Conservative principles are sufficiently established in today’s political debates that they appeal to people of all races and creeds when presented fairly. So it is disappointing to read Shelby Steele, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, arguing conservatism has little to offer black Americans. In a recent Wall Street Journal piece, he writes, “In an era when even failed moral activism is redemptive — and thus a source of moral authority and power — conservatism stands flat-footed with only discipline to offer.”
Conservatism, “with its beautiful idea of a free man in a free society,” Steele writes, offers no way for whites to redeem themselves, “no way to show deference to minorities for the oppression they endured. Thus it seems [Steele’s emphasis] to be in league with that oppression.”
This is where Steele ends his analysis, but it is far from the end of the story. And, for that reason, his conclusion is simply wrong.
Conservatism is much more than preaching “discipline” or making vague references to an “invisible hand.” It is a robust philosophy of life that has played a major role in black history and in the black community today, and it is the source of policy prescriptions just as bold and potentially attractive to the black community as were the programs of the Great Society in the 1960s or of the Congressional Black Caucus today.
Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) is the foremost exemplar of the black conservative vision. He rose from slavery to become one of the most famous and respected men of his time. He is known best for founding Tuskegee University, in Tuskegee, Alabama, and for his lifelong advocacy of quality education, especially industrial education, for blacks of all ages. Washington’s philosophy had three important themes: education, self-reliance, and entrepreneurship. Economic success, he both demonstrated and taught, is the surest path to social and political success.
Washington’s views were shared by millions of black Americans in his era, as reported in the works of such historians as George S. Schuyler, Nell Irvin Painter, and Kelly Miller. Conservative viewpoints continued to play a positive role in the black struggle for equality, prosperity, and dignity in the first half of the twentieth century. Zora Neal Hurston (1891-1960), Langston Hughes (1902-1967), Ralph Ellison (1914-1994), and Alain Lock (1885-1954) were all gifted conservative black writers from the Harlem Renaissance. Although many people do not think of Martin Luther King as a conservative, he championed many of the same principles as today’s black conservatives, arguing for quality education, personal integrity, public morality, equal treatment under the law, and a colorblind society.
Millions of black Americans have used the three rungs of education, self-reliance, and entrepreneurship to climb the ladder of success and are now solidly middle-class contributors to society. Opinion polls show they are more conservative than whites on several social issues. As their incomes, educational attainment levels, and homeownership rates rise, their views on economic issues can be expected to move rightward as well.
Nevertheless, self-acknowledged “black conservatives” are rarely seen or heard in public debates. One reason is obvious: conservatism in the black community is — contrary to fact — widely associated with white racism. And that association is continuously reinforced and perpetuated by the liberal media and, perhaps most unfortunately, by public schools. To hear or see black conservatives in either forum is a notable exception.
Another reason black conservatives are rarely seen or heard is the liberal bias of most foundations and corporate philanthropies. The vast majority of foundations, and nearly all of the biggest and best known ones, simply refuse to fund conservative black spokespersons or organizations. Because hundreds of millions of dollars are given every year to advocacy organizations, this has a major impact on whose views are heard and whose are not.
Yet conservative thinkers and think tanks practically overflow with ideas to improve education, reward self-reliance, and boost entrepreneurship, while the liberal cupboards are bare.
Blacks benefit from conservative policies. Tax cuts make a bigger difference to low-income families, entrepreneurs, and small investors than to the rich and secure. Deregulation lets small companies and people with new ideas compete with big corporations, whereas the latter often benefit from a paucity of new competitors entering the market due to the high cost of complying with complex regulations. Social Security privatization would also be a boon for blacks, who often die before they become eligible for Social Security benefits. Nearly all the benefits of programs that expand school choice, such as vouchers and tax credits, go to black Americans and other minorities who can’t otherwise afford better schools.
On the other side of the ledger, economists Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams have extensively outlined the liberal policies that harm blacks, such as job-killing high taxes and minimum wage laws, skyrocketing housing prices caused by restrictions on building, softness toward criminals that has victimized blacks more than any other group and destroyed neighborhood economies, and above all, the Democratic Party’s captivity to teachers unions and consequent opposition to school choice, which dooms black children to inferior education and locks them out of good jobs.
Despite the obvious appeal of conservative policy positions, Steele is correct to note that it is exceedingly difficult for many black Americans to trust people who seem reluctant to acknowledge mistakes of the past and appear to court support from those who might harbor desires to restore those social inequities. The answer is for conservatives to recognize and emphasize the right’s positive record of reform in this area and to repudiate past efforts to stand in the way of positive change.
For example, conservatives would do well to remind the public that it was Southern Democrats who worked feverishly to block the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and that the bill was saved by the efforts of Republican Senators such as Everett Dirksen of Illinois and Thomas Kuchel of California. Southern Democrats voted 20-1 against the bill, while Northern Republicans supported it by a resounding 27-5 majority. Even Barry Goldwater, who voted against the bill, opposed only one part of it (strictures against private businesses engaging in interstate commerce) and had supported earlier civil rights bills in 1957 and 1960.
Sowell argues, “A sober presentation of the facts [will give] Republicans their best shot at a larger share of the votes of blacks.” That means making the case for political and economic freedom and showing how conservatives have supported them over the years — not perfectly by any means, but much more consciously and consistently than the opposition. As Sowell notes, “The truth is something that can attract people’s attention, if only for its novelty in politics.” Thus conservatives can “show deference to minorities for the oppression they endured” by acknowledging those past national shortcomings openly, showing how those failings actually resulted from a failure to follow the tenets of modern conservatism and outlining a positive agenda that will draw black Americans up the ladder of success more quickly.
In addition to being true, such an agenda would connect respect for the past with an optimistic vision for the future — exactly what the most successful conservatives have always done.