Unmasking the Black Conservatives

by Cornel West

Cornel West is currently in the Afro-American Studies Department at Harvard University and a member of the Harvard Divinity School’s Faculty of Divinity.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, July 16-23, 1986, p. 644. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The narrowness of the black conservatives’ viewpoint reflects the narrowness of the liberal perspective with which they are obsessed. With more rational debates among conservative, liberal and leftist voices, the truth about the black poor can be more easily ascertained.

The publication of Thomas Sowell’s Race and Economics in 1975 marked the rise of an aggressive and widely visible black conservative assault on the traditional liberal leadership of blacks in the United States. The promotion of conservative ideas is not new in Afro-American history. George S. Schuyler, for example, published a witty and acerbic column in an influential black newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, for decades, and his book Black and conservative is a minor classic in Afro-American letters. And Zora Neale Hurston, one of the most renowned Afro-American woman writers, wrote reactionary essays (some of which appeared in the Reader’s Digest) and gave her allegiance to the Republican Party -- facts often overlooked by her contemporary feminist followers. Yet the bid for conservative hegemony in black political and intellectual leadership that was initiated by Sowell’ s book represents a new development in the post -- civil rights era.

This bid is as yet highly unsuccessful, though it has generated much attention from the American media. Besides Sowell, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University, other prominent figures in the black conservative movement are Glenn C. Loury, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government; Walter E. Williams, a professor of economics at George Mason University; I A. Parker, president of the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, Inc.; Robert Woodson, president of the National Association of Neighborhood Enterprises; and Joseph Perkins, editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal. Though there are minor differences among these people, they all support the basic policies of the Reagan administration, including the major foreign policies, the opposition to affirmative action, the efforts to abolish or lower the adult minimum wage, the proposals for enterprise zones in inner cities, and the vast cutbacks in social programs for the poor.

These publicists are aware of the irony of their position -- that their own ‘upward social mobility was, in large part, made possible by the struggles of those in the civil rights movement and the more radical black activists they now scorn. But they also realize that black liberalism is in a deep crisis. It is this crisis, exemplified by the rise of Reaganism and the decline of progressive politics, that has created the intellectual space that the black conservative voices (along with the nonblack ones) now occupy.

The crisis of black liberalism and the emergence of the new black conservatives can best be understood in light of three fundamental events in American society and culture since 1973: the eclipse of U.S. economic and military predominance in the world; the structural transformation of the American economy; and the moral breakdown of communities throughout the country, especially among the black working poor and underclass.

The symbolic events in the decline of American economic and military hegemony were the oil crisis, which resulted principally from the solidarity of the OPEC nations, and the military defeat in Vietnam. Increasing economic competition from Japan, West Germany and other nations ended an era of unquestioned U.S. economic power. The resultant slump in the American economy undermined the Keynesian foundation of postwar American liberalism: economic growth accompanied by state regulation and intervention on behalf of disadvantaged citizens.

The impact of the economic recession on Afro-Americans was immense. Not surprisingly, it more deeply affected the black working poor and underclass than the expanding black middle class. Issues of sheer survival loomed large for the former, while the latter continued to seize opportunities in education, business and politics. Most middle-class blacks consistently supported the emergent black political class -- the black officials elected at the national, state and local levels -- primarily to ensure black upward social mobility. But a few began to feel uncomfortable about how their white middle-class peers viewed them. Mobility by means of affirmative action breeds tenuous self respect and questionable peer acceptance for many middle-class blacks. The new black conservatives voiced these feelings in the form of attacks on affirmative action programs (ignoring the fact that they had achieved their positions by means of such programs).

The importance of this quest for middle-class respectability based on merit rather than politics cannot be overestimated in the new black conservatism. The need of black conservatives to gain the respect of their white peers deeply shapes certain elements of their conservatism. In this regard, they simply want what most Americans want -- to be judged by the quality of their skills, not the color of their skin. But surprisingly, the black conservatives overlook the fact that affirmative action policies were political responses to the pervasive refusal of most white Americans to judge black Americans on that basis.

The new black conservatives assume that without affirmative action programs, white Americans will make choices on merit rather than on race. Yet they have adduced absolutely no evidence for this: Hence, they are either politically naïve or simply unconcerned about black mobility. Most Americans realize that job-hiring choices are made both on reasons of merit and on personal grounds. And it is this personal dimension that is often influenced by racist perceptions. Therefore the pertinent debate regarding black hiring is never "merit vs. race" but whether hiring decisions will be based on merit, influenced by race-bias against blacks, or on merit, influenced by race-bias, but with special consideration for minorities as mandated by law. In light of actual employment practices, the black conservative rhetoric about race-free hiring criteria (usually coupled with a call for dismantling affirmative action mechanisms) does no more than justify actual practices of racial discrimination. Their claims about self-respect should not obscure this fact, nor should they be regarded as different from the normal self-doubts and insecurities of new arrivals in the American middle class. It is worth noting that most of the new black conservatives are first-generation middleclass persons, who offer themselves as examples of how well the system works for those willing to sacrifice and work hard. Yet, in familiar American fashion, genuine white peer acceptance still seems to escape them. In this regard, they are still influenced by white racism.

The eclipse of U.S. hegemony in the world is also an important factor for understanding black conservatives’ views on foreign policy. Although most of the press attention they receive has to do with their provocative views on domestic issues, I would suggest that the widespread support black conservatives receive from Reaganite conservatives and Jewish neoconservatives has much to do with their views on U.S. foreign policies. Though black conservatives rightly call attention to the butchery of bureaucratic elites in Africa, who rule in the name of a variety of ideologies, they reserve most of their energies for supporting U.S. intervention in Central America and the U.S. alliance with Israel. Their relative silence regarding the U.S. policy of "constructive engagement" with South Africa is also revealing.

The black conservatives’ stance is significant in light of the glacial shift that has occurred in black America regarding America’s role in the world. A consequence of the civil rights movement and the Black Power ideology of the ‘60s was a growing identification of black Americans with other oppressed peoples around the world. This has had less to do with a common skin color and more to do with shared social and political experience. Many blacks sympathize with Polish workers and Northern Irish Catholics (despite problematic Polish-black and Irish-black relations in places like Chicago and Boston), and more and more blacks are cognizant of how South Africa oppresses its native peoples, how Chile and South Korea repress their citizens, and how Israel mistreats the Palestinians. This latter identification especially worries conservatives. In fact, the radical consequences for domestic issues of this growing black international consciousness -- usually dubbed anti-Americanism by the vulgar right -- frightens the new black conservatives, who find themselves viewed in many black communities as mere apologists for pernicious U.S. foreign policies.

The new black conservatives have rightly perceived that the black liberal leadership has not addressed these changes in the economy. Obviously, the idea that racial discrimination is the sole cause of the predicament of the black working poor and underclass is specious. And the idea that the courts and government can significantly enhance the plight of blacks by enforcing laws already on the books is even more spurious. White racism, though pernicious and potent, cannot fully explain the socioeconomic position of the majority of black Americans.

The crisis of black liberalism is the result of its failure to put forward a realistic response to the changes in the economy. The new black conservatives have highlighted this crisis by trying to discredit the black liberal leadership, arguing that the NAACP, the National Urban League, the Black Congressional Caucus and most black mayors are guided by outdated and ineffective viewpoints. The overriding aim of the new black conservatives is to undermine the position of black liberals and replace them with black Republicans, who downplay governmental regulation and stress market mechanisms and success-oriented values in black communities.

Yet the new black conservatives have been unable to convince black Americans that conservative ideology and Reaganite policies are morally acceptable and politically advantageous. The vast depoliticization and electoral disengagement of blacks suggests that they are indeed disenchanted with black liberals and distrustful of American political processes; and a downtrodden and degraded people with limited options may be ready to try any alternative. Nevertheless, black Americans have systematically rejected the arguments of the new black conservatives. This is not because blacks are duped by liberal black politicians nor because blacks worship the Democratic Party. Rather, it is because most blacks conclude that while racial discrimination is not the sole cause of their plight, it certainly is one cause. Thus, most black Americans view the new black conservative assault on the black liberal leadership as a step backward rather than forward. Black liberalism indeed is inadequate, but black conservatism is unacceptable. This negative reaction to black conservatives by most blacks partly explains the reluctance of the new black conservatives to engage in public debates in the black community, and their contrasting eagerness to do so in the mass media, where a few go so far as to portray themselves as courageous, embattled critics of a black liberal establishment -- while their salaries, honorariums and travel expenses are paid by well-endowed conservative foundations and corporations.

The new black conservatives have had their most salutary effect on public discourse by highlighting the breakdown of the moral fabric in the country and especially in black working poor and underclass communities. Black organizations like Jesse Jackson’s PUSH have focused on this issue in the past, but the new black conservatives have been obsessed by it, and thereby given it national attention. Unfortunately, they view this urgent set of problems in strictly individualistic terms, and ignore the historical background and social context of the current crisis.

The black conservatives claim that the decline of values such as patience, hard work, deferred gratification and self-reliance have resulted in the high crime rates, the increasing number of unwed mothers, and the relatively uncompetitive academic performances of black youth. And certainly these sad realities must be candidly confronted. But nowhere in their writings do the new black conservatives examine the pervasiveness of sexual and military images used by the mass media and deployed by the advertising industry in order to entice and titillate consumers. Since the end of the postwar economic boom, new strategies have been used to stimulate consumption -- especially strategies aimed at American youth that project sexual activity as instant fulfillment and violence as the locus of machismo identity. This market activity has contributed greatly to the disorientation and confusion of American youth, and those with less education and fewer opportunities bear the brunt of this cultural chaos. Ought we to be surprised that black youths isolated from the labor market, marginalized by decrepit urban schools, devalued by alienating ideals of beauty and targeted by an unprecedented drug invasion exhibit high rates of crime and teen-age pregnancy?

My aim is not to provide excuses for black behavior or to absolve blacks of personal responsibility. But when the new black conservatives accent black behavior and responsibility in such a way that the cultural realities of black people are ignored, they are playing ‘a deceptive and dangerous intellectual game with the lives and fortunes of disadvantaged people. We indeed must criticize and condemn immoral acts of black people, but we must do so cognizant of the circumstances into which people are born and under which they live. By overlooking this, the new black conservatives fall into the trap of blaming black poor people for their predicament.

The ideological blinders of the new black conservatives are clearly evident in their attempt to link the moral breakdown of poor black communities to the expansion of the welfare state. For them, the only structural element of political-economic life relevant to the plight of the black poor is the negative role of the state and the positive role of the market. An appropriate question to these descendants of slaves sold at the auction block is, Can the market do any wrong?

They claim that transfer payments to the black needy engender a mentality of dependence which undercuts the values of self-reliance and the solidity of the black poor family. The new black conservatives fail to see that the welfare state was the historic compromise between progressive forces seeking broad subsistence rights and conservative forces arguing for unregulated markets. Therefore it should come as no surprise that the welfare state possesses many flaws. I do believe that the reinforcing of "dependent mentalities" and the undermining of the family are two such flaws. But simply to point out these rather obvious shortcomings does not justify cutbacks in the welfare state. In the face of high black unemployment, these cutbacks will not promote self-reliance or strong black families but will only produce even more black cultural disorientation and more devastated black households.

Yet even effective jobs programs do not fully address the cultural decay and moral disintegration of poor black communities. Like America itself, these communities are in need of cultural revitalization and moral regeneration. There is widespread agreement on this need by all sectors of black leadership, but neither black liberals nor the new black conservatives adequately speak to this need.

At present, the major institutional bulwarks against the meaninglessness and despair rampant in Afro-America are Christian churches and Muslim mosques. These churches and mosques are indeed fighting an uphill battle; they cannot totally counter the pervasive influence on black people, especially black youths, of the sexual and violent images purveyed by mass media. Yet I am convinced that the prophetic black churches -- the churches that have rich cultural and moral resources and a progressive politics -- do possess the kind of strategy it takes to meet the crisis of black culture. That is, churches like Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Herbert Daughtry’s House of the Lord Pentecostal Church in Brooklyn, Charles Adams’s Hartford Memorial Baptist Church in Detroit, and Frank Reid’s Ward African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles are able to affirm the humanity of poor black people, accent their capacities, and foster the character and excellence requisite for productive citizenship. Unfortunately, there are not enough of these institutions to overcome the cultural and moral crisis.

What then are we to make of the new black conservatives? First, I would argue that the narrowness of their viewpoints reflects the narrowness of the liberal perspective with which they are obsessed. In fact, a lack of vision and analysis, and a refusal to acknowledge the crucial structural features of the black poor situation, characterizes both black liberals and conservatives. The positions of both groups reflects a fight within the black middle-class elite. This parochialism is itself a function of the highly limited alternatives available in contemporary American politics.

Second, the emergence of the new black conservatives signifies a healthy development to the degree that it calls attention to the failures of black liberalism and thereby encourages black politicians and activists to entertain more progressive, solutions to the problems of social injustice. Finally, I would predict that the next area for black conservative attacks on the black liberal leadership will be that of U.S. foreign policy. The visible role of the NAACP and black elected officials in the antiapartheid movement will probably come under a heavier ideological assault. This attack can only intensify as black liberal leaders find it more and more difficult to pass the conservative litmus tests for pro-Americanism in foreign affairs: uncritical support for U.S. policy toward Israel and U.S. intervention in Central America.

Perhaps the widening of the split between black liberal leaders and black conservative critics will lead to a more principled and passionate political discourse in and about black America. I am confident that with more rational debates among conservative, liberal and leftist voices, the truth about the black poor can be more easily ascertained. The few valuable insights of the new black conservatives can be incorporated into a larger progressive perspective that utterly rejects their unwarranted conclusions and repugnant policies. I suspect that such a dialogue would unmask the new black conservatives as renegades from the critics of black liberalism who have seen some of the limits of this liberalism, but are themselves highly rewarded and status-hungry ideologues unwilling to question the nature of their own illiberalism.