Towards a Genealogy of Black Conservative Thought

8 years ago

As I tried to show in my post last week on Why Black History Month Still Matters, much of our contemporary discourse has important historic roots. The black conservative intellectual tradition is one example that I think bears some examination. That tradition illuminates the complex ways in which African American thought is intertwined with and simultaneously distinct from other American intellectual traditions. In this post, I want to compare and contrast just a few examples of historical and contemporary black conservative argument.

Of course, it's important to carefully contextualize the thinkers and thought that I'm about to discuss. Regardless of their ideological leanings, I can't say I've come across many black folks meditating on the wisdom of Edmund Burke or other philosophical lions of mainstream conservative thought. Black political thought has largely been concerned with finding a way to end slavery and the differential opportunities of Jim Crow and its aftermath. What I think of as the modern wave of black conservatism dates back to the early 1980s when people such as economist Glenn Loury tried to convince the Urban League to abandon protest politics in favor of character education and free-market solutions to black poverty. Clearly, we are talking about very different periods and priorities. 

(By the way, in citing Loury, I mean to use him as an example of a line of thought that gained greater visibility at that time, not as the father of black conservative thought. Others who became prominent at that time include economists Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell, and former Civil Rights Commission head Clarence Pendleton, among others.)

That said, there are some lines of thought that still echo today, and are worth noting.

Booker T Washington

Many modern self-identified black conservatives hearken back to educator Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), the former slave who founded of Tuskegee University and the National Negro Business League, (now known as the National Business League.) One of the wonders of the internet is that Washington's papers are online, and they make for a fascinating read. Shay Riley, who runs the widely read blog Booker Rising, summarizes why many of Washington's contemporary admirers look to him now:

"Inspired by Booker T. Washington's work, this website will promote self-help, education, enterprise, democracy, and society as the seeds for Black America's future. We won the civil rights movement. It's now time for Stage II: further propelling black American success in this increasingly globalized era, via our 'seeds.'" 

Washington's widely-acclaimed 1895 speech to the Atlanta Cotton Exposition lays out his "accommodationist" strategy for racial advancement. Instead of trying to defend the citizenship rights accorded to former slaves by the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments and the Constitution from the advancement of Jim Crow, he said, black Southerners would work alongside whites to build the region's economy:

"The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing. No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized."

You can hear Washington reading part of that speech here. It's the only known recording of his voice.

One of Washington's arguments in that speech anticipates a concern expressed by some black writers today who take a conservative position on immigration issues:

"To those of the white race who look to the incoming of those of foreign birth and strange tongue and habits for the prosperity of the South, were I permitted I would repeat what I say to my own race,“Cast down your bucket where you are.” Cast it down among the eight millions of Negroes whose habits you know, whose fidelity and love you have tested in days when to have proved treacherous meant the ruin of your firesides."

In 2007, blogger and political analyst Faye Anderson wrote about African American worries about illegal immigration. She opens with a quote from Frederick Douglass:

"Every hour sees the black man elbowed out of employment by some newly arrived emigrant, whose hunger and whose color are thought to give him a better title to the place.

Frederick Douglass (1853)

"For most African Americans, Frederick Douglass was the last good Republican. However, today black Americans are aligned with Republicans again on at least one cause: opposition to illegal immigration.

"Why? Jobs."

Washington's doctrine of racial accommodation would come to be widely criticized as lynchings and disfranchiement became more common, and the Supreme Court gave legal segregation the imprimatur of the US Constitution in its Plessy v. Ferguson decision. W.E.B. Du Bois, then an Atlanta University sociology professor who had been a college classmate of Washington's wife, became his most powerful critic with the publication of the essay," Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others, "a centerpiece of his 1903 essay collection, The Souls of Black Folk. After noting Washington's extraordinary accomplishment in building Tusekegee from the ground into a leading black educational institution and acknowledging the importance of his Atlanta Compromise speech, Du Bois argued the Washington's strategy was doomed to fail:

"Is it possible, and probable, that nine millions of men can make effective progress in economic lines if they are deprived of political rights, made a servile caste, and allowed only the most meagre chance for developing their exceptional men? If history and reason give any distinct answer to these questions, it is an emphatic No. And Mr. Washington thus faces the triple paradox of his career:

  1. "He is striving nobly to make Negro artisans business men and property-owners; but it is utterly impossible, under modern competitive methods, for workingmen and property-owners to defend their rights and exist without the right of suffrage.
  2. "He insists on thrift and self-respect, but at the same time counsels a silent submission to civic inferiority such as is bound to sap the manhood of any race in the long run.
  3. "He advocates common-school and industrial training, and depreciates institutions of higher learning; but neither the Negro common-schools, nor Tuskegee itself, could remain open a day were it not for teachers trained in Negro colleges, or trained by their graduates."

Du Bois' line of argument would help inspire the founding of the NAACP and decades of subsequent civil rights protests. Black conservative writers today sometimes argue that black people and America would have been better off rejecting DuBois and continuing to follow Washington's guidance. Elizabeth Wright, founder of the website Issues and Views (which I can't get to now because it brings up malware warnings on my computer) is among those who make this argument. I was able to bring up an article on her blog, The Downside of Integration, that outlines negative consequences that black people experienced because of the demise or Jim Crow:

"Earlier economic-oriented black leaders, like businessman S.B. Fuller,banker Richard Wright, and educator Booker T. Washington, had always encouraged blacks with financial resources to develop capital in the manner of their counterparts in other ethnic groups; blacks were especially encouraged to emulate the entrepreneurial patterns of the country's immigrants. But under the guidance of the civil rights leadership, blacks were led towards finding government alternatives, as internal economic initiatives were abandoned. A great many left the path of business enterprise on which fathers and grandfathers had prospered." 

Writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston opposed the Supreme Court's  1954Brown v. Board of Education decision. Having grown up in an the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida, she wrote a famous 1928 essay dismissing  blacks who were "tragically colored" and who- 

"...belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all but about it."

Historians will of course tell you that the Du Bois-Washington relationship was complex, and that the two men were sometimes allies. Washington secretly funded several lawsuits and protests against segregation in transportation, lynching and disfranchisement. For his part, Du Bois extolled black entrepreneurship, although, as the late great historian John Hope Franklin noted, his ideas for black economic empowerment acquired a utopian socialist patina by the 1920s.

In an interview he gave to journalist Ralph Mc Gill not long before his death in 1963, Du Bois chalked up many of the differences between himself and Washington to differences in their personal circumstances. (Washington had been born a southern slave; Du Bois was born in Massachusetts at the dawn of Reconstruction to a free black farming family. Washington had to appease white donors; while Du Bois only had to worry about supporting his research.)

Du Bois had his conservative streak, too. As I wrote back in 2004 when Bill Cosby made his controversial comments about poor blacks, Du Bois' 1899 study, the Philadelphia Negro, stessed the need for instilling character and a work ethic in young black folk:

It is right and proper that Negro boys

Seems To Be More Bill Cosby To Love!

and girls should desire to rise as high in the world as their ability and just desert entitle them. They should be ever encouraged and urged to do so, although they should be taught also that idleness and crime are beneath and not above the lowest work. It should be the continual object of Negroes to open up better industrial chances for their sons and daughters. Their success here must of course rest largely with the white people, but not entirely. Proper co-operation among forty or fifty thousand colored people ought to open many chances of employment for their sons and daughters in trades, stores and shops, associations and industrial enterprises.


There's a lot more I could say about this, but I hope I've piqued your interest in learning more about this aspect of diverse African American thought.


Zora Neale Hurston photo, Wikipedia

BlogHer Contributing Editor||

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