Maxwell:  What’s so conservative about common sense?

7/10/1994  Columns By Bill Maxwell, Times correspondent – PERSPECTIVE section of the St. Petersburg Times Newspaper


A Tampa Bay-area radio talk show host who recently introduced me to his listeners as a “conservative black columnist” was surprised after I told him on the air that I’m not a conservative.

He isn’t the first to mistakenly call me a black conservative. Most black people who tend to blame whites for their problems and many white liberals who support black causes also call me a conservative. I dislike labels, especially this one. But if I must be labeled something, please call me a pragmatic liberal or a black person who has common sense.

I’m called a conservative, first, because Americans _ black and white _ see black people as a monolith. Blacks, unlike whites, are expected to hold similar beliefs on certain issues. Blacks, however, aren’t alone in this regard. Many other ethnic and religious groups, Hispanics, Haitians, Jews, Catholics, Muslims, are also expected to be monolithic. What produces this illogic is the naive belief that shared cultural experiences among members of minority groups should make individuals think the same.

Where this notion came from, especially relating to black people, I don’t know. Our culture has always been multifaceted and deeply stratified in terms of skin color, money, education, employment and pedigree.

In my high school, for example, fair-skinned and dark-skinned students viewed one another across a vast chasm. They knew that they were different, and they did different things. Educated blacks didn’t routinely hang out with their lesser-educated brethren. And, for sure, wealthy blacks rarely cavorted with the lower class.

Racism, in varying degrees, was one of a handful of factors these groups shared. Even on the topic of racism, light-skinned and dark-skinned people often differed in their perceptions of racism’s effect on blacks as a group. In other words, various black groups didn’t _ and still don’t _ necessarily see the world the same.

Which brings us back to the notion of blacks as a monolith and the suggestion that I’m a conservative. I’m not a conservative.

I believe, for instance, that a woman has a right to an abortion. I believe that gay people deserve the same rights as other Americans and, in some cases, need special protections. I believe in affirmative action. I believe that 2-Live Crew and Andrew Dice Clay have the right to peddle their smut.

Guns are a menace to our sense of safety, and I want to see them intelligently controlled. Is this a conservative position? I am troubled by the high number of religious zealots who’re winning elected offices. Conservative? I’m a Unitarian Universalist, a registered Democrat, and I voted for Bill Clinton. (I’ll vote for him again.) I’m a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, the Nature Conservancy, the NAACP and the Arbor Day Foundation.

So, why am I seen as a conservative? Precisely for my stands on certain black issues.

For instance, I acknowledge racism’s insidiousness, but I refuse to let it control my life. And I don’t believe that others should let racism control their lives either. Instead, we must become self-actualizing. I refuse, moreover, to wake each morning wondering what barriers of racism I must confront. To the contrary, I rise each morning thinking of the possibilities I can create for myself and those dear to me. For this belief, I’m seen as a conservative. To me, it’s so much common sense.

I constantly advise black girls to stop having babies out of wedlock. Why is this considered a conservative position? Not having babies is more than a mere matter of survival. It’s morality; it’s taking responsibility for the welfare of young lives; it’s ensuring quality of life. Since when did believing that children deserve the best care possible become the intellectual and ethical property of conservatives?

As one who was a college teacher for the last 20 years, I’ve learned that everywhere the majority of successful students study hard, attend class regularly, exhibit positive attitudes and tell the truth. Yet, when I champion these values, blacks, in addition to calling me a conservative “sellout,” accuse me of trying to force black students to “act white.” And white liberals accuse me of ignoring black students’ so-called learning style.

Every day in the nation’s major cities, young black males gun down one another. When I express my outrage and challenge these young men to stop this carnage, I’m suddenly a conservative. What’s conservative in believing that fratricide is self-destructive? Are liberals supposed to believe that killing is good?

Black people constantly complain that they can’t get loans to start businesses, accusing lending institutions of racism. I agree that racism prevents many from getting loans. But I believe also that blacks could help themselves if they would simply work together, if they pooled their resources, forming financial coalitions with clout. I’m simply talking about self-preservation. When, pray tell, did this concept go conservative?

Again, I’m not a conservative. I simply know that successful, decent lives are all built on the same foundation of universal values. These values defy the political labels of liberal and conservative. They have at their core respect for others, faith in the future and a willingness to help oneself. These are values that benefit everyone _ especially black people.