Buckley, Conservatives and Race

Following up on the Affirmative Action post below, I think it's worth reading William Vogeli's piece, "Civil Rights and the Conservative Movement," which, to my mind, is the most thorough article I've read on the Right and African-Americans, from a conservative perspective. I think the grappling with the legacy of William F. Buckley is especially powerful. Vogeli is a Buckley guy, but he doesn't try to downplay the man's warts:

The single most disturbing thing about Buckley's reactions to the civil rights controversies was the asymmetry of his sympathies—genuine concern for Southern whites beset by integrationists, but more often than not, perfunctory concern for Southern blacks beset by bigots. This disparity culminated in a position on violence committed by whites against blacks and civil rights activists that was reliably equivocal. Like the liberals of the 1960s who didn't condone riots in Watts and Detroit but always understood them, Buckley regularly coupled the obligatory criticism of Southern whites' violent acts with a longer and more fervent denunciation of the provocations that elicited them. Thus, "the nation cannot get away with feigning surprise" when a mob of white students attacks a black woman admitted to the University of Alabama by federal court order in 1956. "For in defiance of constitutional practice, with a total disregard of custom and tradition, the Supreme Court, a year ago, illegalized a whole set of deeply-rooted folkways and mores; and now we are engaged in attempting to enforce our law." Thus, the Freedom Riders went into the South to "challenge with language of unconditional surrender" the whites' "deeply felt" beliefs, and were "met, inevitably, by a spastic response. By violence."

What's interesting is Buckley ultimately supported a holiday for MLK, and unlike some his more reprehensible peers, actually grappled with his blind-spot in regards to segregation. Also, Vogeli gets at the essential problem of conservatives and black voters--the dodginess of the "limited government" defense. To oppose Affirmative Action and hate crime legislation from the perspective of limited government is an honest position that probably could be explained to the African-American voter. But it can't be explained when the people who hold that position support other massive intrusions of government--like the drug war,and the expansion of prisons. Unfortunately, that leads to my critique of the article--I didn't see anything on what a conservative pitch to African-Americans would look like. I've said this before--if conservatives want the black vote, it's not enough to outline what your against, you have to say what you're for. I didn't get that from the piece. I still have no idea why any African-American should ultimately support a Republican.

One other thing. For those who wonder why I'm so into this subject, I say the following. I'm a liberal, no doubt. But as a black person--and I guess as a liberal--I've never thought it was a good thing that nine out of ten black people think that basically half the American electorate would like to see them back in chains. I'd much rather that nine out of ten blacks vote Democrat out of a serious committment to liberalism, not because they basically don't have a choice. That sense, that there really is only one electoral option, is not good for black folks, and it's not good for the country at large.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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