The Conscience of Conservative Blacks: What Is Black Conservatism?

Published January 1, 2005

Good morning. I am Lee Walker, president of The New Coalition for Economic and Social Change, a nonprofit education and research organization based in downtown Chicago. It is a privilege to be here today, and I thank The Heritage Foundation for allowing me to pull together this panel for the Annual Resource Bank Meeting.

My task this morning is to be one-fourth panelist and three-fourths moderator. This panel was a creation of The New Coalition for Economic and Social Change, so please allow me a few minutes to explain what The New Coalition is.

The New Coalition

The New Coalition was founded in 1980 following a major conference in San Francisco at the Fairmont Hotel. That meeting was the first time since Booker T. Washington died in 1915 that a predominantly black group gathered to discuss conservative public policies. Of the speakers before us that day, one is in this room, Ed Meese III. Along with Ed were Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, and Walter Williams.

I became president of The New Coalition and “keeper of the flame” in 1993, after taking an early retirement from the headquarters office of Sears, Roebuck and Company. I have been working full time on The New Coalition for the past 11 years … without a salary, I might add. If I do not earn something in 2004 (even if it is only a dollar a week) I am going to sue myself for reparations!

The New Coalition’s mission is to cultivate effective multi-ethnic spokespersons, with conservative and libertarian views, and to help them gain access to forums where major public policies are being debated. We at The New Coalition are committed to creating a genuine dialogue between blacks and other ethnic groups on the one hand, and the largely white conservative and libertarian movement on the other.

What Is Black Conservatism?

Black conservatism is not a new mindset within black America. The first institution of conservative thinking was the black church. Black conservatism has been written about and discussed by a number of writers and thinkers during the past 24 years, but never really defined. For much of the past 50 years it has often been dismissed as an oxymoron or something less than a respectable point of view.

In 1908, Kelly Miller, the first black scholar to graduate from Johns Hopkins who later became dean of Howard University, wrote an essay titled “Radicals and Conservatives.” Miller described the followers of Booker T. Washington as conservatives. I believe the word “conservative” is best used as an adjective and not a noun. Thus conservatism is best understood as a state of mind and a type of character, a way of looking at the social order. It’s a set of traditional principles and a philosophy. Conservative Americans want to preserve the best of the past and make improvements; conservatism is not about radical change unless the times demand it.

I had an opportunity to discuss black conservatism with Dr. Russell Kirk at a meeting like this one on April 15, 1983. Why do I remember the date? He autographed and dated my copy of The Conservative Mind. We talked about Booker T. Washington, the most powerful black American of his time, and perhaps of all time, and surely the most influential conservative thinker of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Black versus White Conservatism

A conservative black’s overriding interest is in preserving and extending liberty and freedom as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Being familiar with the long history in which freedom was denied to our ancestors, parents, and even to us in our own lives, we are especially sensitive to threats to it today. You might say history has made blacks experts on reclaiming freedoms. We do not need to read white economists or political philosophers to teach us about what it is like to be deprived of basic freedoms.

Our first concern when addressing public policy will always be, “are we maximizing liberty and freedom?” We never want to debase the dignity of any human being.

Conservatism is also about conserving the best of the past. Conservative blacks are committed to this as well. The oldest and still most important conservative institution in black America is the church. That is where much of our leadership came from and many of the first schools open to blacks, and many fine schools serving black students across the country today. In many black communities, churches serve as engines of economic development, too.

Discussing the similarities and differences between white and black conservatism is similar to discussing how black and white Christians differ. They may belong to the same denomination and even the same church, but when they attend church on Sunday mornings, the service and the experiences may be very different.

Why “Black Conservatives” Are Rare

Over the past two decades, conservative and libertarian ideas have gained an important foothold in the black community. Surveys show a majority of blacks consider themselves conservative, not liberal, on many issues. On some social issues and school reform, blacks are “to the right” of whites.

Yet self-proclaimed “black conservatives” are rarely seen or heard in public debates. The reason is obvious: Conservatism in the black community is widely associated with white racism. Black and white liberals work to create that perception in countless speeches, columns, and television ads during political campaigns. Some white conservatives do the same. The perception, if left unchallenged, eventually is accepted as reality. Unfortunately, conservatives have done little to challenge that perception.

Then there’s the double standard. A white liberal can say “I am for affirmative action” to a predominantly black audience, and he’s met with a standing ovation. If a black public figure such as Colin Powell is for affirmative action, he is met with skepticism and criticism from the liberal black leadership for not taking a firmer stand.

The uses of the terms “affirmative action” and “conservative” in public debate actually have a lot in common, and help explain why the words so fiercely divide both black and white communities.

Affirmative action has been perceived by whites as being good for blacks and bad for whites. Conservatism has been perceived by blacks as being good for whites and bad for blacks. The logic is almost entirely the same on both sides–the only people we see on television or in newspapers who benefit from affirmative action are blacks, and the only beneficiaries of conservative policies we see are whites, and often wealthy and privileged whites at that.

Yet, whites have enjoyed and benefitted from affirmative action–and by this I mean favorable treatment not based on merit–more than any other group in America. It’s unavoidable because whites have far bigger and better networks and more assets than blacks, so when it comes to recommending someone or taking a chance on hiring or doing business, most of the time whites choose people they know or who come recommended by someone they know. But how often do we see these white beneficiaries of affirmative action in the news?

Similarly, blacks benefit the most from conservative policies. Tax cuts make a bigger difference to low-income families, entrepreneurs, and small investors than to the rich and secure. Deregulation lets small companies and people with new ideas compete with big corporations, which often hide behind the high cost of complying with complex regulations. Social Security privatization would be a boon for blacks, who often die before they become eligible for Social Security benefits. But how often do we see the black beneficiaries of conservative policies in the news?

The Progress Being Made

Having said that, let me hasten to add that we are making real progress in communicating to whites that not all blacks seek government assistance at the expense of their freedom, and to blacks that not all conservatives are racists.

A young man from a Chicago suburb called Thomas Sowell last month and wanted to know how he could learn more about conservatism. Tom told him to read The Federalist Papers. A little later on, Tom was talking to a mutual friend on the East Coast, and he said, “This fellow emailed me, wanting to know more about conservatism.” The next day, I received a call from a Heritage Foundation employee saying, “Lee, my husband wants you to talk to this young man.” I did, and that young man is attending this conference today.

Younger blacks are much more concerned about their economic future than older blacks, and are more likely to be an independent than wedded to the Democratic Party.

I received an email just last week from a young lady who is a banker. She says “I am 32 years old, married, with two children. I spent a long time in the Gulf War.” She then recited all of the conservative principles we share. She said, “But I am not a Republican.” And I said, “Welcome to the fold. We’ll move the movement ahead if this is not about party.”

Adam Meyerson from The Heritage Foundation wrote some 20 years ago, “A substantial minority of African Americans are going to begin identifying with political conservatism rather than political liberalism.” And when that happened, he said, many would be Democrats.

A recent study from the Joint Center for Political Studies in Washington, DC shows Meyerson was correct. It indicates that younger blacks are much more concerned about their economic future than older blacks, and are more likely to be an independent than wedded to the Democratic Party.

Adam was correct. The earthquake has started. I am hearing and feeling the tremors all the time. But the beneficiary of the change probably will not be the Republican Party, unless it changes its business dramatically.

About the Panelists

It is my privilege to introduce the members of our panel.

Bruce Montgomery is a journalist and author, a graduate of Northwestern University’s School of Journalism with a graduate degree from Dartmouth, and a certificate in technology from the University of Chicago.

Dr. Hardy Murphy is the superintendent of the Evanston/Skokie school system, a suburb north of Chicago. He is new to the area. He is a Texan, an educational psychologist by training, with a doctorate from the University of Texas.

Reverend Ceasar LeFlore is a Baptist pastor and Midwest Regional Director of LEARN, the Life Education and Resource Network, a community organization that is really presenting conservative principles to students in its church and neighborhood.

Dr. Elroy Leach, Sr. is professor of economics at Chicago State University. He holds a doctorate in economics from the University of Illinois.

Lee H. Walker ([email protected]) is president of The New Coalition for Economic and Social Change.