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Going To the Territory: The Black Conservative Tradition in American Politics

Braceysaviorsorsellouts During a recent promotional event for my book, Saviors or Sellouts: The Promise and Peril of Black Conservatism, From Booker T. Washington to Condoleezza Rice, a middle-aged African American woman asked me a question that I’ve been hearing a lot these days. Although she agreed with much of what conservatives past and present had to say about issues affecting the black community, she refused to think of herself as a conservative because, in her mind, conservatives (echoing Kanye West’s criticism of the Bush Administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina) “don’t really care about black people.”

The problem, she elaborated, was one of tone. Black conservatives, in her mind, were unduly hostile in their criticisms of the blacks in general, and poor and urban blacks in particular. She simply couldn’t bear to align herself – at least publicly – with these hostile voices. She was, in her own mind, a black conservative masquerading as liberal – and suffering within a deep political crisis as a consequence.

As the 2008 Presidential Campaign lurches forward, Americans of all stripes will be called upon to contemplate and vote their politics. For many African Americans, Barack Obama’s pursuit of the Democratic nomination has, in some ways, reanimated a conversation that has taken place quietly within the black community over the past decade – a conversation about the increasingly conservative nature of black politics.

To be sure, blacks are overwhelmingly registered Democrats. But are blacks overwhelmingly liberal? In a season in which the dominant rhetoric on both sides of the political aisle is one of “change,” what sort of change is needed to best empower the African American community?

Condoleeza Rice
Condoleeza Rice

As I detail in the book, there is a growing perception that conservatism within black America is gaining momentum. In 1972, fewer than ten percent of blacks identified as conservative. Today, nearly thirty percent, or 11.2 Million, African Americans do. Fifty-six percent of black voters supported Virginia’s 2006 ban on same-sex marriage. Other polling data reveal that the majority of blacks support other conservative policies, such as privatization of social security, school vouchers.

Do everyday blacks, who believe a more conservative pathway is most attractive, dare to state these views publicly, particularly when the Democratic nomination is at stake? More importantly, if, in the spirit of public discourse, certain blacks declared themselves to be conservative, what exactly does that mean? Is there a black conservative tradition, or multiple traditions? And what obligation, if any, do liberals and progressives have to engage this conservative tradition in a serious way?

In my view, liberals and progressives can no longer afford to be dismissive of black conservatism. Indeed, the ability to secure progressive change in American race relations will increasingly hinge upon the depth of one’s understanding and engagement with the source of black conservative ideals in general, and the black conservative perspective on racial empowerment in particular. Although there is a richness and complexity to conservative views held by blacks, there are five basic themes or tendencies which most black conservatives share:

  • Black conservatives tend to hold a strong belief that blacks, through individual, self-directed achievement and in lieu of government action and redress, can thrive in America because, at bottom, racism is incompatible with American ideals of freedom, equality, and democracy.
  • Black conservatives tend to adopt a posture of pragmatic optimism that emphasizes accomplishments in the face of great obstacles and an anti-utopianism that focuses less on constructing an ideal society and more on the struggle to make good in the society in which blacks find themselves.
  • Black conservatives tend to subscribe to a middle class morality that includes a commitment to respectability, proper deportment, and having a productive and moralistic lifestyle.
  • Black conservatives tend to believe in the powers of capitalism and that the best strategy for advancement is through the large-scale multiplication of individual capitalist success stories.
  • Black conservatives tend to posses a strong conviction that problems and obstacles faced by blacks can best be resolved by blacks themselves, and that white racism lacks the power to define African Americans individually or collectively.
Booker T. Washington
Booker T. Washington

It is also important to understand that black conservatism has been the dominant political philosophy for African Americans since the founding of the Republic, and that conservatism has played an important, but underappreciated, role in the struggle for racial equality. One can follow the progression of black conservative thought, from its origins in the lived experiences of its early proponents, including Reverend Jupiter Hammon, Richard Allen, James Forten and Booker T. Washington, to its decrease in popularity with the rise of W.E.B. Dubois and the NAACP, and its interwar manifestation in unlikely spheres, including the Harlem Renaissance and the lifework of Marcus Garvey. Many are surprised to learn how black conservatism’s precepts were appropriated by the black nationalism and black power movements—and have today found sources of nontraditional support among pundits, bloggers, and entertainers, including Bill Cosby and Chris Rock.

By the close of the civil rights era, the majority of black voters, encouraged by civil rights legislation and the sustained economic relief brought about by President Johnson’s “The Great Society” initiatives, supported the Democratic Party. Nevertheless, black conservatism, albeit in decline and divided into fundamentalist and antigovernment camps, endured quietly in a variety of political and cultural contexts until a new group of black conservatives rose to public prominence in the late 1970s.

This new group of conservatives would prove markedly different from the traditional conservatives of the past. Whereas traditional black conservatism was “organic” in that the leaders emerged and were supported from within the black community, many modern black conservatives have emerged outside the black community and as a result of the backing of white conservatives. Many are surprised to learn that the origins of this black neo-conservatism lie in a conference organized early in the Reagan administration to court and reward black conservatives. A quick review of the personalities that would emerge – from intellectuals such as Thomas Sowell, Glenn Loury, Shelby Steele, and John McWhorter to public figures such as Condoleezza Rice and Clarence Thomas – highlights a dramatic rightward shift away from traditional conservatism. Importantly, it is a shift that has been nurtured and supported by an inorganic array of political actors, think tanks and research institutes, and media outlets based outside the black community. Through these inorganic support networks, black neoconservatives were summarily legitimated through the bestowal of governmental largess, private funding, and national public exposure.

Black conservatism, then, proves to be a remarkably rich, complex, and even contradictory political philosophy. At the same time, it should be understood as neither unqualifiedly good nor bad. There are strengths as well as blindspots. The larger point, however, is that liberals and progressives must begin to engage in serious, constructive dialogue across ideological lines. If we are to fully understand why conservatism remains a coherent and compelling alternative for many African Americans today – even if our ultimate goal is to dissuade them from the joining the resurgent movement and to champion liberal empowerment strategies – we owe it to ourselves and the future of America to travel with them.

Christopher Alan Bracey is a professor of law and of African and African American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Bracey writes on the intersection of race, law, and American politics, and he is the administrator and a regular contributor on He lives in St. Louis, Missouri.