On the Black Conservative–Urban Times piece

The following was originally published at the Urban Times on March 22, 2013. it is posted here for archival purposes.

A look at the racial composition of a Tea Party rally like this one goes a long way to explaining why the black conservative is still a noteworthy phenomenon in American politics. (Fibonacci Blue/ Flickr)

A look at the racial composition of a Tea Party rally like this one goes a long way to demonstrating why the black conservative is still a noteworthy phenomenon in American politics. (Source: Fibonacci Blue via Flickr)

A look at one of the most maligned, mocked, and misunderstood tropes in American politics.

The most unusual thing about the “black conservative”, or the “black Republican” is that it is a uniquely American phenomenon. While conservative parties in other nations, such as in the United Kingdom or in Canada, have had issues with appealing to minority voters, the inability of the American Republican party to do so is on an entirely different level.

Chief among the minority groups the Republican party has been unable to connect with are African-Americans, who have shunned the party by margins of over 80 percent in presidential elections since the political realignment of the sixties—and this is without looking at the two most recent cycles that actually featured an African-American candidate on the Democratic ticket.

This overwhelming black support of the Democratic Party makes the black Republican such an unusual cultural phenomenon. Every Republican National Convention, for example, is marked by references—comedic and otherwise—to the lack of black delegates. Even the HBO program Girls, that oft-referenced cultural lodestone of the chattering classes, used a black conservative love interest as a way to acknowledge criticism of the cast’s whiteness while also keeping the audience off balance.

However, despite its cultural place, the black conservative is for many simply a political prop, deployed for an obvious ideological purpose when needed but otherwise ignored. To see a broader view, one needs to look at the history of the black conservative thought, which can be traced to Booker T. Washington, a major black leader in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Educator Booker T. Washington was one of the first prominent black conservatives. (Source: cliff1066 via Flickr)

Booker T.Washington’s characterization as a black conservative is in contrast with one of his contemporaries, W.E.B Du Bois. Washington and Du Bois were once allies as black leaders, but a rift between the two opened after Washington’s 1895 “Atlanta Compromise” speech. The speech was notable because it advocated an acceptance—for the time being—of the status quo of political racial inequality. Instead of immediately agitating for political civil rights, an aim Washington said was of “the extremest [sic] folly”, he proposed that African-Americans focus on self-improvement within their own communities, accumulating economic success and allying with white southerners to secure protections from the harder edges of segregation. His view was that those with something to offer to society would eventually be given rights.

W.E.B.Du Bois was dubious of this outlook, critiquing Booker T. Washington in a 1903 essay, “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others.” This essay describes Washington’s “compromise” as an “attitude of adjustment and submission”, countering that in the years after Washington laid out his vision, conditions for African Americans in the south had not markedly improved. The divide exemplified by this century-old argument, between those in the black community who would focus on internal community improvement versus those who would focus on pushing back against discrimination in society, lives on today.

There are several perspectives on the “new” black conservatism that has emerged in the past few decades. One view laid out by University of Iowa law professor Angela Onwuachi-Willig, in a lengthy analysis of the roots of Clarence Thomas’ political and judicial worldview, argues that black conservatism not only comes from a place of deep concern for the black community, but also is ideologically distinct from white conservatism in many ways. Two pillars of the new black conservatism she identifies are a desire for the wider black community to escape the self destructive frame of themselves as “victims”, and a desire for blacks to reduce, if not eliminate, their dependence on government programs. Similarly, according to Willig, black conservatives do not deny the continued existence of racism, but simply view economic advancement through self-help as a more productive pursuit.

The other, far more hostile view, comes from Harvard University professor Martin Kilson, in his  “Anatomy of Black Conservatism” (Jstor/subscription required). Unlike Willig, he characterizes modern black conservatism as being little different from white conservatism, incapable of providing substantive solutions advancing the black community. He also challenges the black conservative view that the community is held back in economic advancement by an ideology of victimization, pointing to the success of the Jewish community despite a similar “victim” experience throughout history. Most critically, he characterizes contemporary black conservatives as “ritualistic dissenters,” who are “manipulating the dissident tradition and its modalities (rhetoric, allusions, demeanor) to support established patterns of power.”

That latter view is generally representative of the low regard that black conservatives are held in the broader African-American community. The most infamous example of this is the hatred of conservative Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas. He has been described by some as “self loathing”,  while others have argued that he owes an“apology” to the black community. Efforts by groups (aside from those on the right) to have Justice Thomas speak or receive some sort of honor are usually met with pushback from other African-Americans. Justice Thomas is often characterized as a weak legal mind, and is usually (erroneously) characterized as an ideological vassal of fellow justice Antonin Scalia.

Herman Cain, like many black conservative politicians before him, quickly went from contender to comic relief in media accounts. (markn3tel/ Flickr)

Herman Cain, like many black conservative politicians before him, quickly went from contender to comic relief in media accounts. (Source: markn3tel via Flickr)

The black conservative in the realm of wider politics does not receive better treatment. Some of the most prominent right-wing African American candidates and politicians as of late—former Tea Party congressman Allen West, pizza magnate and former presidential candidate Herman Cain, and former presidential candidate Alan Keyes, have all been successfully characterized less as serious politicians and more as outlandish, cartoonish showmen either lacking ideas, or full of dubious ones. A quick look at all three figures suggests a sort of chicken and egg question; are black conservatives in politics seen as lacking seriousness and sincerity because of unfair attacks from a “liberal media”, as those on the right are wont to claim, or do black politicians seeking greater publicity take conservative positions knowing that they’ll be more prominent as a “dissenting” voice in their community? It is hard to say.

So what is next? The black conservative will still generate confusion and consternation from observers for as long as the Republican Party can be credibly criticized as a party of old, angry white men. A GOP molded to the contours of a more multicultural America, one that can tap into a positive vision of self-reliance, instead of a harsh “tough-luck” libertarianism, is one that might finally gain a real foothold among a broader base of African-Americans. Here the political class has looked to the recently appointed Republican senator out of South Carolina, Tim Scott, as a man with seriousness and a vision.

One might ask why a person of color, but especially a black person in the United States, would identify with a right wing ideology. To ask such a question is to, on some level, question the judgment and pigeonhole the black conservative, to rob them of their agency. Why would, or should, someone see the world through a different lens from the one they’re expected to take, is the usual undertone of such an inquiry. To see the black conservative as anything other than one of many perfectly valid ways to be black in America, is to be profoundly unfair to a serious political outlook. This is not to say that conservatism has the right solutions for the black community, but it is to say that they have the right to a seat at the table.

Moussako, Abraham. “On the Black Conservative .” The Urban Times, , sec. Critical Conversations, March 22, 2013. http://urbantimes.co/2013/03/on-the-black-conservative/ 

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