Saturday, March 15, 2008

Black Conservatives in Large and Small Caps

About a year ago, I penned a post entitled "Taking Thomas Seriously", about the particularly political ideology held by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. In it, I noted that both liberals and conservatives misunderstood Thomas' orientation because they tried to map him onto "standard" (White) political categories. Thomas is a conservative, yes, but specifically he is a Black Conservative, which is a very particular philosophical tradition that does not perfectly align with plain old vanilla White conservatives.

Not all Black conservatives are Black Conservatives (that is, there are conservative Black people, such as Ward Connerly, who I would not identify as part of the Black Conservative tradition), and, more importantly, not all Black Conservatives are conservative (in that, on our "traditional" left/right axis, some would be placed on the left). However, because most people, particularly most Whites, aren't familiar with Black Conservative ideology, it leads to significant misunderstanding about where its adherents are coming from when they do show up on the national stage. All this is preface to point out that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, he who has nearly derailed Obama's campaign, is a Black Conservative. To be sure, he's not a conservative (needless to say, capitalization matters in this post). But he's not a "liberal" either -- his political alignment doesn't comfortably fit onto models premised on White ideological positioning. Black Conservatism, like Black Liberalism, is not wholly divorced from "standard" Conservatism and Liberalism -- but at best they intersect at odd angles.

Black Conservatism essentially operates off the premise that racism is an ingrained and potentially permanent part of White-dominated institutions. As a result, Black Conservatives essentially tell Blacks they can only rely on themselves to get ahead in America -- counting on White people to be moral or "do the right thing" is a waste of time. Politically, this means building tight-knit communities that emphasize the patronizing of identifiably Black institutions, with the end result being social independence from White America. In this, it mixes at least partial voluntary self-segregation with a significant aversion to external dependency, with Whites and White institutions being defined as outsiders who can't be trusted. Every dollar that flows out of the Black community and into the hands of White America is a dollar that is in the control of a group that, at best, has a unique set of interests that can't be counted on to converge with those of Black people. Contained within this school are thinkers as far-ranging as Derrick Bell, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, Clarence Thomas, Huey P. Newton, and Malcolm X. Black groups and leaders who were/are not Black Conservatives include W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, the NAACP, Thurgood Marshall, and yes, Barack Obama.

Black Conservatism holds obvious parallels with traditional paleo-conservatism (hence the name): the mistrust of outsiders, looking out for one's own people first (and concurrently, self-reliance over dependency), lack of faith in high-minded moralism and ideology. But since African-Americans are a minority people in the United States, some other qualities are grafted on which are less familiar to majoritarian conservatism: most notably, the nation is considered to be an outsider, making the ideology significantly less inclined towards patriotism than the average White conservative. The "anti-American" elements, normally associated as a far-left belief, actually are a closer relative to conservative xenophobia: the analogy would be White American Conservative: United Nations :: Black American Conservative : United States. Each represents a distant governmental body, run by outsiders, which represents a putative threat to group autonomy. The mistrust of authority, often characterized as a left-belief, becomes a right-ward belief once its conceptualized as mistrust of foreign authority -- within their own communities, Black Conservatives often create very rigid hierarchal models (particularly on gender issues). Ultimately, though, what Black Conservatives preach is independence: As Marcus Garvey, an key Black Conservative writer in the early 20th century put it, "No race is free until it has a strong nation of its own; its own system of government and its own order of society. Never give up this idea."

Virtually all the controversial statements said by Rev. Wright make the most sense as expositions on Black Conservative ideology. His disclaimer of the pursuit of "middle-class-ness" is a term of art; he's flaming Black people who are more concerned about looking good to White people than they are about insuring the health of their own community -- including those who haven't yet moved up the ladder. His extraordinarily grim predictions about the state of racism in America are textbook Black Conservative arguments, as are his efforts to break down the idea that America is a particularly moral government that can be trusted (rightly, when he notes that America too has engaged in state-sponsored terrorism in Latin America and supported it in South Africa; wrongly when he alleges that we infected Black folk with the AIDS virus).

I'm not saying I agree with all of his points -- I'm not a Black Conservative, and as I outlined in the Thomas post, I'm not sure that a White person can morally adopt the premises of Black Conservatism. But we can't understand what we're yelling about until we properly position it within its philosophical school. This is why I feel confident in asserting that Obama and Wright are not of a political kind -- they operate from totally different ends of the Black Conservative political spectrum. Obama is an integrationist, the very act of running for President means that he believes that there is a space for Blacks in our hitherto White-dominated government, and all of his speeches, policies, and writings have indicated he believes that there is hope for an America that is not separated and divided on racial lines. All of these positions would be derided as doe-eyed idealism by a true Black Conservatism. And if there is one thing Obama can't be accused of, it's of being too much of a pessimist.

UPDATE: Welcome, Andrew Sullivan readers! One thing I wanted to get at in this post, but didn't get to, was how Wright's remarks fit into a particular model of Black theology, which I also identify as fundamentally in line with Black Conservatism. Wright's Jeremiads differ not at all from classic White Evangelism, except in who they condemn.

Ultimately, as I told Andrew, the interplay between Black Conservatism and Liberalism is, I believe, representative of the Janus-face in the Black political psyche. All but the most hardened Black Conservatives would, I believe, admit that they would prefer a world in which racism had ended, where people of all backgrounds could live in trust and harmony. They just think of it as an idyllic fantasy; one that distracts Blacks from the every day need to survive and flourish in a world where the fantasy is not the reality. And Black Liberals, in their more despondent moments, wonder if the Conservatives are right -- if their long struggle is ultimately futile; if White people ever will truly accept Blacks as equals, brothers and sisters. Wright is more than Obama's crazy uncle -- he's the other side of Obama's message of hope. Obama represents those Blacks who still have faith in the ability of America to ultimately overcome racial stratification. Wright represents those who can no longer believe.

UPDATE #2: I wrote a follow-up post to tie up some loose ends -- primarily how Clarance Thomas' vein of Black Conservatism fits into this model (basically, I leaned too heavily on separatism as the defining element of Black Conservatism, when its really skepticism of America overcoming racism on the basis of moral appeals).


Stentor said...

Very interesting post.

PG said...

You should email your post to Andrew Sullivan -- I think he would be interested in the point you're making about Wright as a Black Conservative and Obama as a Black Liberal.

Christopher Furlong said...

This is probably the best thing I've read on the whole Wright-controversy of recent days.

Obama himself made passing reference of the 'conservativeness' of Wright's views in today's speech, though I think he was referring to the lower-case variety.

Stacy Cane said...

That was interesting and thoughtful, and yes, it does help provde some context. Thanks.

Elatia Harris said...

David, I found you via a link on Andrew Sullivan. It was one hot tip. I love this blog. What you've written today is bracing, deep, smart, and clarifying.

Anonymous said...

I also followed Andrew's link here. Nice work, man. I'd love to hear more about the theology side of the argument. I'll be back.

Sweating Through fog said...

Glad I found this blog!

I was one of those people that was outraged at the clips shown of Wright. But the more I learned, the less hatred I saw, and the more righteous anger - particularly when I found the longer, 12 minute clip I discovered today and posted on my blog.

Unknown said...

Yes, I'm also here from Andrew Sullivan's site, and think you've done excellent work here. Thanks to you for this perspective, and to Andrew for connecting me to it.

-Eric Holm, Minneapolis

Anonymous said...

This is excellent. Obama's effort towards unity, importantly, is an attempt to synthesize two (too disparate) worlds, and it's absolutely necessary (thank you) to gain a deeper understanding of the Black Conservative tradition that he's associated himself with - the other half of the (Democratic) dialectic is obviously his mother's white liberalism. The schism since the mid-60s between these positions has been too great, and Obama is brave (and hopefully not naive) for finally trying to heal these wounds, at least for the Democrats. I hope he succeeds... Thank you again

Anonymous said...

The differences beween what you call Black Conservatism and Black Liberalism mirror those between the Black Consciousness (BC) Movement and the older African Liberation movements in Southern Africa. In South Africa, for example, the African National Congress (ANC, founded in 1912) was always (and still is) a multi-racial organization aiming for the full integration of all races in a colour-blind society. The ANC was challenged in the 1960s by the rise of the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), which was almost entirely black, and in the 1970s by Steve Biko's Black Consciousness Movement. Supporters of the PAC and BC argued that black southern africans could not depend on whites to liberate them, but must liberate themselves. To do this, the black community needed to produce its own leaders, and this would not be possible in political organizations with whites and other non-black people in leadership positions.

Having lived in Southern Africa in the 1980s, I have to say that, despite being white, I found the PAC/BC argument compelling, and the self-awareness and self-confidence of PAC/BC people often very inspiring.

Anonymous said...

I too am a Sullivanite. I have attended Pastor Wright's church off and on for just about half of my 30 years. I did not see anything wrong with his statements, because I saw his sermons from my side of the street. I do, however, see how someone "across the tracks" could interpret his sermons and be offended. If anyone really listened to his sermons in context and in their entirety, it is hard to disagree with many of his statements. I am glad that Obama has stopped letting the Clintons force him to denounce anyone who speaks against them while the Clintons themselves give a pass to those who criticize and offend Obama. A common complaint in the Black community is that White people always change the rules once Black people learn them!

Anonymous said...

Nice one. Found my way here through Andrew Sullivan as well. Keep up the concise commentary. It is much needed.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Probably the most honest characterization of Wright that I have read online.

Yeah, I'm also here by way of Sullivan. And I include Sullivan among the charlatans on this issue. The stupid, brainless fawning over Obama by Kuo & Sullivan is just as repulsive as those who attempt to smear Obama's pastor.

Thank you for being fair in your treatment of Wright. Also, thank you for not twisting my arm to get on the Obama bandwagon.

Anonymous said...

Another Andrew Sullivan visitor here.

Wow! That was absolutely brilliant!

You have really shined a whole new light of understanding onto this complex issue of race and socio/political/spiritual ideology and the relationship between Rev. Wright and Obama; what they have in common, where they differ and why.


Anonymous said...

You ought to read Wilson Moses, The Golden Age of Black Nationalism. Black nationalism in its classic forms exhibits extremely conservative tendencies--Garvey was in fact basically a proto-fascist, claiming that Mussolini stole his philosophy. I'd go you one further and point out that contemporary "Black conservatism" in the Sowell/Connerly sense is classical liberalism, that's how reversed the traditional political spectrum is among blacks. This is because nationalistic/solidaristic tendencies are so pervasive in the tradition of black political thought. In your other post, you talk about how "Black Conservatism" encompasses Washington and Garvey; no: black nationalism does. Also: W.E.B. du Bois was ideologically all over the map, and his opposition to Brown v. Board of Education belies the claim that he was a "black liberal" in your terminology. He had significant separatist/nationalist/solidarist leanings at times, but had to try to reconcile them (but did not succeed) with his overarching Marxism in the 1930s, his faith in the ultimate trans-racial working-class solidarity.

Your post is interesting, and touches on important and rarely discussed issues, but I think bearing my points in mind will help.

Anonymous said...

I think Mr. Sullivan has touched a nerve epicenter of a long standing conflict that has received much less attention than it deserves. The Black "Liberal/Conservative" split is a very real, very current problem, and is hardly ever discussed (sensibly, at least) in context even within the community. These distinctions, and the context in which they are bathed, are in some ways, timely updates to what many Baby Boomers in the African American community see as vestiges of the Civil Rights legacy.
Resultant socioeconomic and ideological stratification following the Civil rights era has drawn these lines, forcing sometimes ugly striations in the African American community's experience. In recent years it has become plain to see the unease with which these differences are negotiated-and the subsequent inability of many integrationist leaders to speak to the ideologies of large segments of "their" respective communities, both on the right and left sides of the spectrum.

As an African American woman, I can only hope that before the public blindly accepts (or, more likely, rejects) Barack Obama's renunciation of Rev. Wright that there is an attempt to elucidate and understand what exactly Obama was apologizing FOR.

I don't think (or at least I hope he wasn't) he was apologizing for the truths that Wright exhorted concerning the "medical apartheid" (-the Tuskeegee experiment is a matter of public record, and as recently as a few weeks ago, the Associated Press released a story concerning the spraying of an 'experimental' fertilizer/pesticide on the lawn grass of poor Black families in Maryland without telling them that the the beneficial sludge could possibly have been a derivation of human feces) but rather the hyperbole (US government's involvement in AIDS proliferation in Black populations and worldwide), overexaggeration ('God "damn" America'), and aggrandizing nature in which the information was delivered.

Well, there's a nice way to say ANYTHING, and (I hope) Mr. Obama was only apologizing for Rev. Wright's failure to use his 'polite' words-not objecting to their validity.

"Black Liberation Theology" is a part of many types of contemporary African-American Christian worship. But its interpretation, like many other things, means a lot of different things to many different people. Inasmuch as this is the case with the Obama/Wright split, and for the apparently unitiated, needs to be distinguished as common among parishoners of various denominations in various predominantly African American faiths. It's probably a prime reason why Obama saw no need to distance himself from his pastor prior to these comments.

A nice (albeit, possibly oversimplified) view of African politics from where I sit. But overall, a great start!

Micgar said...

Jon Swift's BB Posts of 2008 pointed me here. Great post! This is an interesting theory-one that I had not thought about in this way. It makes sense when you break it down the way you do.

Anonymous said...

Obama and unity..
please get real you guys. Obama has a political point of view like any one else, therefore should be treated as such. His unity is removing the America as we know it and turning it into a place that embrace Muslims..*(his true religion) and be friends likewise with such around the world. i hope he fails...and lose in 2012....
from the one and only black female conservative...the read deal..