Guess Who's at the Heart of the Silent Majority

A year ago last April, the Gallup Organization released a poll measuring public opinion on a variety of public policy issues. Respondents were categorized in a variety of ways - by gender, age, region, type of community, and race. Most interesting was the difference between black and white attitudes.

While both groups opposed the legalization of marijuana, one group was slightly more adamant about it - 75 percent to 21 percent, in one case; 73 percent to 24 percent, in the other.

Both groups strongly supported making English the nation's official language. But, again, one group was more gung-ho - 84 percent to 15 percent versus 82 percent to 16 percent.

One group favored a constitutional amendment permitting school prayer by 80 percent to 17 percent. The other favored it by 71 percent to 26 percent.

Neither group supported legalizing same-sex marriages. One group disapproved by a margin of 71 percent to 23 percent; the other by a margin of 66 percent to 29 percent.

While both favored government-funded school choice programs, including public, private, and parochial schools, the margin varied. One group supported them by 73 percent to 24 percent, while the other supported them by 57 percent to 39 percent.

One group was even more supportive of a flat tax than the other - 51 percent to 41 percent versus 49 percent to 38 percent.

By 51 percent to 49 percent, one group supported reducing federal spending on health, education, and welfare, while the other group opposed it by 52 percent to 44 percent.

Would it surprise you to learn that, in each case, the more "conservative" group was not the white one, but the black? If so, (1) you have a lot to learn about how blacks really think, as opposed to how we're thought to think; and (2) you are not alone in that regard. The examples cited above are just those in which African-Americans' responses were more conservative than whites. There are as many examples in that poll (and others) of African-Americans voicing overwhelming support for conservative positions, albeit in somewhat smaller proportions than whites.

Blacks' rightward leanings

To cite a few, blacks are for the death penalty for murderers (64 percent to 31 percent), for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution (75 percent to 24 percent), for across-the-board budget cuts (60 percent to 37 percent), and for term limits (70 percent to 29 percent).

Well, surely, you might think, blacks and conservatives part company on the question of affirmative action. If so, you're mistaken about that too. While whites were opposed to minority preferences in hiring and school admission by a margin of 84 percent to 13 percent, blacks, too, were opposed, by a healthy margin of 74 percent to 23 percent.

Most Americans would be surprised by these results. Indeed, probably most black Americans would be too. After all, 84 percent of blacks voted to re-elect Clinton, and polls consistently show that no more than a third of blacks identify themselves as "conservatives."

Why is there such a divergence between black opinion and black voting behavior? Two principal reasons come to mind.

First, conservatives a generation or so ago were, by and large, adamantly opposed to the civil rights movement. Elemental rights were at stake in those simpler days - the right to be served at the same lunch counter as whites when you were hungry, the right to drink from the same water fountain as whites when you were thirsty, the right to sleep in the same hotel as whites when you were tired, the right to sit on a bus wherever you wanted to when your feet hurt. Understandably, blacks to this day are, at best, suspicious of, and, at worse, hostile to any ideology that was on the wrong side of that debate, however meritorious it might otherwise be.

To a conservative, the term, "states rights," connotes a hallowed concept, evoking the cardinal notion that the best government is that closest to the people. It is the magic antidote to the poisonous effects of a pervasive, overarching, and yet remote federal colossus that spends too much of our hard-earned money and controls too much of our lives.

To many African-Americans, however, "states rights" still conjures up nightmarish images of racist Southern police chiefs armed with bull whips, attack dogs, and fire hoses, poised to maul, muck, and mire them in a sinkhole of deprivation and despair. It was a code word for keeping blacks "in their place" - down. Equality, at least before the law, was, at last, achieved only by the intervention of a strong federal government, over the vehement objection of states-rights advocates. While it is true that it was conservatives who opposed the civil rights program back then and not Republicans per se, and while it is true that those conservatives were mostly Democrats, that is irrelevant to many blacks today. All that matters to them is that the conservative party today is the Republican Party and the liberal party today is the Democratic Party.

Wooing black conservatives

Today's conservatives cannot realistically hope to erase a generation of black distrust of and antipathy toward them in a single election cycle or even a couple of them. It took a long time for blacks to defect from the party of Lincoln (even Richard Nixon managed to get a quarter of the black vote when he ran against John Kennedy); it will take at least as long for them to return.

But, just as goodwill gestures on the part of Democrats ultimately paid off, so frequent and conspicuous gestures today on the part of Republicans will be necessary. Bob Dole's moving speech to black journalists during last year's presidential campaign, his selection of Jack Kemp as a running mate, a man almost obsessed with reaching out to minorities, Ralph Reed's contrite confession of white Christian complicity in Jim Crow, and the Christian Coalition's "Samaritan Project" that seeks to improve life in the inner city are all good starts.

Still support the safety net

Second, even though blacks are as supportive of balancing the budget and reducing social spending as anyone else, many are still convinced that government has at least a limited role to play in caring for those too young, too old, or otherwise too incapacitated to take care of themselves. And this "government as ace in the hole" mentality encompasses all socio-economic strata, including the best educated and most affluent blacks. Indeed, unlike the case with any other group, save perhaps Jews, who suffer from the effects of an arguably somewhat similar history, the most educated and affluent blacks may be even more supportive of the notion of a government safety net than those who are on lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder.

And, yet, both blacks and conservatives must reach out to each other. Conservatism may be the dominant ideology, but it will never be the dispositive one until it speaks to all people's hopes and fears, in language that all can understand and appreciate.

And, likewise, blacks will remain second-class citizens, their concerns forsaken, their dreams deferred, as long as we slavishly vote the straight Democratic ticket. While Democrats and Republicans fall all over themselves courting the Jewish vote and the Cuban-American vote, for example, blacks' political predictability allows Democrats to take us for granted and encourages Republicans to ignore us altogether.

There's a silent majority out there, one so silent that its own members have trouble hearing themselves talk and think. Blacks are "conservative" by instinct, tradition, and experience. If only conservatism can bestir itself to send out the searchlights for those who've strayed from the fold, little by little, one by one, we'll start making the long journey back home.

* Clark Kent Ervin is assistant secretary of state for Texas.

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