What Is Black Conservatism?

A new book about Booker T. Washington sparks a debate over the meaning of black conservatism

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Booker T. Washington has long been upheld as the original black conservative. In an 1896 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, he wrote that "the negro has within him immense power for self-uplifting." But as pundits review Robert J. Norrell's "Up From History," a new book revisiting Washington's legacy, they can't even agree on the meaning of black conservatism. Are black conservatives "Uncle Toms," black nationalists, "timid appeasers" of white supremacists, or none of the above? Commentators say there's much to learn from the complicated conservatism of Booker T. Washington and his modern day heirs.

  • No Such "Post-Racial" Era Is Upon Us  At The New Republic, Steven Hahn reviews "Up From History" and concludes that Booker T. Washington's brand of separatist black conservatism still lives today. It's just this group, he says, that could become disappointed with President Obama.
The world of Booker T. Washington, the world that lent him ideas and sensibilities, and that energized him, still lives in some forms in our midst. It is a world of poor, struggling, self-respecting, and intensely proud people who have learned over many years to look to themselves and their communities, and to question the intentions of whites and other people whites have accepted. They have their own interpretations of how the society works, and where the power lies. (Some of them trade in elaborate conspiracy theories: tune in to African American talk radio.) Should Obama fail to develop urban policies that address their needs and aspirations, their patience with him will likely wear thin.
  • Black Conservatives Are Sometimes Nationalists  At Think Progress, Matthew Yglesias says the ideological conflict within black politics has often been misread. According to Yglesias, Washington's legacy reveals that black conservatives are often misread as "timid appeasers of white supremacists," when in fact, they are "pessimistic about race relations and nationalistic in orientation."  He explains, "Because this controversy within black politics is embedded inside a larger white-dominated political context it often gets confused," he writes. "Sometimes, as in the conventional reading of Washington, the black conservative appears to white American liberals to be the timid appeaser...other times, as with a Malcolm X, he looks like a dangerous radical black nationalist." Yglesias says the phenomenon of a black conservative "a la Clarence Thomas" aligning himself with the (white) conservative mainstream is recent, but that "even so, that didn’t mean there was no ideological conflict in black politics or that general rightist sentiments somehow didn’t exist."
  • A Long, Storied History of Black Conservatives  At Reason Magazine, Damon W. Root seems to think Yglesias is arguing that the history of black conservatives begins and ends with Clarence Thomas. He offers a correction:
Actually, the great Harlem Renaissance author and journalist George Schuyler—who was known as the 'black H.L. Mencken'—published 'general rightist sentiments' long before Clarence Thomas came on the scene, including Schuyler’s unambiguously titled 1966 autobiography Black and Conservative. And the celebrated novelist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston both endorsed conservative Sen. Robert A Taft in the 1952 presidential election and repeatedly attacked FDR’s New Deal.
  • Booker T. Washington's Heirs Are Among Us  In the May 2008 issue of The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote that "the split between Cosby and critics such as [Michael Eric] Dyson mirrors not only America’s broader conservative/liberal split but black America’s own historic intellectual divide. Cosby’s most obvious antecedent is Booker T. Washington."
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