Why you should care
It’s a conservative’s dream: driven, focused, African-American men who are determined to succeed.
In his famous speech on race during the 2008 campaign, then-candidate Barack Obama acknowledged the challenges facing black men in America. He said that he was not “so naive as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle.”
Five years and one election cycle later, the ambitions and hopes of young, black men have improved, but the opportunities have not kept pace. The economy may be on its way back, but not for black men, whose 12.7 percent unemployment rate is almost twice that of whites. I’m both frustrated and hopeful when I think about it. The frustration is obvious. The hope, especially in light of the Trayvon Martin case? Perhaps not as much.
Here’s the deal. For years, conservatives have fundamentally argued — sometimes implicitly — that if black men (and minorities in general) were more industrious and ambitious, they would get more more education, hold better jobs and lead better lives.
The ambitions and hopes of young, black men have improved, but the opportunities have not kept pace.
Well, I have a new headline. From New York to California, I have never seen a more ambitious group of people than the young black men I am encountering. Whether it is because of President Obama’s two-term success, the triumphant examples of hip-hop entrepreneurs like Diddy and Jay Z or an overall sense that dreams really can come true, I am coming across – and being sought out by – black people who are going after success with a determination usually associated with aspiring athletes.
Consider Anthony Hamilton, 52, who grew up bitterly poor in inner-city Dallas and was illiterate until the age of 26. When he finally learned to read, he decided to never read another book until it was one that he had written. Every day for 13 years, the Bay Area barber and former factory worker would write short stories, poems and rough-draft book chapters in his spare time. A few years ago, Hamilton finally self-published his first book, Chocolate. He has since written three more books and has sold more than 10,000 copies. Hamilton has also opened up his own barbershop in the heart of Silicon Valley, where he employs three other people.
I have gotten to know Hamilton as a friend and barber. Few people have the unending drive to succeed that he does. Not a week goes by where he is not chasing down a lead. He had two strokes two years ago and missed only a week of work. He essentially taught himself to speak again so that he could keep his business running and pursue his dreams.
Anthony is not just a feel-good anomaly. He is what I routinely encounter across the country, from Paul Simmons, a former heroin user turned aspiring musician, to Damian Rouson, a Stanford-trained engineer who just left an impressive post at NASA to start his own business.
What conservatives have wanted for years — a driven, focused, African-American population — is right in front of them.
When the GOP talks about reaching out to people of color, it often references Latinos or immigrants as the kind of people who embrace hard work. Well, guess what? What conservatives have wanted for years — a driven, focused, African-American population — is right in front of them. These black men want to succeed, and I believe they will succeed. They would welcome — much more than the GOP might expect — conservative, real-world solutions that offer tangible opportunities in exchange for results.
Indeed, the real opportunity here is for that rare politician to recognize this significant demographic, just like Ronald Reagan did with blue-collar workers, the so-called Reagan Democrats. But it will take someone who can take their concerns seriously. Conservatives looking for a real point of distinction would do well to engage black men and cultivate their ambitions.
Imagine if that had been a major part of Mitt Romney’s pitch in 2012. Imagine if it became part of Chris Christie’s 2016 platform, or Rick Santorum’s. The opportunity is there, and as President Obama himself has demonstrated, it only sounds far-fetched until it happens.