Few fixtures on America’s political and cultural scene tell us more about the perilous state of our racial discourse than the phenomenon of black conservatism. While virtually every other confluence of race and ideology is par for the course—white people, Asians and Hispanics can be liberal or conservative—the notion of a black conservative still strikes many people as dubious. It’s not that a black American who holds conservative policy positions is inconceivable. But, within the tangled fray of American identity politics and the culture wars, black partisanship for the anti-woke side comes across as an aberration, even a kind of betrayal. However, black conservatism is far more complex than that and highlights broader issues around race, identity and the national culture.
Black Americans are no less likely to be conservative than any other group. According to a 2016 Washington Post analysis, a full 45% of black people identify as conservative, compared to 47% who identify as liberal. Still, the overwhelming support for the Democratic Party among blacks, coupled with the popular narrative propelled by Black Lives Matter that places white racism and black oppression at the center of the American story, gives the false impression that there is no cultural or political debate on race issues in the black American community. Yet black opinion often diverges from these expectations. For instance, according to a 2016 Pew poll, 60% of black people without college degrees reported that race hadn’t affected their chances of success in life. Whether or not that is true is secondary to the disposition it reflects. Likewise, despite activist calls to defund the police, a full 81% of black people report wanting as much or more policing in their own communities. So why are these opinions ignored?
This misperception has its origins in the cultural and moral transformation of the 1960s following the civil rights movement, when a critical mass of the population finally came together to abolish institutional white supremacy and legalized segregation. But this tectonic shift also delegitimized the country’s moral core. By acknowledging the scope of racism, white people and their institutions underwent a significant loss of authority and white Americans felt complicit in historical racism. Meanwhile, black identity became linked to victimology and protest politics: to be authentically black was to shake one’s fist at the white world. This marked the beginning of white guilt and black power politics, a dynamic that has set the terms of America’s implicit racial contract ever since.
A new moral identity was created to dissociate white Americans from the shame of the past. Progressive, right-thinking white people are encouraged to act deferential and guilty toward black people whenever the issue of race comes up, while black people are meant to be angry and indignant towards white people in order to trigger their collective guilt. This arrangement allows both groups to feel a sense of historical innocence: white people can shuck off the stigma of racism by pretending to feel guilty about things that occurred before they were born, while black people can shuck off the stigma of inferiority by attributing all their problems to white racism. And yet, because we are all individuals and not simply avatars of our races, these attitudes quickly came to seem like mere posturing.
But changing the moral order of society inevitably creates new moral taboos. To dissent from the prevailing post-civil rights racial script in polite society is to open oneself up to the charge of being a self-hating Uncle Tom if one is black.
Black conservatives reject the notion that white racism is the main obstacle to racial equality, while embracing an inclusive multi-ethnic national identity over an exclusive racial one. While black protest against white racism is calcified in the public imagination as the central vehicle of racial progress, a black conservative sees cultural development as the greatest agent of change—recognizing the cultural and economic underdevelopment of black people that is the legacy of past racism as the greatest barrier to advancement, rather than systemic racism or structural bias in the present. Moreover, black conservatism measures progress in terms of the declining significance of racial categories in public life, rather than in terms of equal outcomes between racial groups and acknowledges the brutal history of anti-black racism without creating a moral identity out of it.
In this sense, black conservatism is more of a cultural disposition or sensibility than a political doctrine. This helps to explain the diverse array of writers and thinkers who fall under the black conservative umbrella, from the liberal commentator and linguist John McWhorter, libertarian economist and author Thomas Sowell, jazz critic and polemicist Stanley Crouch, centrist professor and economist Glenn Loury, as well as younger writers such as Coleman Hughes and Thomas Chatterton Williams, who synthesize these views.
There are two major attitudes underlying the black conservative tradition: individualism and humanism—an emphasis on black autonomy as against the historical determinism of the cultural left, and the form of cultural nationalism that Ralph Ellison called “American humanism,” which values our common bonds as citizens over our racial and ethnic differences and rejects all forms of racial essentialism and separatism.
Naturally, black conservatives tend to critique the prevailing progressive narrative on race, asserting that much modern anti-racism—from Black Lives Matter to the New York Times 1619 Project and the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates—is an overcorrection for past racism that effectively reinforces fictitious and harmful racial categorization. By imbuing skin color with moral meaning, the progressive effort to defeat racism abides by the same logic as white supremacy. This shift away from the principle of colorblindness toward a renewed race-consciousness is seen as a step backwards by black conservatives.
Shelby Steele articulates this vision in his award-winning 1990 book The Content of Our Character. The book is an attempt to make sense of the dissonance between the clear decline of racism in society over the past 60 years and the persistence of racial gaps between white people and black people. While the progressive intuition is simply to expand the definition of racism, viewing it as an all-encompassing system that churns out racist outcomes even without overt discrimination, Steele’s approach is more holistic and interpersonal.
To Steele, the civil rights movement was successful in winning blacks equality under the law, but an unforeseen consequence was that black people came to identify with their victimization as the sole means to acquiring power and recognition in society, thus shifting their locus of control outward rather than inward. White people, to distance themselves from the stain of historical racism, came to see black people as a means to their own moral ends, rather than as full human beings. This justified a slew of paternalistic policies and programs that were more about assuaging white guilt than helping black people. In this sense, both groups became invested in the existence of racism, the continuation of which presents an endless series of opportunities to prove our inherent goodness. This explains the obsession among a certain segment of the media with any event that smells like racism, even if further information suggests otherwise.
In short, our psychological need to show ourselves innocent of the past effectively keeps us trapped inside that past. Steele writes:
I think the racial struggle in America has always been primarily a struggle for innocence. White racism from the beginning has been a claim of white innocence and therefore of white entitlement to subjugate blacks. And in the sixties, as went innocence so went power. Blacks used the innocence that grew out of their long subjugation to seize more power, while whites lost some of their innocence and so lost a degree of power over blacks. Both races instinctively understand that to lose innocence is to lose power. To be innocent someone else must be guilty, a natural law that leads the races to forge their innocence on each other’s backs.
If Steele provides the moral and psychological dimension of the black conservative tradition, Thomas Sowell provides its economic and cultural dimension. In his book Black Rednecks and White Liberals, Sowell tracks the history of various ethnic groups across the world and disentangles the complicated bundle of cultural, demographic and historical factors that account for their divergent economic and social outcomes—so regularly attributed to racism in the American context. Contrary to the widespread belief that every gap between two groups must be a consequence of one group subjugating the other, Sowell shows how unequal outcomes between groups is the norm in multi-ethnic societies. Many ethnic minorities have achieved astonishing success despite the negative attitudes the majority held toward them, and conversely, many groups lag behind on various metrics and have no history of oppression to blame this on.
The potential for ethnic and racial grievances to boil over into political violence is ever present when those grievances are granted legitimacy by the educated classes. As Sowell argues in The Quest For Cosmic Justice, the demand for perfect racial parity in all spheres of society is a totalitarian and unachievable pursuit that arouses the ancient tribal impulse for revenge. Indeed, there is nothing more natural than hating someone who belongs to a different group, especially when that group has tangible advantages over yours.
Intergenerational collective guilt and retributive justice can turn a flourishing multi-ethnic democracy into a cultural battleground of ethnic strife. Moving towards a society where racial difference is rendered meaningless in public life means resisting the impulse to create an identity out of historical injustice.
It is commonly assumed that the black conservative tradition goes back to the self-help rhetoric of Booker T. Washington, but its roots are more recent than that. It was Ralph Waldo Ellison, author of Invisible Man, who laid its foundations. Ellison rejected Booker T. Washington’s warning to go slow on civil rights and focus on economic uplift. The two central strands of black conservatism—individualism and humanism—are deeply entrenched in Ellison’s writing and Ellison was a major influence on Shelby Steele. For Ellison, the problem was “not actually one of creating the uncreated conscience of our race but creating the uncreated features of our face. Our task is that of making ourselves individuals. We create the race by creating ourselves and then to our great astonishment we will have created something far more important: we will have created a culture.”
Invisible Man is a parable of individualism. It tells the story of a young black man who, haunted by his grandfather’s dying words that his own life was a lie, wins a scholarship to a black university and sets out to become the next Booker T. Washington. But the invisible man is betrayed by Dr. Bledsoe, the headmaster of the school, whose character seems to be heavily based on Washington’s, after the protagonist shows a rich white man too much of the black world, which almost ruins Bledsoe’s plot to present the black pupils as innocents to the school’s white donors. He then travels to New York where he is used and abused by various people and organizations, and never really seen for who he is. In a heroic act of negation, the invisible man eventually embraces his invisibility and rejects the standards the world has projected upon him, determined to set the terms of his own life. It is a classic journey from innocence to self-knowledge and illustrates the individual’s need to find meaning apart from the group and the barriers of human blindness we face along the way.
If Invisible Man is a testament to individualism, Ellison’s follow-up book of essays Shadow and Act is a masterclass on humanism in the American context. Ellison attempts to establish that elusive American cultural heritage and identity that connect black American experience and culture with the nation as a whole. The book makes the case for a cultural nationalism that transcends racial categories and is grounded in an appreciation of diversity and pluralism. As Ellison’s biographer Arnold Rampersad puts it, “Ellison believes in an America in which blacks know they are part white and whites know they are part black.”
Ellison recognized that being a member of an oppressed group does not spare one the burden of being human. He was disgusted by the sociology that rendered black life nothing more than suffering and degradation—almost to the point of making black people seem less than human—and was suspicious of protest movements that depicted black people as perpetual victims without agency.
This kind of individualism and humanism were anathema to the new strain of black identity politics that arose in the 60s. Ellison’s cultural nationalism, along with his utter disdain toward the black power movement, made him a figure of scorn on college campuses and severed his ties to the younger generation of black writers.
Ellison’s vision was supported by Albert Murray in his classic book The Omni-Americans. Like Ellison, Murray wanted to dissociate national culture and identity from reductive notions of race and argued in favor of a multi-ethnic national identity that embraces America’s mixed heritage:
The United States is in actuality not a nation of black people and white people. It is a nation of multicolored people. There are white Americans so to speak and black Americans. But any fool can see that white people are not really white, and black people are not black. They are all interrelated one way or another. American culture, even in its most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite. It is, regardless of all the hysterical protestations otherwise, incontestably mulatto. Indeed, for all their traditional antagonisms and obvious differences, the so-called black and the so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world as much as they resemble each other.
The ideas of Ellison and Murray reveal a flexibility in the black conservative tradition that is often missed today. Part of the reason for that is its association with free-market libertarianism and bootstrapping personal responsibility. Because the post-civil rights racial contract is associated with redistributionist policies and social programs, opposition to that contract has naturally gravitated in the opposite direction. Moreover, the same skewed system of moral incentives that generated the demand for black conservatism has led to some of its excesses. The historical and moral power wielded by the left on race issues creates a socio-cultural asymmetry in public discourse that encourages increasingly extreme positions among black conservative types—right up to denying the prevalence of anti-black racism altogether. This is a shame, because the black conservative tradition has so much more to offer than the reactionary polemics and reflexive partisanship embodied by the likes of Candace Owens. And you don’t have to be black to share these views or the sensibility that undergirds them.
At a time when the country could not feel more divided along issues of race, the black conservative tradition offers us another way. As the country becomes more ethnically diverse, it’s increasingly important to go beyond race as an organizing principle of public life and uncover ways of seeing each other as individuals. We are in dire need of a national identity and culture that can emphasize our commonalities without ignoring our differences. The choice is not between a repressive color-blindness or a race-conscious anti-racism. There is also the new American humanism expressed by Ellison and Murray, which reveals the cultural continuity between our past and present and aspires to a transracial humanist future that views the individual as the ultimate minority. This country has never been strictly about race. Black people have always been part white and white people have always been part black in America. It’s high time we realized this. As long as blackness is measured against whiteness, and whiteness against blackness, the challenges of multicultural democracy will never be met.