Previous | TOC | Next

Black Conservatism & White Conservatism

Black conservative thought is related to two analyses of African American oppression promoted by white conservatives: the idealized Free Market School and the Culturalist School. In other words, the grounding for Black conservative thought is found in the work of white conservatives.

Economists Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams come out of the market-centered school of economic thought dominated by Milton Friedman and Gary Becker. This school argues that it is not in the interest of white employers and white workers to oppose Black employment opportunities. Such racist behavior is against market rationality, and therefore prevents the maximization of profits. The best policy is to educate and persuade white employers and white workers to be rational, to function in their own best interest. The market school advocates "pure" market mechanisms to undermine "racist" tastes, without government intervention. Freedom, in the market view, is defined as the extent to which capital is left unfettered in its drive to maximize profit.

Thomas Sowell, a student of Friedman and the intellectual progenitor of today's Black conservatives, promotes this idealized free market approach. In his 1975 book, Race and Economics, and in more than eight books that followed, Sowell has argued that government intervention, in the form of anti-discrimination laws and other employment regulations, has had negative consequences for disadvantaged people. Sowell insists that because racism is inefficient and economically irrational, market mechanisms alone are sufficient to erode racist behavior.

Sowell has introduced a market version of today's "culture of poverty" argument. He argues that variations in racial and ethnic success are a function of a differential distribution of values, attitudes, and other cultural traits among different racial and ethnic groups. He argues that a "culture of poverty" hampers Blacks' ability to successfully play the game of market capitalism. "The point," Sowell says in his 1983 book, Economics and the Politics of Race, "is not to praise, blame or rank whole races and cultures. The point is simply to recognize that economic performance differences are quite real and quite large."

Walter Williams goes to extreme and bizarre lengths to develop what is, in effect, a defense of racism under the cover of protecting freedom of choice and capitalist rationality. In doing so, Williams makes selective and unscientific use of data, and changes language and definitions to meet his specific needs. In Williams' definition, "prejudice" is simply a process of pre-judging, making a judgment based upon existing knowledge. Hence, if employers refuse to hire young Black males, it is due not to prejudice, but to their pre-existing knowledge about young Black males' low levels of education and/or poor work habits. Discrimination is informed preference, similar to being discriminating in one's taste.

Most Black conservatives are grounded in a second white conservative analysis of the nature of Black oppression and Black poverty, the culturalist school. Black conservatives' culturalist arguments repeat the implicitly classist, sexist, and racist arguments first developed by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Edward C. Banfield, Charles Murray, and many other white conservatives and neoconservatives to explain Black poverty. Like these white conservatives, Black conservatives locate the most significant causes of Black poverty in African American culture, particularly in the culture of Black, female-headed households.

In their claims that poor African Americans are somehow inherently and generically defective, culturalist arguments come perilously close to a third conservative analysis, the overtly racist claim that Blacks are genetically inferior, made by conservative white sociobiologist theorists such as Arthur Jensen and Richard Herrnstein.

The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, published in 1965 and popularly known as The Moynihan Report, is the most significant early statement of the current crop of "culture of poverty" and "underclass" theories. Drawing selectively from Black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier's methodologically flawed study, The Negro Family in the United States (1966), Moynihan's central thesis was that the Black family is immersed in a weak and unstable subculture. In this subculture, matriarchy is the dominant form, severe unemployment exaggerates the situation, the weak Black family produces children who are incapable of enjoying educational and employment opportunities, and no meaningful change is possible until that family is strengthened "from within." Government programs, argued Moynihan, are useless until such changes take place. It was The Moynihan Report that made it respectable to place the source of Black poverty within the Black community itself.

Edward C. Banfield's 1970 book, The Unheavenly City, developed the class aspects of the "culture of poverty" argument. Banfield concluded that the character and content of low-income groups' culture inhibits them from competing with others in American society. Banfield claimed that, "The lower-class forms of all problems are at bottom a single problem: the existence of an outlook and style of life which is radically present-oriented and which therefore attaches no value to work, sacrifice, self-improvement, or service to family, friends, or community. Social workers, teachers, and law enforcement officials. . .cannot achieve their goals because they can neither change nor circumvent this cultural obstacle."

Charles Murray's 1984 book, Losing Ground, goes further, claiming that because Moynihan's and Banfield's theories were correct, government social welfare programs have not only failed to work, but have exacerbated the problem by rewarding "antisocial" and irresponsible behavior, such as having children outside of marriage, and have promoted a crippling dependency on government hand-outs. Murray advocated, as do some Black conservatives, eliminating every federal benefit program for the non-elderly poor.

Economist Glenn Loury has most consistently and coherently repeated the Moynihan/Banfield/Murray culturalist arguments, in a series of articles and in his 1987 book, Free at Last? Racial Advocacy in the Post Civil-Rights Era. According to Loury, "What is important to the alleviation of black poverty and racism is not the economic structure of the United States nor the racist behavior of whites, but African-Americans' behavior. Further progress toward the attainment of equality depends most crucially at this juncture on the acknowledgment of the dysfunctional behaviors which plague black communities and so offend others."

Similarly, Shelby Steele reckons, "There was much that [President Ronald] Reagan had to offer blacks, his emphasis on traditional American values-individual initiative, self-sufficiency, strong families-offered what I think is the most enduring solution to the demoralization and poverty that continue to widen the gap between blacks and whites in America. Even his de-emphasis of race was reasonable in a society where race only divides."

Black conservatives maintain, as did Booker T. Washington, and as do white conservatives such as Moynihan, that African Americans emerged from slavery "not ready for prime time." Slavery, they argue, left us ill-equipped for full participation in either the economic or political life of the country. As Shelby Steele says, "But, though it [the Emancipation Proclamation] delivered greater freedom, it did not deliver the skills and attitudes that are required to thrive in freedom. . . .Oppression conditions people away from all the values and attitudes one needs in freedom-individual initiative, self-interested hard work, individual responsibility, delayed gratification. . . .These values. . .were muted and destabilized by the negative conditioning of [our] oppression. I believe that since the mid-sixties our weakness in this area has been a far greater detriment to our advancement than any remaining racial discrimination."

Thomas Sowell puts it more bluntly in his analysis that African Americans came out of slavery with ". . .the enduring stigma of hard manual, or menial labor," which "has produced an anti-work ethic handicapping blacks. . . . ." In other words, African Americans are lazy.

In order to understand Black conservatism, it is important to understand the character of the Black bourgeoisie. Developing as it did within the context of white cultural oppression, it is not surprising that the values identified by Black conservative intellectuals such as Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell as "traditional American values" are hallmarks of both American conservative mythology and Black bourgeois mythology. The ethic of "individual initiative" and "strong families" are values intimately related to the stereotypes that locate Black poverty in the misbehavior of those Blacks who do not make progress.

Black bourgeois mythology is a powerful theme in the African American community, one that exists on two layers. First, like the conservative Horatio Alger myth, Black bourgeois mythology asserts that values and behavior determine economic success. Second, the myth maintains that middle class African Americans are different from other African Americans. The development of the Black bourgeoisie is rooted in its apartness from the Black mass majority.

Prior to desegregation, African Americans of all socioeconomic groups lived in the same segregated communities. The economic and political position of the Black bourgeoisie depended on the business and political support of poorer Blacks living under segregated circumstances. Nonetheless, most of the Black bourgeoisie historically has seen itself (even when white America has not) as different from the Black masses, in attitude and behavior, as well as in economic success.

Histories of the socio-cultural development of the Black middle class emphasize the pivotal role played by schooling for newly freed slaves, schooling which often would make them members of an incipient Black bourgeoisie in the immediate post-Civil War era. Initially, most of this schooling was carried out by white missionaries and abolitionists from the North, and later by Black graduates of their schools. These white instructors were intent on imparting the Puritan work ethic and morality prevalent in white schools of the day. Thus, among other things, the schooling emphasized "proper" sexual behavior. Schools demanded that students be chaste, especially the girls, and all students were expected to marry and live "conventional" family lives.

The emphasis on "moral" sexual behavior had special significance in the case of Black students. White Northern teachers emphasized it because, using paternalistic and implicitly racist reasoning, they believed it the best way to disprove Southern white racists' belief that the Negro's "savage instincts" prevented him from conforming to puritanical sex behavior.

"Moral" sexual behavior resonated with newly freed slaves for a number of reasons-among them, the sexual exploitation and denial of the right to family life under slavery, and the teachings of the Black Church.

In addition to insisting on high moral standards, schooling for the incipient Black middle class added the classist and racist concept that only "common Negroes" engaged in "unconventional" sexual behavior and a wide array of other "dysfunctional," "primitive" behaviors, such as laziness, boisterousness, improvidence, and drunkenness. Thus, it was their values and their behaviors that made Black elites elite and set them apart from the Black masses.

It is no accident that today both liberal and conservative Black elites are preoccupied by what is, in reality, a nonexistent "epidemic" of Black teen pregnancies, or that poor, female-headed households receive special opprobrium. In part, this stems from the overall patriarchal character of US culture-one in which white ethnic groups' poverty is also largely blamed on female-headed households. But sexual behavior has long been a touchstone of Blacks' civilized status.

Indeed, it is important to recognize that a historical strain in Black political agitation was that elite Blacks were being denied the rights they deserved by virtue of having proved themselves "civilized," i.e., better than and separate from "common Negroes." In the words of Adolph Reed, Jr., "Race spokespersons commonly have included in their briefs against segregation (or discrimination in other forms) an objection that its purely racial character fails to differentiate among blacks and lumps the respectable, cultivated, and genteel in with the rabble."

I emphasize this because far too little attention has been paid to the extent to which Black conservatives' arguments-whether delineating the causes of Black oppression, locating the causes of Black poverty, or (as will be seen) making the case against affirmative action-all come back to issues of distinguishing middle class from poor Blacks. This holds also for Black conservatives as individuals, and their need to distinguish themselves, their status, and their identity from negative Black stereotypes.

Previous | TOC | Next

Online Articles:


Spotlight On
Explore

Browse Topics | Site Guide | Multimedia Bookstore | Magazine | Publications | Activists Resources

Political Research Associates

Copyright Information, Terms, and Conditions

Please read our Terms and Conditions for copyright information regarding downloading, copying, printing, and linking material on this site; our disclaimer about links present on this website; and our privacy policy.

Updates and Corrections