Late last week, Newt Gingrich delivered a curious, under-reported speech at the American Enterprise Institute. He called it, “Answering the Obama Challenge”, and it was framed as a response to Barack Obama’s historic speech about race. (Video and transcript available here. My emphasis.)
Segregation was a horrible institution imposed by force by the state. It ruined the lives of people, it crippled their futures, it was a terrible injustice, and it is totally authentic to be angry about it. As Senator Obama notes,
the legalized discrimination—where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments—meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations.
Anyone who thinks that there was not this destructive impact is simply not in touch with the reality of American history for African-Americans.
It’s been a very long time since I’ve heard a high-level conservative discuss America’s social and economic disasters in terms other than condemnation for the people suffering them. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to reconcile this Newt Gingrich with the one who, 9 days before, called Obama’s speech “infuriating”.
Was there an epiphany? Probably not.
Senator Obama asserted:
Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s white and black students.
I’m going to repeat the closing part of this. “. . . helps explain the pervasive achievement gap. . .” That is simply factually false. The Detroit schools are the third or fourth most expensive schools in America. They’re a disaster. The District of Columbia schools are not bad because of racism. The District of Columbia schools are bad because it has an incompetent bureaucracy, a failed model of education, a unionized tenured system. It is utterly resistant to improvement. That has nothing to do with racism.
Gingrich is either ideologically blind on this point, or he’s talking from both sides of his mouth. Yes, these schools are a disaster, but they, too, sprouted from earlier racist policies, just as much as the failures he affirms. Intellectual dishonesty and/or idealogical demagoguery is how we arrived at this point in the first place, and Gingrich’s speech didn’t rise to the level it needed.
He’s absolutely right, though, about the need to totally re-approach policy. The system, at every level, has been a failure. Pumping money into the same failed approaches is, as he said, the very definition of Einsteinian insanity.
Let me make the key case for boldness. I think this is a great national debate we need, and it’s a debate which I would hope Senator Obama would be prepared to engage in. The greatest case for boldness and new solutions is that the current system is destroying people. This is not a choice between a productive, effective system and improvement. This is a choice between utter disaster with enormous, profound human consequence, and the need for new thinking, new ideas, and new solutions.
Yes, this is the “great national debate we need”. Yes, validating the anger felt by so many in our society (including folks like Jeremiah Wright) is the correct way to frame the issues.
In spite of the digs and gotchas, I’m encouraged to see someone at Gingrich’s level willing to take up the issue. It’s unfortunate that the call for policy re-examination isn’t coming from John McCain, but hopefully Obama will engage the debate nonetheless.
In fact, we all should.