Building Bridges That Last

Note: I had the honor this past Saturday of speaking as part of a panel at the Faith and Freedom Conference in Washington, DC, on the topic, “Building Bridges to African-Americans.” I had prepared some remarks to share, but the discussion went in a slightly different direction than I expected, so I’m sharing them with a wider audience instead. I’m pleased to have the opportunity to speak on a topic that is close to my heart, building bridges – in the metaphorical sense, of course! I’ve always believed that, in life, we build either bridges or walls and, depending on the situation, there is a time and place for each. As people of faith, we are called to guard our hearts, and defend ourselves against the evil that is prevalent in this fallen world, but we are also commissioned to build bridges to reach people and, in word and deed, show them God’s love so they, too, may ponder his mercy and grace, and seek a personal relationship with Him.

That’s why when we speak of building bridges to black Americans – and you’ll forgive me for not using the term ‘African-American,’ because I don’t like it for a variety of reasons – I’m thinking beyond this year’s election, although I’ll address that urgent topic as well as the bigger picture.

You see, there is little you can do in the next few months to build a bridge to the black community that they’d be willing and eager to cross. The emotional connection of racial identity that most blacks have with this president is too strong and, while all empirical evidence suggests they should be livid with him for failing to make their lives better, that feeling of pride and solidarity because the family that lives in the White House looks like them is too compelling to overcome.

So what can you do between now and November to reach the black community? There are a few things you can do tactically that might peel away some votes or at least give some people a reason to stay home on Election Day.

The president’s endorsement of redefining marriage has caused the first measurable rift between him and the ironclad support he receives from the black community, with a recent poll suggesting he could lose North Carolina as a result. Nationally, his approval rating among blacks is down from 86 percent to 77 percent. That doesn’t mean those who now disapprove will vote the other way, but they might be disinclined to vote.

With black unemployment at 14 percent, and less than half of blacks between the ages of 18 to 30 having full-time jobs, his decision this week to halt the deportation of an estimated 800,000 young illegal aliens, and grant them legal work status, will simply add to the pain of joblessness and underemployment in the black community.

It also adds to the growing perception that he takes the black vote for granted, as he makes special concessions to every other interest group in the liberal universe in the hope of securing their votes.

If you talk about the importance of family and children having a committed mother and father in the home, if you talk about putting Americans back to work first, and you ask the hard question, “Has having a black man in the White House really made your lives better?”, maybe you can chip away before the election in November at that monolith called the black vote, which has been solidly reliable for liberals since President Johnson’s landslide election in 1964.

But what happens after that? I know what’s happened in the past, and that cannot happen this time if we are serious about building bridges to the black community.

In 2001, as a member of the Bush Administration, a memo came from the White House asking black political appointees to take part in an initiative to win more blacks to the conservative cause. I enthusiastically indicated my interest, my name was passed on - and I never heard from anyone on it again. In February, I missed out on a black conservative forum hosted by Rep. Allen West of Florida - and I’m pleased to be able to attend his second such forum on Monday – but I’m told that a Republican National Committee representative was invited to the first forum, but didn’t show up.

You see, Republicans have been building pontoon bridges rather than permanent bridges to the black community. They expect an immediate return on their investment and, when they don’t get it, they bail out. That’s no way to build a coalition with a community that has been trained and conditioned to distrust Republicans and conservatives.

For my part, it’s disappointing because I believe that a return to individual liberty, self-reliance, family, civil society, entrepreneurship, and faith isn’t just a matter of political advancement. It’s a matter of life and death. Ultimately, my desire to build bridges to the black community is so lives can be saved, because the policies of yesterday and today, however well-intentioned they may be, have emasculated us, demeaned me, constrained us, or killed us.

The only direction we can go from here is up, so my admonition to you if you’re to be bridge builders to the black community is to step up, keep it up, and call for back up.

If you don’t step up, then nothing will happen. You can’t be afraid to engage the black community on issues where you may find common ground. Whether it’s sanctity of life, preserving the definition of marriage, helping entrepreneurs start businesses and create jobs, or reforming education so all children, especially black children who are trapped in substandard and violent schools, can get off to the right start, find a way to connect.

After that, keep it up – stay connected. Don’t treat people like quarterly financial statements, where you change course if you don’t get the immediate profits you expect. This is a long-term project, and you need to be there not just during an election year, but year in and year out, building trust and showing that you care.

Finally, call for back up. I don’t know if it’s the emergence of Barack Obama, or the radical nature of his agenda, but black conservatives are more visible and more vocal than ever before. It’s really frustrating to the liberals because we are exposing their failures and their condescending, patronizing treatment of the black community, and they want to shut us up, but we just won’t go away. Let us be an integral part of the solution; we may not be treated any better, but our chances of getting in the door to start the conversation might be slightly better than yours!

So abandon the pontoon bridges and start building bridges that last by stepping up, keeping it up, and calling for back up. Let’s try to make breakout sessions like this a novelty five or ten years from now.