Black Conservatism Revisited

by Guest Contributor David Schraub, originally published at The Debate Link

First of all, I want to thank all of the folks who have helped touch off this conversation and have given me so many kind words, particularly Andrew Sullivan for the original link, Rod Dreher at Crunchy Con and the Dallas Morning News, Jim Buie, Robert George, Rafique Tucker (who gets special shout-out as a fellow Marylander), and all the other folks who have left comments or emailed me. I really think this is an important conversation to be had, and I’m particularly gratified that so many people have been so willing to accept with an open mind the existence of parallel Black political orientations which don’t perfectly map on to what we normally think of as “liberal” and “conservative”.

I wanted to take this opportunity to tie up a couple loose threads in my brief exposition of Black Conservative ideology, the most glaring of which was relying a bit too heavily on separatism as a unifying factor of Black Conservatism. To be sure, I think that it is a very important strand in Black Conservative thought, and one that exists left and right. But someone inquired how Clarence Thomas (who is quite tied in with an important “White” institution, after all) fits into this metric. And he doesn’t — at least, not quite. Justice Thomas is clearly not a separatist. But he does, I believe, subscribe to the more critical aspect of Black Conservatism — a deep skepticism that Whites will abandon racism, particularly due to high-minded moral appeals. But unlike the separatists, Thomas’ Black Conservatism simply urges Black people to accept that racism will be there and will always be there — and win anyway. Elsewhere I called it the “hit me with your best shot” strain of Black Conservatism — that which does not kill Black people makes them stronger, so rather than complain or fruitlessly war against the existence of racist people and racist institutions in American life, just grit your teeth, lower your shoulder, and win the game.

Now, this may make sense for Black people. The reason I say I respect Black Conservatism is that — in a world where racism still is an important constricting force — it’s important to let Black people decide for themselves how they want to adapt to it. I don’t think I have the right to ask Black folks to constantly be warriors for integration.

But, I don’t think White folks can take this same position. It’s one thing for a Black person to say to his fellows, “look, Whites are always going to be racist, so you got to figure out a way to survive in that world rather than wasting your energy on a fruitless quest to end racism.” It’s quite another for a White guy to tell Blacks, “look, we’re always going to be racist, so you have to figure out how deal with that and thrive anyway.” Black conservatism is a very convenient philosophy for White people, because it essentially assumes the worst in us, absolving us of our duty to overcome racism. I think our response to Black Conservatives has to be one of respect, but also of a burning desire to prove them wrong — to show them that, yes, we can and will extend the hand.

But anyway. Ultimately, then, the unifying force in Black Conservatism is not separatism (though many are, to varying degrees), the unifying force is the belief in the permanence of racism. Black Liberals seek ways to obliterate racism, Black Conservatives seek ways to thrive in spite of it.

So that’s the main thing. The other quick point I wanted to expand on was where conservative Black Conservatism differs from conservatives who are Black (someone asked why I wouldn’t characterize Ward Connerly as a Black Conservative). The short answer is that the latter simply doesn’t believe that racism is a major factor in affecting the life chances of Black people anymore — their problems lie on other axes. Needless to say, these can start to bleed into each other — the line between saying racism exists but you should simply push past it through the will to succeed and saying that racism is not really that important is thin, but it is there. Blacks who are conservative don’t necessarily believe that racism continues to be a big player in the affairs of Blacks, Black Conservatives think it’s a permanent feature of the landscape, but that can’t be an excuse for failing.