can serve as an advocate at this point, but I can say that as a result of our conversations, I am certainly beginning to question a lot of things about my own experience and about what the future might be like.
I woke up one day not too long ago and I realized something about what it means to be a conservative. I was struggling for my own definition of it, in terms of what the practical impacts of it might be, and I said to myself, after I paid my house note, that anyone who has a mortgage is a conservative. I dare anyone to debate that point with me. And I will tell you one other thing about my own personal debate: If I pay any more for a gallon of gas, I am going to be a confirmed conservative!
At the Center of the Debate: Inequality
“There is all the difference in the world between treating people equally and attempting to make them equal.” No issue is debated more heatedly in the public sphere than the role of our societal institutions in bringing about greater equality. We see it in arguments that range from school vouchers to the teaching of history, and culturally relevant kinds of teaching of history and the science of politics.
This debate ranges from the drawing of boundaries for congressional districts to debates surrounding at-large versus single-member seats at the local level, and campaign finance reform to empower the many over the few. It is also present in the current controversy surrounding racial profiling in law enforcement and the tension that perpetually strains government, business, and industry.
Astride the tension that permeates the debate is the concept of affirmative action and its role in defining conservative issues, liberal approaches to solving society’s problems, etc. Unfortunately, when you look at the life experience of people, it also defines both where we have come from and where we are going. I believe that ultimately, we have a struggle to define these issues in a way so that race does not matter.
The underlying imperative that continues to drive this debate forward is, of course, that when one examines the quality of life experiences in our society by race, ethnicity, and gender to a lesser extent, a statistical delineation of inequity leaps from the numbers. What to do about it and how it got there are the issues.
Inequality defines contemporary policy at every turn. Of course, the dilemma is not unique to our era. It reaches as far back as the African slave trade and continued into the Reconstruction era following the Civil War. In between all of these events, we witnessed the creation and dismantling of the tangible instruments of discrimination and oppression that were Jim Crow, redlining, and the selective discrimination of unionism. Belief systems about this history are what cause opinions within and between communities, and especially within the African-American community, to differ regarding how to address inequality today.
Buy In or Buy Out?
Now through the issues of the moment, we are dealing with something that, at any point in time in our history, has always been a matter of heated debate. When we start talking about the individual and collective reaction to the social, political, and economic environment defined and created by the institutions of our society, the ones that service this debate, we are looking at education, law, government, and politics. These debates and events have, in many ways, been consistent and predictable. In this sense, for this topic at hand, differences and solutions to the problem were debated from the slaves’ quarters, in churches, and in the schools that followed.
And now we bring this debate to contemporary representative government. Should one as an individual, or as a group, pursue a constructive course of change through a participatory inclination within the rules of our institutions of our society, or should there be a non-participatory assault upon the status quo that rejects the finer points of our system? Should we do it that way, and focus upon its limitations, rather than its opportunities?
I think that is the crux of the debate. Do we buy in? Or do we buy out? I think this defines the extremes of this continuum. And that debate is something that rages not just within the African-American community, but in the larger political continuum of conservatism versus liberalism.
Now concomitant with this choice, the role of our political and economic system, as the vehicle for changing the life experiences of its citizen participants, has always been the elephant in the middle of the table. Is its role to create opportunity by a redistribution of advantage? Or is its role to do so by removing the obstacles of the same? How one behaves, how one believes, and how one beholds amidst the infinite complexity of these concerns ultimately defines the idea of conservatism, even among African-Americans, in a way that unfortunately too often is fettered and distorted by the politics of race and class.
Progress Is Occurring
The Gordian knot of this equation is whether we are shaped by this system, or do we shape it. Are we masters of our destiny, or are we slaves to it? Certainly there is no absolute here, and in the final analysis, a little of both occurs. As a result, when you have people as individuals who participate (or not) in our society in different ways, the collective experience of this individual participation can be described along racial and ethnic lines too often.
Depending upon whether one sees the glass half full or half empty, this experience of life in our society is beginning to blur at the edges, and is becoming less defined. I believe that, because I believe that progress has occurred and is occurring. If one believes that we are not fettered by history, but we acknowledge the facts of all that transpired before, then we are able to have a rational approach to action that may unfold and may allow our esteem to be preserved. We need not operate from a standpoint of expecting and depending upon a handout. Then you have a healthy approach to addressing life’s challenges.
If one beholds that opportunity exists, amidst the inevitable discrimination that accompanies the choices and values of every man, then constructive participation within the framework of a democratic system results in enterprise, and ultimately enterprise will be the great equalizer. And I might add that this is also contingent upon an understanding of progress and that it has occurred, how it has occurred, and how we maximize the leverages within our system to make it continue. If one behaves in a matter that is consistent with the rules of the game then the benefits and rewards of constructive enterprise will be extracted from existing opportunity and create an infinite array of opportunity for those yet to come behind us.
The Continuum of Conservatism
How does all of this define the continuum of conservatism and its tension within the African-American community?
The answer is simply this: Our lives are merely defined by this spark of energy that we carry around within us. It activates us for however long we have here on God’s green earth, because this is merely just a travel through space and time, and at some point we will pass our individual intersects. This bundle of energy is finite. It must be marshaled and expended through a series of choices that, by their very design, leave us satisfied or wanting.
In pursuing these life expectations, we must decide to buy in or to buy out of our system. We can participate in it, or we can reject it. This choice has consequences for a race of people that has been historically disenfranchised, and enfranchisement ultimately means participation in the core values that define a democratic society: the pursuit of excellence, both individually and collectively; productive pursuit in employment and in daily life; and responsible citizenship as an obligation and as an opportunity.
I believe that conservatism, unfettered by the perseveration of fanatics and zealots, understands this. It acknowledges opportunity in the system. It acknowledges the relevance of time; that where we are now is many years from where we were, no matter what the pessimists and the cynics may say. That where we are going is not nearly as far as where we’ve come from, and that equality truly may be just around the corner.
On a more practical note, as I said earlier, anyone with a mortgage is a conservative, and to this I can add, anyone with a teenager better be! Once one acquires this privilege of citizenship, we are more inclined to pursue change without destabilization, and that is very important. A society in disarray benefits no one and the system has proven that it yields unparalleled and unprecedented rewards.
This, then, defines the face of black conservatism: the pursuit of these rewards through the use of intellectual capital, with reasoned ambition and emotions, and practical solutions. It is the route to significant group-benefitting achievements that change our social environment and enable the holding of jobs, the payment of bills, and the preparing of a way for the generation that follows.
One could say that black conservatives buy in, but with vigilance. They have an understanding that true freedom does not attenuate the expectations of anyone, that self-reliance is a virtue, that our individual and collective destinies are of our own making, and that every breath is precious and not worth wasting.
Thank you for your attention.
Dr. Hardy Murphy is superintendent of the Evanston/Skokie school system, a suburb north of Chicago, with a doctorate in educational psychology from the University of Texas.