All of my writing life, I have remained silent about being labeled a conservative. Friends have regularly encouraged me to set the record straight, but I refused until now for two reasons. First, I thought it would be self-serving. Second, I learned decades ago that disabusing critics of erroneous beliefs, illogic and convenient lies is next to impossible.
But here goes. I am not a conservative, and I am deeply offended to be seen as one.
Here is a definition of a conservative: a person who is averse to change and holds to traditional values and attitudes, typically in politics, religion and social practices. I have never been afraid of change, particularly change that promotes the common good for the greatest number of Americans.
I came of age as a college student at the apex of the civil rights movement during the 1960s. As a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, I marched from Selma to Montgomery; registered voters in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi; and organized maids, hotel workers and garbage collectors in Florida. Like many other activists of my generation, I went to jail several times for acts of civil disobedience. Was that conservative?
These are some of the organizations I support: National Public Radio, American Civil Liberties Union, Humanist Association of Florida, Unitarian Universalist Association, Amnesty International, Southern Poverty Law Center, NAACP, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, United Farm Workers, Defenders of Wildlife, Nature Conservancy, Environment America and the National Parks Conservation Association.
In addition to newspapers, these are among the magazines and journals I read: Mother Jones, the Nation, Slate, American Scholar, Daedalus, Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, Education Week and Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.
Here are a few of my core beliefs. You decide if they are conservative. Gay Americans have the same rights as heterosexuals, including the rights to marry and to adopt children. Women have the right to have an abortion. Marijuana should be decriminalized. All Americans should have health insurance, and the federal government should find a way to make it happen. American taxpayers owe the wealthy nation of Israel nothing.
I am staunch supporter of labor unions. During the 1970s and 1980s, I was the steward of my teachers unions at Kennedy-King College in Chicago and Broward Community College in Fort Lauderdale. I spent many years in fields and groves advocating for the rights of farmworkers. As a journalist, I continue to focus on the injustices these laborers endure. I grew up in a migrant family, and I am intimately familiar with the callousness of management. I will never forget the atrocities I witnessed as a child.
I reject the banning and censoring of any works of art — books, plays, films, music, paintings or sculptures. The works of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano are as legitimate as those of Georgia O'Keeffe and John Singer Sargent. Naked Lunch and Tropic of Cancer need not take a literary backseat to The Call of the Wild and The Good Earth.
So what is the source of this nonsense that I am a conservative? My race. When it comes to race in the United States, we practice a cruel double standard in matters related to so-called values, the area in which we are judged most quickly to be either liberal or conservative.
When my white liberal friends believe that education is essential to success and insist on their children doing well in school, they are called good, normal parents. When I, a black man, believe and do the same, I am dismissed as a conservative freak.
My white friends seek to rear their children in crime-free neighborhoods. I want black kids to grow up the same way. For wanting what is normal, I am condemned as a conservative and an enemy of black people.
Liberal whites I know read to their children and grandchildren and take them to museums and other venues of culture. Blacks should do the same for their children. For this belief, I am condemned as conservative.
My white acquaintances enjoy the benefits of nice homes and clean streets. I want the same for blacks. I want blacks to stop destroying their own neighborhoods and slaughtering one another. I want them to become zero-tolerant of crime, a normal sentiment.
Why do whites escape negative judgment for desiring normalcy while I am excoriated as being a conservative? The answer lies in America's double standard — practiced by both blacks and whites — when race and values converge.