What Conservatism Has To Offer Black Americans

Published April 20, 2009

Conservatives in 2009 should be sufficiently confident in their ideas to believe they can appeal to people of all races and creeds. The challenge of reaching out to black Americans was firmly and directly faced by Ronald Reagan nearly 30 years ago and by every Republican president since him. While there is little to show in election results for all this effort, most conservatives realize this is the result of factors other than the content of their ideas.

So it is disappointing to read Shelby Steele, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution where he writes about race and civil rights, arguing that conservatism has little to offer black Americans. In a recent Wall Street Journal piece, he writes, “In an era when even failed moral activism is redemptive-and thus a source of moral authority and power-conservatism stands flat-footed with only discipline to offer.”

Steele argues that white liberals use black Americans as “ciphers in white struggles of conscience.” Because liberals treat black Americans as a means to their own end (redemption), blacks are denied a true identity and are only begrudgingly given any say or control over their destiny, Steele contends. The result has been a long train of failed social programs aimed at doing things for and to the black community that have damaged black institutions, such as the family, and left the community poor and fragmented.

Conservatism, “with its beautiful idea of a free man in a free society,” Steele writes, offers no way for whites to redeem themselves, “no way to show deference to minorities for the oppression they endured. Thus it seems [Steele’s emphasis] to be in league with that oppression.”

This is where Steele ends his analysis, but it is far from the end of the story. Conservatism is much more than preaching “discipline” or making vague references to an “invisible hand.” It is a robust philosophy of life that played a major role in black history and in the black community today, and it is the source of policy prescriptions just as bold and as easily sold in the black community as were the programs of the Great Society in the 1960s or of the Congressional Black Caucus today.

Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) is the foremost exemplar of the black conservative vision. He rose from slavery to become one of the most famous and respected men of his time. He is known best for founding Tuskegee University, in Tuskegee, Alabama, and for his lifelong advocacy of quality education, especially industrial education, for blacks of all ages.

Washington’s philosophy had three important themes: education, self-reliance, and entrepreneurship. Economic success, he both demonstrated and taught, is the surest path to social and political success.

Washington’s views were shared by millions of black Americans in his era, as reported in the works of such historians as George S. Schuyler, Nell Irvin Painter, and Kelly Miller.

Despite the increasingly strong push for government intervention, conservative viewpoints continued to play a positive role in the black struggle for equality, prosperity, and dignity in the first half of the twentieth century. Zora Neal Hurston (1891-1960) was one of the most gifted writers to emerge from the Harlem Renaissance. She was recently described as a “conservative libertarian” by the Wall Street Journal in a review of two new books about her. Langston Hughes (1902-1967), Ralph Ellison (1914-1994), and Alain Lock (1885-1954), were also gifted conservative black writers from the Harlem Renaissance.

Although many people do not think of Martin Luther King as a conservative, he championed many of the same principles as today’s black conservatives, arguing for quality education, personal integrity, public morality, equal treatment under the law, and a color-blind society. Other black leaders who have been claimed by the left also merit consideration for their conservative views, including Rosa Parks, Eldridge Cleaver, and Louis Farrakhan.

Millions of black Americans have used the three rungs of education, self-reliance, and entrepreneurship to climb the ladder of success and are now solidly middle-class contributors to society. Opinion polls show they are more conservative than whites on several social issues. As their incomes, educational attainment levels, and rate of homeownership rise, their views on economic issues can be expected to move rightward as well.

Nevertheless, self-acknowledged “black conservatives” are rarely seen or heard in public debates. One reason is obvious: conservatism in the black community is widely associated with white racism. Liberals, both black and white, work to create that perception in countless speeches and columns and in television ads during political campaigns. Some white conservatives do the same. The perception, largely left unchallenged, is widely accepted as reality.

Another reason black conservatives are rarely seen or heard from is the liberal bias of most foundations and corporate philanthropies. The vast majority of foundations, and nearly all of the biggest and best known foundations, simply refuse to fund conservative black spokespersons or organizations. Because hundreds of millions of dollars are given every year to advocacy organizations, this has a major impact on whose views are heard and whose are not. This is an insidious form of censorship that makes a mockery of the claims of many foundations and corporations to support genuine dialogue about the future of the black community.

Conservative thinkers and think tanks practically overflow with ideas to improve education, reward self-reliance, and boost entrepreneurship – Booker T. Washington’s three most important planks — while the liberal cupboards are bare. School choice, core curriculum, vocational education, economic education, saving and investing for the future, respect for entrepreneurs and success in the business world, faith-based initiatives-these are all ideas that resonate in the black community, and they come from conservatives and libertarians, not liberals.

Similarly, blacks benefit 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, whereas the latter often benefit from a paucity of new competitors entering the market due to the high cost of complying with complex regulations. Social Security privatization would also be a boon for blacks, who often die before they become eligible for Social Security benefits.

Nearly all the benefits of programs that expand school choice, such as vouchers and tax credits, go to black Americans and other minorities who can’t otherwise afford to choose the school. White families can already afford to move to districts with better schools (most already have) or to send their children to private schools. Welfare reform, too, benefits primarily the black community by rewarding work and self-reliance and discouraging dependency. But how often do we see the black beneficiaries of conservative policies labeled this way in the news?

Shelby Steele and other commentators on race appear to confuse the extensive positive attention liberal policy initiatives get in the media and among intellectuals with a genuine enthusiasm among the public. As Booker T. Washington noted, however, education, self-reliance, and entrepreneurship are the only real solution for both individuals and groups, and people of all races tend to understand that. Hence it is certainly reasonable for conservatives to argue, as Washington did, that whatever may have happened in the past, the best outcome for black Americans will come not from forced transfers of resources from other people but instead from full participation as free people in a free society, to paraphrase Steele’s apt image.

Simply making that argument, however, is not enough. Steele is correct to note that although the logic of freedom makes sense for all, it is exceedingly difficult for many black Americans to trust people who seem reluctant to acknowledge mistakes of the past and appear to court support from those who might harbor desires to restore those social inequities. The answer is for conservatives to recognize and emphasize the right’s positive record of reform in this area and to repudiate past efforts to stand in the way of positive change.

For example, conservatives would do well to remind the public that it was Southern Democrats who worked feverishly to block the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and that the bill was saved by the efforts of Republican Senators such as Everett Dirksen of Illinois and Thomas Kuchel of California. Southern Democrats voted 20-1 against the bill, while Northern Republicans supported it by a resounding 27-5 majority. Even Barry Goldwater, who notoriously voted against the bill, opposed only one part of it (strictures against private businesses engaging in interstate commerce) and had supported earlier civil rights bills in 1957 and 1960.

Similarly, as economists including Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams have noted, conservative , free-market economic policies have shown the best results for people of all backgrounds. Both writers have extensively outlined the liberal policies that have harmed blacks, such as job-killing high taxes and minimum wage laws, skyrocketing housing prices caused by restrictions on building, softness toward criminals that has victimized blacks more than any other group and destroyed neighborhood economies, and above all, the Democratic Party’s captivity to teachers unions and consequent opposition to school choice, which dooms black children to inferior education and locks them out of good jobs.

Sowell astutely cites the GOP’s attempts “to appeal to blacks by offering the same kinds of things that Democrats offer—token honors, politically correct rhetoric and welfare state benefits. Blacks who want those things know that they can already get them from the Democrats.” The result: “The Republican strategy for making inroads into the black vote has failed consistently for more than a quarter of a century.”

Instead, Sowell argues, “A sober presentation of the facts [will give] Republicans their best shot at a larger share of the votes of blacks. There is plenty to talk straight about, including all the things that the Democrats are committed to that work to the disadvantage of blacks.” And on the positive side, making the case for political and economic freedom and showing how conservatives have supported them over the years—not perfectly by any means, but much more consciously and consistently than the opposition—are the way to reach black Americans whom opinion polls show as being more conservative than whites on a variety of issues.

As Sowell noted, “The truth is something that can attract people’s attention, if only for its novelty in politics.” Thus the way for conservatives “to show deference to minorities for the oppression they endured” is to acknowledge those past national shortcomings openly, show how those failings actually resulted from a failure to follow the tenets of modern conservatism (known at the time as classical liberalism, ironically), and outline a positive agenda that will draw black Americans up the ladder of success more quickly.

In addition to being true, such an agenda would connect respect for the past with an optimistic vision for the future—exactly what the most successful conservatives have always done.

Lee H. Walker is a senior fellow for The Heartland Institute and author of Rediscovering Black Conservatism (Chicago: The Heartland Institute, 2009). Joseph Bast is president of The Heartland Institute.