Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Is the Tea Party Bad for Blacks?

Last week I asked whether tea partiers were more likely than the average American to be racist. This week I want to consider a different question. Would Tea Party policies, if enacted, widen racial disparities between blacks and whites?

People will of course answer this question differently based upon their ideological predispositions. Conservatives might say that tea party policies would have no impact on blacks, or even a positive one. They believe that liberal welfare policies since Great Society have led to the breakdown of the black family by incentivizing women to keep having children and to not settle down and marry lest they lose their welfare payments. Children without fathers are more likely to have discipline problems and more likely to grow up in poverty. All the while, single-mother headed families have become dependent on government programs and been sapped of their initiative. By drastically reducing welfare, conservatives might argue that they will foster a better culture in the black community which will ultimately produce self-suffiency.

Liberals on the other hand see things differently. They would point to disparities in income and education as well as continued racial discrimination as reasons that the government must still take an active role in promoting the welfare of blacks. Repealing healthcare laws designed to ensure that the poor—who are disproportionately black—for example might only lead to worse health outcomes for blacks relative to whites.

Furthermore, returning more power to the states at the expense of the federal government has uncomfortable overtones for liberals. Segregationists invoked states’ rights to oppose integration. Historically, the federal government has been the better guarantor of minority rights. The federal government for example passed several civil rights acts—including the one in 1964 that Rand Paul has issues with—the voting rights act, as well as the fourteenth amendment before southern states could return to the union. Along the way, it had to force these pieces of legislation on recalcitrant states. Older blacks especially are understandably leery of new calls for more autonomy for the very states that discriminated against them.

There is a more nuanced way to make this argument that doesn’t involve simply invoking history. Individual states might be more likely to have above-average levels of racial tension and segregation. In states like this, the black minority would be at the mercy of a white majority that harbors racial animus. At the federal level though, that white majority in Mississippi might be balanced out by voters in regions without as much racial tension, not to mention other minorities like Asians and Hispanics.

These arguments are difficult to evaluate in certain cases. It is certainly plausible that repealing healthcare legislation which would disproportionately help blacks would increase the health gap between blacks and whites.

But in other ways, tea party policies might not be so bad for blacks. Tea party politicians would probably continue Obama’s “race-to-the-top” funds for education which encourage states to innovate with their education systems. Remember, conservatives tend to oppose teacher tenure and across-the-board pay raises; instead they favor merit pay and school vouchers. The depth of the achievement gap means that experimentation is a necessity. What remains to be seen though, is whether tea partiers would push to reduce educational funding, which would also be problematic.

As for the argument about southern states suppressing minorities, a lot has changed. North Carolina and Virginia both gave their electoral votes to Obama in 2008. They are becoming more diverse with more Latinos moving in. Moreover, a new generation has been born with tolerance and political correctness as the norm. However, there is no doubt that substantial racial tension still exists in the South (as it does elsewhere in the country).

It would be fascinating to see a debate between the NAACP and the tea party about whose policies would best help the black community to help settle this question. I doubt we’ll see it anytime soon though.