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).

Post-Finals, Pre-Breakdown Roundup

I'm feeling ill, and I've canceled my trip to Berkeley. I'm also extraordinarily high-strung given that I just finished all my finals. Maybe a round-up will cheer me up.

Right-wingers are playing a sick game of one-upsmanship on the Obama/Wright controversy (the winner questioned whether Obama is a good father of his kids).

Speaking of which, Hilzoy nails me precisely when she says "I do not feel, myself, like lecturing African Americans about the precise level of anger they should feel towards this country, or the extent to which they should identify with it....any more than I would want to tell a rape victim that she is, frankly, just a little too upset by her experience."

A Maryland bill which would enhance the rights of gay couples advanced in the legislature, but advocates think that bills which would legalize gay marriage or civil unions outright won't make it this session.

Bear Stearns is teetering on the edge of collapse, bringing the market down on top of it.

The head of the Pittsburgh City Council has written a scathing letter to Oklahoma State Rep. Sally Kerns (R), who cited the body as an example of council "taken over" by gay activists.

Out of Arkansas: "A bailiff who forgot about a woman locked in a courthouse holding cell and left her there for four days without food, water or access to a bathroom has been suspended for 30 days but will keep his job, officials said Wednesday." The women was an illegal immigrant, which the cynic in me thinks might have something to do with the wrist-slap punishment.

The 10 worst products for men ever created is out. It makes me cross my legs in sympathy.

Finally, most new law partners remain male. But I thought the gender gap was just a matter of letting the new, "equal" generation come down the pipeline?

Friday, March 14, 2008

Burning that Candle Power

Eric Johnson wonders if we're wasting intelligence on law students:
For every extra bit of talent that matriculates into business school, real wealth will be created, our economy will grow stronger, and people will be better off. For every extra IQ point that heads to medical school, more lives will be saved, more pain will be soothed, and people will be healthier.

But, since justice in America is based on the adversarial system, isn’t every bright law student just cancelled out by another equally bright classmate? Is the legal profession just an arms race that squanders talent in the overall scheme of things?

These questions are not limited to the litigation context. Think of the tens of thousands of hours of brilliance that goes into outsmarting the tax code. I sure don’t blame folks for doing it. But does the effort leave us all better off?

Of course, the nine billion posts warning anyone with a pulse to stay away from law school strikes me as proof that you can't be too smart to enter a field everyone appears to hate.

But I'm different -- I want to teach, not practice. Of course, there's an equally strong case I'm just option F on Amber's taxonomy of law school attendees.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

That'll Show 'Em

Ezra Klein on the FAA's fine of Southwest for being a bit too lax on their safety inspections:
This is why we need government in certain industries. The Libertarian solution here -- that a plane would crash and the market would punish the irresponsible -- would be sort of shitty for all involved.

As someone who used to fly ValuJet, allow me to concur full-throatedly.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

They Have No Gay People

ABC News reports:
Mehdi Kazemi, a gay Iranian teenager fighting to stay in Europe after his boyfriend was reportedly executed in Iran, has lost a plea for asylum in the Netherlands and will be sent back to Britain, where he could face deportation to Iran....
Kazemi, 19, came to Britain to study in 2005. He has said he intended to return to his country until he learned that his boyfriend in Tehran, whom he had been dating secretly since he was 15 years old, had been arrested for sodomy and hanged, according to Kazemi's lawyer.

Kazemi appealed for asylum in Britain, writing in a letter accompanying his request, "I wish to inform secretary of state that I did not come to the U.K. to claim asylum. But in the past few months my situation back home has changed. The Iranian authorities have found out that I am a homosexual and they are looking for me."

He continued, "I cannot stop my attraction to men … If I return to Iran I will be arrested and executed like [my boyfriend]. Since this incident … I have been so scared."

A British court denied Kazemi's request in 2006 on the grounds that Iran does not systematically persecute homosexuals.

I have no idea who in their right mind thinks Iran's persecution of homosexuals is not "systematic", but the upshot is this kid probably will hang.

Of course, some of the commenters to this post probably think he was a criminal for trying to escape in the first place.

And the New Champion...

The Washington Post scores major points for not just analogizing the Democratic war for the nomination to a boxing match, but actually interviewing legendary trainer Angelo Dundee to get his "expert" opinion.

Sad Congressmen

Is Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-HI) really opposing the new House ethics legislation because it'd hurt Congressional self-esteem?:
Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, registered his displeasure with the proposal by using a parliamentary tactic to delay the vote. Just after 8 p.m., Abercrombie forced a vote on a motion to adjourn, which only served to delay the vote on the ethics resolution until an hour later. The vote failed 177 to 196, with 14 Democrats voting in favor of it.

Afterward, Abercrombie railed against the proposal to resounding applause on both sides of the aisle.

“With this proposal we are indicting ourselves, yielding and retreating to those who would tear this House down and denigrate us as crooks and knaves and hustlers…we cringe before our critics,” he said. “If we have no respect for ourselves—how to we expect it from anybody else?”

Abercrombie is normally a pretty solid progressive, making this all the more ridiculous. Here's a thought: people will think higher of you if you set high standards of conduct and are transparent about meeting them.

How Do Suicide Bombers Level Up?

US intelligence agencies are going to start monitoring online games for terrorist activity.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

What If?

The Geraldine Ferraro flap is actually old terrain in this campaign. Responding to the same charge (that Obama wouldn't be where he was today if he wasn't Black), Cass Sunstein rejoined:
I have no idea how Obama would be regarded if he were white. (He might be regarded as this generation's Jack Kennedy; the two have a similar quickness, youth, charisma, and capacity for humor.) But for any successful politician, there are many necessary conditions for their success. Would George W. Bush be president if his last name were not Bush? Would Al Gore have become vice-president if his last name had not been Gore? Would Senator McCain be a serious candidate for the presidency if he had not been held prisoner in Vietnam? Would Bush, Gore, or McCain be where they are today if they were African-American or Hispanic? (What kinds of questions are these?)

This time around, Klein applies the what if machine to Ms. Clinton:
[I]f Hillary Clinton were a black man, it's unlikely that she would have been a national political figure for the past 15 years, as it's unlikely that she would have married another man from Arkansas, and unlikely that the country would have put an interracial, same sex couple in the White House. But so what? This is an election, not Marvel's "What If?" series.

The candidates are who they are. Obama is a fantastic candidate as a Black man. Clinton is a fantastic candidate as a White woman. It's impossible to know where they'd be if their identity axes were differently located. But that's true of all our politicians. We just only seem to care when they're not White men, because those are the "strange" politicians.

Of course, if I believed there was anyway to transubstantiate personality wholesale onto another identity, it would seem more likely that someone from a traditionally politically marginalized group -- Black or female -- would be more likely to become a successful politician if they were a White man, because they'd have all their talent, drive, and ambition, but wouldn't have to deal with dumb questions like this. Maybe we should ask ourselves if every White male candidate is talented enough so they'd still be seen as a contender even if they were a Black woman.

Monday, March 10, 2008


Kevin Drum collects a bunch of bloggers saying how much they hate using the phone. Count me in their number, though until now I didn't realize I had company. I don't mind talking in person, and I'm a big fan of AIM, but I loathe calling folks on the telephone.

I think the problem is that phones imply intentionality. If you're IMing someone, it's very spontaneous -- "oh, you're online, so why don't we chat?" Even email is very casual. But you know exactly what you're doing when you call someone on the phone. You know you want to speak to the receive, and they know it, which for introverts makes every phone call like asking your crush on a date. You're always afraid they'll wonder why this loser is bothering them.

Manchild in the Prison Land

Here's a picture drawn by a nine-year old Canadian boy (or as Colorado state representative Debbie Stafford would call him, the next generation of terrorists), currently incarcerated in Hutto Prison in Texas. It's where we keep folks with immigration issues. Not crimes, usually, just administrative proceedings, but it's a prison anyway -- and one with a long record of abuse. Some of them are American citizens, who have done nothing wrong. Others are simply waiting for outstanding immigration questions (such as an amnesty application) to be resolved. It's the first time since Japanese Internment that we've imprisoned children.

UPDATE: More information about Hutto Prison can be found in this heart-wrenching New Yorker article.

One of the things that scares me about housing innocent people -- including children -- in these prisons is that the American prison system, even in its normal operations, is hardly a model of human rights enforcement. The folks operating Hutto prison, as the New Yorker article points out, have their background in guarding prisons, not social services. Brutal things happen in prison: torture officially-sanctioned rape, Abu Gharib-esque behavior -- it's well beyond what can be justified even for hardened criminals. That it may be happening to innocent children -- many who were fleeing this sort of brutality in their home countries -- terrifies me.

UPDATE #2: Since some folks are calling his parents "criminals", and blaming them for coming to the US illegally, a quick overview about this kid's case specifically. His family is from Iran, but the fled to Canada after credible threats of political persecution (the father had allowed a friend to use his print shop to make copies of The Satanic Verses). During this time, the son was born in Canada, and is a Canadian citizen. However, Canada eventually rejected their asylum application, and they were all sent back to Iran, where they were predictably tortured. They paid $20,000 to forge some documents and try again. However, their plane was grounded in Puerto Rico after a passenger had a heart attack, and a US customs official spotted their forged documents. They were told they had to make their asylum application in the US, which they proceeded to do. However, while the process was pending, they were held in Hutto Prison.

My understanding of asylum applications is that they are made after one crosses the border. There are excellent reasons for this to be so: first, I'm not sure how one would apply for asylum while still inside a country (such as Iran) that doesn't have diplomatic relations with the US, and second, even if relations did exist it'd be rather cruel to force folks to stay in a place where they have credible fears of persecution (up to and including torture) while they wait for American bureaucratic machinery to grind along its way. So they come here, and make their pitch from within our borders.

This kid's family, of course, didn't even want to come to the US in the first place (and really, after they way they've been treated, who could blame them), but asylum seekers as a class aren't going to come with visas. If they were in a position where they could wait for a visa, they probably wouldn't be needing asylum. Calling folks such as this "criminals" is an example of a malfunctioning soul.


On NY Governor Elliot Spitzer's "links" to a recent prostitution bust, what LGM says:
# If I were in charge of writing laws, I do not believe that anyone belongs in jail for procuring or (certainly) selling sex for money, or that any criminal offense more severe than a ticket for the purchaser should be involved.

# If poor sex workers are thrown in jail under existing laws, then affluent white johns sure as hell should be too. This goes double for people who have positions that might allow them to work to repeal laws they don't feel are just

Unlike, say, David Vitter, Spitzer hasn't made a career over making one's sex life a political issue, but he has as AG broken up quite a few prostitution rings. That's hypocrisy enough for me to call him out.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Modern Day Slaves

The U.S. Federal Court for the Southern District of Florida has agreed to hear, under the Alien Tort Statute, the case of three Cuban nationals who were trafficked by the Cuban government to Curacao and held there as slaves.
The Defendant and the Cuban government trafficked the Plaintiffs from Cuba to Curaçao under threat of physical and psychological harm including the threat of imprisonment. Upon arrival in Curaçao, the Plaintiffs' passports were taken and they were held on the grounds of the Defendant, along with scores of their compatriots. The workers were only allowed to leave those grounds under the guard of Cuban government agents. They were forced to work in slave-like conditions for 112 hours per week performing drydock services on ships and oil platforms. The pay for their work, the complaint alleges, was paid to the Cuban government. (In discovery, Defendant admitted that it credited Cuba on a debt it was owed by Cuba in exchange for the labors of the Cuban workers). The complaint alleges a situation in which the government of Curaçao was likely complicit due to the circumstances in which the Plaintiffs were transported to Curaçao and held there. Further, the Plaintiffs were denied all protections of the laws of Curaçao for injuries they suffered there, and, when any of the workers were injured or complained, they were promptly deported to Cuba and treated as enemies of the state. If they escaped and were caught, they were likewise deported to Cuba and punished. Plaintiffs, however, successfully escaped the Defendant's drydock facility, and were hunted by Defendant and agents of the Defendant within Curaçao and by the agents of the Cuban government all the way to Colombia, where they were granted political asylum. The United States then granted Plaintiffs parole to enter the United States.

In the 19th Century, slave trafficking was punishable by death. I don't support the death penalty anymore, but for greed-saturated corporations that cooperate with totalitarian regimes to acquire slave labor, it makes a tempting argument for itself.