Despite its seeming novelty and the monolithic nature of its contemporary precepts, black conservatism has a history that reaches back to at least the late eighteenth century and is capacious enough to include figures as diverse as Frederick Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston, Malcolm X, and Bill Cosby. The tradition, often but not exclusively peopled by the middle class, constellates around three key features. The first is a deep desire for racial autonomy that, in being effected, would ultimately result in personal independence. In short, black conservatives take a citizen’s constitutional prerogative to pursue happiness very seriously. The second is the commitment to obliterate race as a limiting factor or indexical feature of human achievement. Toward this end, black conservatives are quick to repudiate theses that pathologize African American life, producing a defensive posture that once impelled Ralph Ellison to famously question, “Can a people live and develop for over 300 years simply by reacting to white racism?” (Ellison 1995, p. 339). The third is a compulsion toward social respectability, one that includes obeisance to society’s laws, a hearty work ethic, religious piety, family values, sexual morality, and a kind of “role model” politics that if unable to exemplify admirable black behavior to other blacks, would at least prevent the race from being embarrassed in the eyes of the (white) American public. This ethos not only resulted in Rosa Parks rather than the impoverished, less refined, single mother Claudette Colvin becoming the cause célèbre of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott; it also at times has inspired impassioned jeremiads that scold the black masses for behavior conservatives deem dissolute and licentious. This policing practice has also at times kept an unnecessary harness on more demonstrative resistances to U.S. racism.
For conceptual purposes, the tradition, like most other American phenomena, can be divided into its modern and postmodern versions, with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. marking the decisive break. Black conservatism of the past pragmatically accepted racial segregation as a fact of American life and sought to thrive despite its imposed social constraints. Consequently, there is a manifest enthusiasm toward exclusively black institutions. Starting with the accomplished shipbuilder James Forten and through the agrarian wizardry of Booker T. Washington, the marketing genius of Madame C. J. Walker, and the urban entrepreneurialism of Elijah Muhammad, black conservatism saw racially homogeneous business relations, education, and religious life as an existential and economic antidote to their social marginalization, thus creating the irony that the lion’s share of this epoch’s black conservative politics proffered radical opposition to the will of the American mainstream.
In distinction from this strain, postmodern conservatism is a child conceived in the political atmosphere following the putative fall of legalized segregation and thus does not find its grounding in institutions that organically emerged from a discrete black body politic. Instead its birth site may be located in the strategic conference rooms of the Republican National Congress in 1968 when party leaders founded Heritage Groups (later to become the Heritage Foundation) to increase minority membership among its ranks. More beholden to American individualism and noninterventionist government than their predecessors, theorists such as Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, Alan Keyes, and Angela McGlowan find in the passing of civil rights legislation in the 1960s the indisputable end of American racism. With race no longer impeding black accomplishment, these commentators encourage African Americans to defrock themselves of long-standing resentments about discrimination and embrace what they see as a future of unlimited opportunity. Leader of the antipreference movement the Civil Rights Initiative, Ward Connerly, asks blacks to assume the following empowered, optimistic posture that he has perpetually donned: “I have made my commitment not to tote that bag of racial grievances and I’ve made it more frequently than I’d like to admit because the status of victim is so seductive and so available to anyone with certain facial features or a certain cast to his skin” (Connerly 2000, p. 18).
Bent on preventing past black victimization from entering contemporary discussions about social justice, today’s black conservatives saturate the public discussion with diatribes about black victimization in the present, which they believe come in the form of government welfare programs that allegedly enfeeble black ambition and limit black achievement. They claim that whatever black failure persists does so because of the dependent, lower class culture that such programs perpetuate.
This generation of black conservatives has been criticized for silencing their outrage toward blatant gestures of racism, accommodating the avarice of neoliberal economics, and supporting the neonationalism that underwrites the aggressions of contemporary U.S. imperialism. Though officeholding conservatives have only been tepidly responsive to the appeals of their black supporters (Republican administrations have continued to tolerate affirmative action programs), the latter are viewed by Americans with both skepticism and seriousness because of the largesse they command from powerful mainstream organizations such as the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institute, and the Fox News Corporation.
SEE ALSO Black Liberalism; Black Power; Capitalism, Black; Conservatism; Imperialism; Libertarianism; Liberty; Race-Blind Policies; Racism
Boston, Thomas D. 1988. Race, Class, and Conservatism. Boston: Unwin Hyman.
Connerly, Ward. 2000. Creating Equal: My Fight Against Race Preferences. San Francisco: Encounter Books.
Eisenstadt, Peter, ed. 1999. Black Conservatism: Essays in Intellectual and Political History. New York: Garland.
Hurston, Zora Neale. 1995. Court Order Can’t Make Races Mix. In Zora Neale Hurston: Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings, ed. Cheryl A. Wall. New York: Library of America.
McGlowan, Angela. 2007. Bamboozled: How Americans Are Being Exploited by the Lies of the Liberal Agenda. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
Thindwa, James. How Black Conservatives Hurt Their Cause. Black Commentator 154 (October 13, 2005). http://www.blackcommentator.com/154/154_thindwa_black_conservatives_pf.html.
West, Cornel. 2001. Race Matters, 2nd ed. New York: Vintage.
Tyrone Simpson II