by Guest Contributor David Schraub, originally published at The Debate Link
About a year ago, I penned a post entitled “Taking Thomas Seriously“, about the particularly political ideology held by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. In it, I noted that both liberals and conservatives misunderstood Thomas’ orientation because they tried to map him onto “standard” (White) political categories. Thomas is a conservative, yes, but specifically he is a Black Conservative, which is a very particular philosophical tradition that does not perfectly align with plain old vanilla White conservatives.
Not all Black conservatives are Black Conservatives (that is, there are conservative Black people, such as Ward Connerly, who I would not identify as part of the Black Conservative tradition), and, more importantly, not all Black Conservatives are conservative (in that, on our “traditional” left/right axis, some would be placed on the left). However, because most people, particularly most Whites, aren’t familiar with Black Conservative ideology, it leads to significant misunderstanding about where its adherents are coming from when they do show up on the national stage. All this is preface to point out that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, he who has nearly derailed Obama’s campaign, is a Black Conservative. To be sure, he’s not a conservative (needless to say, capitalization matters in this post). But he’s not a “liberal” either — his political alignment doesn’t comfortably fit onto models premised on White ideological positioning. Black Conservatism, like Black Liberalism, is not wholly divorced from “standard” Conservatism and Liberalism — but at best they intersect at odd angles.
Black Conservatism essentially operates off the premise that racism is an ingrained and potentially permanent part of White-dominated institutions. As a result, Black Conservatives essentially tell Blacks they can only rely on themselves to get ahead in America — counting on White people to be moral or “do the right thing” is a waste of time. Politically, this means building tight-knit communities that emphasize the patronizing of identifiably Black institutions, with the end result being social independence from White America. In this, it mixes at least partial voluntary self-segregation with a significant aversion to external dependency, with Whites and White institutions being defined as outsiders who can’t be trusted. Every dollar that flows out of the Black community and into the hands of White America is a dollar that is in the control of a group that, at best, has a unique set of interests that can’t be counted on to converge with those of Black people. Contained within this school are thinkers as far-ranging as Derrick Bell, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, Clarence Thomas, Huey P. Newton, and Malcolm X. Black groups and leaders who were/are not Black Conservatives include W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, the NAACP, Thurgood Marshall, and yes, Barack Obama.
Black Conservatism holds obvious parallels with traditional paleo-conservatism (hence the name): the mistrust of outsiders, looking out for one’s own people first (and concurrently, self-reliance over dependency), lack of faith in high-minded moralism and ideology. But since African-Americans are a minority people in the United States, some other qualities are grafted on which are less familiar to majoritarian conservatism: most notably, the nation is considered to be an outsider, making the ideology significantly less inclined towards patriotism than the average White conservative. The “anti-American” elements, normally associated as a far-left belief, actually are a closer relative to conservative xenophobia: the analogy would be White American Conservative: United Nations :: Black American Conservative : United States. Each represents a distant governmental body, run by outsiders, which represents a putative threat to group autonomy. The mistrust of authority, often characterized as a left-belief, becomes a right-ward belief once its conceptualized as mistrust of foreign authority — within their own communities, Black Conservatives often create very rigid hierarchal models (particularly on gender issues). Ultimately, though, what Black Conservatives preach is independence: As Marcus Garvey, an key Black Conservative writer in the early 20th century put it, “No race is free until it has a strong nation of its own; its own system of government and its own order of society. Never give up this idea.”
Virtually all the controversial statements said by Rev. Wright make the most sense as expositions on Black Conservative ideology. His disclaimer of the pursuit of “middle-class-ness” is a term of art; he’s flaming Black people who are more concerned about looking good to White people than they are about insuring the health of their own community — including those who haven’t yet moved up the ladder. His extraordinarily grim predictions about the state of racism in America are textbook Black Conservative arguments, as are his efforts to break down the idea that America is a particularly moral government that can be trusted (rightly, when he notes that America too has engaged in state-sponsored terrorism in Latin America and supported it in South Africa; wrongly when he alleges that we infected Black folk with the AIDS virus).
I’m not saying I agree with all of his points — I’m not a Black Conservative, and as I outlined in the Thomas post, I’m not sure that a White person can morally adopt the premises of Black Conservatism. But we can’t understand what we’re yelling about until we properly position it within its philosophical school. This is why I feel confident in asserting that Obama and Wright are not of a political kind — they operate from totally different ends of the Black
Conservative political spectrum. Obama is an integrationist, the very act of running for President means that he believes that there is a space for Blacks in our hitherto White-dominated government, and all of his speeches, policies, and writings have indicated he believes that there is hope for an America that is not separated and divided on racial lines. All of these positions would be derided as doe-eyed idealism by a true Black Conservatism. And if there is one thing Obama can’t be accused of, it’s of being too much of a pessimist.
[Editor’s Note: This post was sent to Andrew Sullivan and linked to on Sullivan’s blog. Some of the readers that migrated over to The Debate Link posted comments that led to an update and a follow up post. We will host the follow up post here tomorrow. The original update is below. – LDP]
UPDATE: Welcome, Andrew Sullivan readers! One thing I wanted to get at in this post, but didn’t get to, was how Wright’s remarks fit into a particular model of Black theology, which I also identify as fundamentally in line with Black Conservatism. Wright’s Jeremiads differ not at all from classic White Evangelism, except in who they condemn.
Ultimately, as I told Andrew, the interplay between Black Conservatism and Liberalism is, I believe, representative of the Janus-face in the Black political psyche. All but the most hardened Black Conservatives would, I believe, admit that they would prefer a world in which racism had ended, where people of all backgrounds could live in trust and harmony. They just think of it as an idyllic fantasy; one that distracts Blacks from the every day need to survive and flourish in a world where the fantasy is not the reality. And Black Liberals, in their more despondent moments, wonder if the Conservatives are right — if their long struggle is ultimately futile; if White people ever will truly accept Blacks as equals, brothers and sisters. Wright is more than Obama’s crazy uncle — he’s the other side of Obama’s message of hope. Obama represents those Blacks who still have faith in the ability of America to ultimately overcome racial stratification. Wright represents those who can no longer believe.