John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


A Conservative Urban Agenda?

Posted on March 22, 2010
The same weekend that the President won his biggest legislative victory, a group of black leaders, including Jesse Jackson and radio talk show host Tavis Smiley, convened a meeting in Chicago to criticize the President for not doing enough for their besieged community.

“It would be fascinating right now to see how Martin Luther King Jr. would navigate and negotiate a dance with Barack Obama, with this president who doesn’t want to focus on a black agenda,” Smiley, a frequent critic of Obama’s policies, told the Sun-Times recently.

I think Smiley has a point.

With unemployment rates for the black community averaging 15% nationally, with certain areas, like Detroit, having unemployment rates hitting 50%, and with the unemployment rates among black males aged 18 to 35 averaging about 35%, there is no doubt that the African-American community is facing a real crisis.

And the President, who is the nation’s first African-American President, hasn’t said much about the community’s plight.

I understand why.  The President wants to be the nation’s first post-racial President.  He doesn’t want to be put into a “black” box, so to speak, where he is seen only as a black President.  He and his advisors believe that this is bad politics and could hurt his chances at re-election.

I think that is a mistake.  As a white Republican, perhaps I don’t have much standing to talk about the problems that face black America.   But as an American who is concerned about the future of the country, I can talk about the plight of certain communities that are falling dramatically behind.  And I can push for an agenda that I believe will help not only those communities, but help the country at large.

When I worked for Denny Hastert, one of the first things he did when he became Speaker was to work with Congressman J.C. Watts, Congressman Danny Davis (a Chicago Democrat) and President Bill Clinton to enact empowerment zones, areas that were designated within the inner city to attract business development.   Those enterprise zones worked in attracting business, and many urban areas are now thriving.  The problem is that with gentrification came displacement, and instead of a transformation of the black underclass into a black middle class, we have seen black migration from the cities to the suburbs in search of cheaper housing.

I think Republicans should offer what I call the three “c’s” agenda, an agenda aimed at tackling crime, taking out corruption and instilling competence to give young African-Americans a chance to compete more effectively for jobs.

The President has called for a surge for Afghanistan.  He should call for a surge for the inner city to stop the daily bloodshed that hits black America the hardest.  Everyday, the killing spree continues.  It must stop.   If it doesn’t, economic growth will never thrive.

Political corruption at the local and state level has a disparate impact on the black community.  Living in Washington D.C. and seeing the excellent work of Marion Barry as well as the unbelievable corruption that has afflicted the school union and administration, I have become convinced unless political corruption is pursued as aggressively in the African-American community as it is pursued in the rest of the country, there will be no chance for this community to keep up.

By competence, I mean the ability to do a job well.  To be competent means to have the tools to succeed in the marketplace.  But do our inner city schools teach competence, let alone excellence?  Do they train the next generation of doctors, lawyers, auto mechanics, computer technicians, and teachers?  Do our inner city schools have what it takes to get the job done?  Of course they don’t.

So I suggest an agenda to make those schools work better to teach competence.  First, get rid of the teacher’s unions for inner city schools.  Second, give the teachers the power to control their classrooms.  Third, give teachers incentives should they succeed in getting their students to succeed.  Fourth, dramatically shrink the non-teaching bureaucracy in urban school systems.  Fifth, require parents to actively participate and actively learn along with their kids. Sixth, make the kids work harder and study longer.

To many of my Republican friends, this urban agenda might seem completely beside the point.  Most, if not all, of these areas are represented by Democrats.  Republicans don’t seem to have much of a chance in getting a significant percentage of the black vote.  With so many other things going on in the country, with so many other problems, why should Republicans spend even three seconds worrying about what happens on the other side of town?

Well, the answer is simple. If one part of your house starts to rot away, you would fix it before the whole thing crumbles.  Similarly, if one part of your society is tumbling downwards, you should fix it.  Otherwise, it undermines the whole community.

And who knows, if we had an agenda that we pursued vigorously that actually would break the chains of dependency, stop the cycle of violence, and end of spiral of poverty, perhaps we could get some votes out of it.

A conservative urban agenda could work, if we could find leaders who had the political courage will to propose it and then fight to make it happen.

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