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Black Conservatives

By Deborah Toler
The Public Eye, September 1993

For most African Americans the notion of a Black conservative is an oxymoron. The overwhelming majority of us reject conservative political positions because we understand in concrete, everyday, practical terms what conservative policies are and who conservatives are, and we know both are racist. Conservative policies are Republican vetoes of civil rights bills, opposition to affirmative action, and Willie Horton campaign ads. Conservatives are Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Jesse Helms, David Duke, and Pat Buchanan. Enough said. 1

Unlike the majority of African Americans, Black conservatives generally oppose affirmative action and government minority business set-aside programs, oppose minimum wage laws and rent control laws, oppose any increase in social welfare spending, and oppose vigorous enforcement of voting rights and desegregation regulations. Black conservatives favor the death penalty, privatization of government services, deregulation of business, and voucher systems for public housing and for education.

Also out of step with the Black majority are Black conservatives' right-wing foreign policy views. Rabidly anti-communist, in the 1980s Black conservatives supported US-backed, right-wing governments and guerrilla movements throughout Central and South America. In Africa, they support right-wing factions such as UNITA in Angola, RENAMO in Mozambique, and the Inkatha Freedom Party in South Africa. Black conservatives are often unquestioning supporters of Israel and, more important, are anti-Palestinian.

Politically conservative African American notables traditionally have been an anomaly in the African American community; examples are Booker T. Washington, Zora Neale Hurston, George Schuyler, and Joe Black. Prior to the Clarence Thomas Senate Judiciary Committee hearings' televised parade of Black conservatives, most African Americans outside the academy and policy-making circles were not aware that a number of well-known and influential African-Americans make the same imperialist, classist, and, most particularly, racist arguments made by white conservatives.

Academic and media discussions of Black conservatives focus on the specific merits or flaws of their arguments and policy positions. But the more interesting and instructive question which will be explored here is: how can Black conservatives echo the fundamentally racist arguments of white conservatives and, further, be institutionally and organizationally allied with the sector of white America that is historically most racist?

Black conservatives, of course, deny that the policy positions of white conservatives are racist. They claim African Americans' fear of self-criticism blinds us to what is only principled racial criticism. Black conservatives choose to ignore, or consign to "water over the dam" status, Martin Kilson's trenchant observation that "at no point in the 20th-century have the claims of Black folks for political and social parity gained active support or sympathy from mainstream American conservative leaders, organizations, and intellectuals, whether religious or secular." Indeed, conservative whites are often active opponents of African American civil rights.

I will argue that Black conservatives are able to engage in delusions regarding the racist orientations and activities of their white conservative intellectual mentors and allies because of a congruence between white conservative interpretations of African Americans and the Black bourgeoisie's long-standing negative interpretation of who Black people are. These Black bourgeois attitudes, which denigrate poor African Americans, are very much the result of the socioeconomic development of the Black bourgeoisie within the context of white cultural oppression.

These negative attitudes toward poor members of the community have historically been shared by the liberal and conservative Black bourgeoisie alike. At the turn of the century, for example, both Booker T. Washington and a young W. E. B. DuBois shared the view that, in DuBois's words, the way to alleviate "the present friction between the races" was to correct the "immorality, crime, and laziness among Negroes themselves" ("The Conservation of Race," 1897).

The difference between liberal and conservative Black bourgeois attitudes is that Black liberals also recognize the structural obstacles to Black progress. Black liberals believe the primary focus ought to be on creating "a new America." Today's Black conservatives adopt the classic Black conservative view of Booker T. Washington, one focusing on creating "a new Negro." Like Washington, they view African Americans as a somehow "unfinished" product of slavery, still needing to prove ourselves worthy of the rights of other American citizens. This subtle and subversive aspect of Black conservative intellectuals' arguments has gone largely unnoticed and unanalyzed.

Black conservatives echo white conservatives' racist arguments and ally themselves with white conservative racist elements because they share similar views of African Americans and of the causes of Black oppression and Black poverty.

It is Black conservative intellectuals who have consistently received media attention and have been most influential in policy formulation. Therefore, Black conservative intellectuals will be the focus here, specifically six men who received the greatest attention throughout the 1980s: Glenn Loury, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Robert Woodson, Shelby Steele, and Stephen Carter.

But it is important to recognize that we have yet to see a Black conservative movement per se, not only because there are only a limited number of African Americans who hold conservative political views, but also because the same kinds of philosophical splits that divide the white right also divide the Black right.

Black Conservative Factions

A small group of conservative Black intellectuals and political officials have defined the intellectual parameters of the Black conservative argument. Like neoconservatives, almost all were once liberal/left Democrats. Like neoconservatives, they are pro-Israel and anti-affirmative action. They are to the left of ultra-conservatives like Patrick Buchanan, but the boundary between the ideological positions of Black conservatives and ultra-conservatives is often porous. Blacks who are philosophically similar to neoconservatives share most of the traditional values movement's positions and are more than willing to take advantage of the financial and organizing power of more extreme Religious Right conservatives, such as Pat Robertson.

The best known of Black conservative intellectuals are Thomas Sowell, an economist at the conservative Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, and Walter Williams, economics professor at George Mason University in Alexandria, Virginia. Sowell and Williams are conventional "free market" conservatives in the mold of Milton Friedman. Slightly more moderate Black conservatives include: Glenn Loury, an economist formerly at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and currently professor of economics at Boston University; Shelby Steele, English professor at San Jose State College; Stephen Carter, law professor at Yale University; and the only activist in the group, Robert Woodson, founder and president of a research and development organization in Washington, DC, the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.

Throughout the 1980s, a group of younger Black conservatives was touted in the media as the "next generation" of Black conservative intellectuals. Representative of this group are Joseph Perkins, a former aide to Vice-President Dan Quayle and the second youngest journalist ever hired by the Wall Street Journal, now on the staff of the San Diego Union Tribune; Deroy Murdock, who served as an aide to conservative Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah and was the subject of a front page cover story in the Style section of the Washington Post; and Kevin Pritchett, former staffer and editor of the infamous right-wing student newspaper at Dartmouth College, the Dartmouth Review.

Few women appear in Black conservative ranks. It is unclear whether this reflects Black women's rejection of conservative ideas or if this is due to the combination of racism and sexism that diminishes and obscures all Black women's contributions, or a combination of both. Prominent among the few identifiable Black conservative women intellectuals are Illinois State University sociologist and Ayn Rand disciple Anne Wortham, and Harvard-trained Eileen Gardener, a researcher at the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. Wortham is better known than Gardener because her book, The Other Side of Racism, has received attention. This harangue against basic precepts of modern human rights and civil rights campaigns is too extreme, however, even for most Black conservative intellectuals. Wortham is nonetheless influential in some far right circles. Another Black conservative, Heritage Foundation's Minority Outreach Director Claudia Butts, served briefly as the Bush Administration's White House liaison to Blacks.

Another group of Black conservatives who captured media attention in the 1980s were officials and appointees from the Reagan and Bush Administrations. In the Reagan Administration, the best known were White House staffer William Keyes, State Department appointee and twice-failed Senate Republican candidate Alan Keyes (no relation to William), the late Clarence Pendleton, Reagan's Chairman of the US Civil Rights Commission, Samuel Pierce, the scandal-ridden director of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and William B. Allen, appointed to the US Civil Rights Commission in 1987.

In the Bush Administration, Michael L. Williams, Department of Education Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, was known for his independent 1990 ruling that college scholarships awarded on the basis of race were illegal. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, formerly a member of the Reagan Administration, is not only the best known of all Black conservatives, but within the African American community is the only Black conservative whose name is both widely known and is immediately equated with conservative politics.

There is a mistaken tendency to lump all Black Republicans into the Black conservatives category. Representative Gary Franks, for example, is the only Republican in the Congressional Black Caucus and is also a well-known Black conservative. But Franks and other Black conservative Republicans are atypical. It is true that most Black Republicans are generally conservative on business-related tax and regulation policy issues and are typically more socially conservative than Black Democrats. But the majority of Black Republicans are also admitted beneficiaries and staunch supporters of affirmative action programs and, as such, are located in the vanishing moderate wing of the party. During the Reagan and Bush Administrations, numerous skirmishes erupted between liberal and conservative Black Republicans as both vied for the ear of the White House and fought alongside their respective white counterparts for the soul of the Republican Party.

There is also a cluster of Blacks, former civil rights leaders, and entertainers, whom most African Americans recognize but do not necessarily associate with conservative causes. Of these, Tony Brown, host of the popular PBS talk show "Tony Brown's Journal," is the most influential. Brown, very much in the mold of Black conservative intellectuals Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, and Robert Woodson, preaches "self-help" capitalism as the solution to Black problems. Many of Brown's African American fans remain unaware that he became a Republican in 1991.

Former National Football League star Roosevelt Grier works with World Impact, a Los Angeles-based evangelical Christian organization, and is a prominent Republican celebrity figure. Other Black conservative media stars include Marva Collins, whose Chicago West-side Preparatory School was the subject of a "60 Minutes" story and a made-for-television movie, and Joe Clark, the baseball-bat-wielding principal of Patterson, New Jersey's Eastside High School. Clark became a favorite of then-Secretary of Education William Bennett and his exploits provided the storyline for the feature film "Lean on Me."

African Americans, especially those of us old enough to remember the civil rights era, have been shocked by the conservative turn taken by such former civil rights stalwarts as James Meredith, Roy Innis, the Rev. James Bevel, and the late Rev. Ralph Abernathy. In 1962, James Meredith became the first Black student to integrate the University of Mississippi. In 1989, Meredith became the first Black professional on the staff of North Carolina Republican Senator Jesse Helms. Most recently, he ran unsuccessfully for the Mississippi House seat vacated by President Clinton's Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Espy. Although most African Americans know that Abernathy, Innis, and Bevel all adopted conservative politics, few are aware of just how far right these former civil rights leaders have turned, or that they have ties to authoritarian, right-wing organizations. Abernathy worked until his death with Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification movement. Innis has worked in alliance with Lyndon La Rouche's organizations. And Rev. Bevel now works closely with groups controlled by both Moon and LaRouche.


The term racist and racism in this paper refer to the most pernicious form in this country, an ideological outlook or system of beliefs by an individual or institution that incorporate one or more of the following conscious or unconscious premises: that the core values that define America are inextricably linked to the white northern European middle and upper class experience; that the problems in communities of color are primarily due to flawed individual characteristics of the people of color themselves; that racial tensions in America are primarily due to the unreasonable demands of people of color; and that people of color, especially African Americans, are biologically inferior to white Americans in terms of mental capacity, moral character, or ambition.


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