Love's Tribunal
A Nation of Cowards: Our Collective Fear of Talking About Race

Right and Wrong in American Racial Politics: Is Our Civil Rights Tradition Now Obsolete?

Today's post is from Sherrilyn A. Ifill, a civil rights lawyer and law professor at the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore, Maryland. Ifill is the author of On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-first Century.

Book Cover for On the Courthouse Lawn links to Beacon Press page for bookConservative commentator Bill Bennett famously (and arrogantly) summed up the significance of Barack Obama's win last November as the end of "excuses" for blacks. Although Bennett, as a white right-wing talking head prone to inflammatory racial commentary may have been an inappropriate and certainly ill-timed messenger of this bromide, his statement was not far off from what many black people have been saying among our family members, and in our community centers and churches since November. Days after the election a black analyst in the Washington Post seemed to unconsciously parrot Bennett when she declared that, "African-Americans just entered the 'no-excuses' zone." Black comics joked that blacks could no longer claim that we are being held back by "the man," when with a black man in the White House we technically are "the man." The widely accepted understanding of this sentiment is that traditional black civil rights thinking--which focuses on dismantling systematic racial inequity as the principal means of improving the economic, educational and social condition of African Americans--has been rendered obsolete by Obama's presidency.

But in the months since Obama's election, little attention has been directed at the possibility that Obama's ascension has thrown another traditional black school of thought into potential obsolescence: black conservatism. I've been fascinated by the dearth of statements by black conservatives (and the directionless rambling of the few that have offered some reflections) on the meaning of the Obama presidency. I speak of course of Ward Connerly, Justice Clarence Thomas and Shelby Steele, among others--those who, as Chris Rock bitingly put it years ago, have "devoted their lives to making sure the white man gets a break." I began thinking of Obama's presidency as a blow to black conservatives when I was on the Mall on Inauguration Day. I was surprised that when Justice Thomas appeared on the screen of the jumbotron, taking his place along with other Supreme Court justices on the dais, he elicited nary a boo, a hiss or even a sarcastic comment from the normally vocal liberal crowd around me. It was as though Obama's inauguration was, in and of itself, answer to all of Thomas' tirades against affirmative action.

Because whatever you think of the merits going forward of affirmative action, and other traditional civil rights strategies, there can be no doubt that Obama's presidency would not have been possible without the successes and groundwork laid by those earlier efforts.

In fact, the election of Barack Obama as president is, in many ways, the ultimate vindication of the Civil Rights Movement. Neither the legal marriage of his parents in 50 states, nor the ability of Obama and his wife to attend Ivy League schools or to live in their tony Chicago neighborhood, nor Obama's ability to garner white votes, would be possible without the civil rights struggles that brought us the desegregation of universities and K-12 schools, the end of racially restrictive housing covenants, the abolition of anti-miscegenation laws, and the crown jewel of the civil rights movement--the Voting Rights Act. And the list goes on and on--all brought to us by the activism and litigation of civil rights icons regularly derided by black conservatives. The ironic piece de la resistance, of course, is the 1984 and 1988 breakthrough presidential runs of Jesse Jackson--one of the leaders Justice Thomas was presumably referring to when he once derided civil rights activists who just "bitch and moan and whine." Jackson's transcendent run in '84 and especially in '88 literally prepared the ground which ultimately bore the fruit of Obama's win, demonstrating the power of grassroots organizing in a presidential primary run, and accustoming white voters to the possibility of a black president.

It's an interesting conundrum for black conservatives. President Obama is a hard leader to caricature. He speaks of personal responsibility often, and he's no liberal. But his full embrace of an African American identity, his start as a community organizer and civil rights lawyer on the Southside of Chicago, his extraordinary race speech in Philadelphia last year--even his beautiful and proud black wife, his passionate ballplaying and his embrace by and of hip/hop stars, collectively represent a challenge to black conservatives who have made their meat and potatoes pigeonholing civil rights lawyers as hustlers and who have worn their status as outsiders from the mainstream black community as a badge of honor, and a mark of intellectual independence.

I suspect that the challenge for black conservatives is deeply personal as well. Over the past year Obama's walk has demonstrated, for example, that the "high-tech lynching for uppity blacks" that Justice Thomas revisited in his bitter memoir last year may be a thing of the mind, and that a cool confidence in your own integrity is a better response to the slings and arrows that come against you, than a white-lipped tirade against your detractors. If the rabble-rousing, rhyming of Jesse seems a bit passé, then certainly the affirmative action-obsessed, civil rights bashing of Ward and Clarence and Shelby is also out-of-touch. Maybe that's why Shelby Steele's post-election commentary has seemed to reek of sour grapes and impotent frustration at what he calls the "national obsession" with the racial significance of Obama's win. In fact, Dr. Steele sounds uncomfortably close to his left doppelgangers when he warns that Obama's win will not lead us into "true post-racialism." So what does black conservatism offer us now, and who is prepared to make a compelling case for the continued relevance of black conservative thought? Newly-elected Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele's (no relation to Shelby) incoherent debut demonstrates that he's not up to the task of becoming the political pop culture carrier for the kind of intellectual vision of personal responsibility, limited government and self-reliance touted by Thomas, et al.

Yes, it's "no excuses" time for blacks--those on the left and on the right. But civil rights leaders can at least boast that President Obama is their movement grandchild, even as they are challenged to recalibrate their goals and strategies in light of Obama's success. Black conservatives must struggle even harder to assert their continued relevance, and have very little to show for their decades of resistance to the very activism that made Obama's presidency possible.

This post originally appeared at You may also be interested in Sherrilyn Ifill's previous posts on Barack Obama's nomination and the legacy of lynching in America; also check out Christopher Bracey's post on the history of black conservatism in America.