Presidential candidate George W. Bush has promised to "rally the
armies of compassion" in addressing America's most pressing social
problems. Single mothers? Absentee fathers? Drug addicts? Let's just
mobilize family, neighborhood and community resources.
Bush's pxolicy assumes that armies of compassionate volunteers will
march out of the suburbs to rally around the black urban poor. But Bush's
optimism lacks a basis in reality. The fact is, very few inner-city
residents experience the benefits of programs run by suburbanites who
abandon their cushy pads to live beside "the least among us."
As Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton, authors of "American
Apartheid," demonstrate, 75% of blacks live in highly segregated
neighborhoods. Indeed, the neighborhoods in which poor urban blacks
reside are "hyper segregated" places where residential segregation
creates nearly total social isolation.
Yes, compassionate white suburbanites volunteer for all sorts of
things. But where? Close to home, among their neighbors. Other than on
the stage of the Republican National Convention, these people are not
very likely to have much contact with those most in need of their labor
Marvin Olasky, the oft-described "father" of compassionate
conservatism and an influential advisor to the Bush campaign, tells many
tales of wealthy people doing extraordinary things. Former professional
athletes abandon lives of fame and fortune to minister to lost souls in
poor black communities. The CEO of the nation's largest real estate
development company leaves his job to develop inner city neighborhoods.
The list goes on. Bush envisions that these generous individuals will
provide role models that he believes have been absent from poor urban
neighborhoods, role models who hold regular jobs, marry and have children
(in that order) and maintain life-long commitments to their families.
But Bush and Olasky seem to forget that a fundamental feature of
compassion is that it is rooted in empathy. And people are empathetic and
compassionate to people who are most like themselves, people from similar
neighborhoods, schools and cultures.
Bush makes much of the profound religious devotion of many of those
who are courageous enough to bridge racial and socioeconomic boundaries.
While it is true that religious Americans are more likely to volunteer
than their secular counterparts, this does not address the question of
who they help. The volunteering habits of evangelical Christians are
particularly telling in this regard. According to Harvard political
scientist Robert Putnam, author of "Bowling Alone: Civic Disengagement in
America," when evangelical Christians volunteer, they are vastly more
likely to assist fellow evangelicals than those outside of their own
religious community. As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once famously
said, "Eleven o'clock Sunday morning is the most segregated time in
What does this mean for poor blacks in a compassionate conservative
Bush has some hard thinking to do. Yes, Americans are compassionate.
Yet it is profoundly unrealistic to expect them to exercise compassion
outside of the communities in which they live. There is a fundamental
disconnect between the reservoirs of compassion and the communities that
need it. The reality is that compassion itself is segregated.
Eleanor Brown is a Fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, DC
Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times