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December 06, 1991 - Image 6

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The Michigan Daily, 1991-12-06
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Old Issues,


By Rob Patton
Daily Minority Issues Reporter

What Does the New Prominence
of Black Conservatives Mean?

This was originally meant to be a
story about the new conservative
thought in Black America.
Earlier this fall, during Clarence-
Thomas' Senate confirmation
hearings, I was surprised by polls that
showed a majority of Black
Americans supporting his
confirmation, despite Thomas'
opposition to affirmative action and
other controversialgovernment
programs designed to facilitate racial
I also knew of a number of other
Black thinkers who had broken with
the civil rights mainstream. Such
scholars as Shelby Steele and Thomas
Sowell, for example, have received a
good deal of media attention for their
outspoken views. Like Thomas, these
Black academics generally preach "self
help" as the best way to deal with the
problems facing the Black community.
Rightly or wrongly, this has earned
them the label "Black conservatives."
When I started work on this story,
I wanted to know ifallof this added
up to a trend. Was the Black
community turning away from the
programs that had come out of the
civil rights movement? Were these
conservative views taking hold?
But what Ifound was that this is
a debate that has been going on
within the Black community for a
long time. And both empirical and
anecdotalevidence suggest that these
conservative thinkers do not have
much support at all within the Black
The real question, then, is this: if
these conservatives lack grass-roots
support, what are the implications of
their new-found prominence?
Many say it represents a successful
effort by conservative whites to
promote the few Blacks who will agree
with their views. They see Black
conservatives as out of touch with the
average Black American, as having
turning their backs on programs they
themselves have benefitted from, and
as having taken advantage of the
conservative mood in America to gain
political and financialsuccess by
promoting conservative philosophies.
But to some, even among the
conservatives' detractors, they also
represent a growing and needed debate
within the Black community over the
sources of- and solutions to - its
problems. Even if their philosophies
are not the answer, these people say,
they raise important questions -
questions that need to be addressed.
'Not a new
One important - and often
overlooked - fact is that
conservatives are nothing new

within the lFlack community.
"This is not a new
phenomenon, that all Black
people aren't thinking the same
thoughts about how to gain
liberation and freedom," says
Vice Provost for Minority
Affairs Charles Moody.
Indeed, the existence of a
conservative school of Black
thought has always existed. At
the turn of the century, Booker T.
Washington was arguing -
much as Thomas does today -
that hard work and self-

As DuBois wrote in 1915,
"The American Negro demands
equality - political equality,
industrial equality and social
equality, and he is never going to
rest with anything less."
Harold Cruse, professor
emeritus of history and Afro-
American studies and co-founder
of the Center for Afro-American
and African Studies, explains the
continuing debate:
"What at bottom was the
basis of the rift between Booker
T. Washington and DuBois was

conservatives and other Blacks
beginning with Booker T.
Washington, coming on down
through the different decades, is
federally sponsored civil rights
versus self help," Cruse says.
DuBois' philosophy
eventually gained the upper hand.
His call for political agitation
was expressed in the civil rights
battles of the '50s and '60s. But
the conservative strains of Black
thought, though they receded
from the limelight, never
Conservatives today
While they have always been
around, Black conservatives
today enjoy a prominence not
known in recent times. Cruse
points out that until recently,
"the Black community has never
had a prominent conservative
ideologue." Now Thomas sits on
the Supreme Court.
"Thomas represents the
emergence of this new
conservative elite that has never
considered the prominence it now
enjoys," says English lecturer
Bazel Allen, who teaches a
seminar on "Integration,
Segregation, Pluralism and
Diversity in Contemporary
In addition to Thomas, an
increasing amount of attention is
being given to contemporary
scholars such as Sowell and
Steele. And a number of
conservative Blacks have taken
positions under the Reagan and
Bush administrations.
Sowell, an economist at
Stanford, has written articles
with such titles as "Affirmative
Action: A Worldwide Disaster."
Steele has written, "The
barriers to Black progress in
America today are clearly as
much psychological as they are
social or economic."
Michael Dawson, a professor
of political science and Afro-
American and African studies,
points out that "Black
conservativism" is not
necessarily the same as conserva-
tivism among whites.
"One of the things that's
sometimes confusing about
understanding Black politics,
Black activism and Black
political thought is that what's
considered conservative within
the framework of Black society is
in fact moderate or even liberal
within the framework of society
as a whole," he says.
Allen adds that Blacks as a

group are, in fact, no more or less
conservative than whites on such
issues as family, abortion, or the
status of women. The "Black
conservatives" are noted for
conservativism on issues of
racial, economic and social
policy, he says.
While these conservatives do
not stand united on all issues.
However, generalizations can be
made about them. Unlike their
earlier counterparts, they accept
the gains of the civil rights
movement in eliminating legal
racial discrimination. But they
de-emphasize the role of racism in
hindering Black progress, and
question the need for programs
like affirmative action to rectify
injustices caused by racism.
Instead, they see internal
weaknesses in the Black
community and programs like
affirmative action themselves as
responsible for economic
problems faced by Blacks.
Cruse describes the modern
Black conservatives in this way:
"The Black conservative might
agree that in the past, all those
measures were good, but that
now they've outlived their
usefulness, and that they're not
doing all that they claim to be
doing... that these programs are
not really helping."
A lack of support
And some of these
conservative Blacks have enjoyed
a great deal of success. Steele's
book The Content of Our Character
was a bestseller; Clarence Thomas
has replaced Thurgood Marshall
to sit on the Supreme Court.
But this does not translate into
general support among Black
Dawson is a member of the
Race and Politics Program at the
University's Institute for Social
Research. His work involves
periodic surveys of Black
Americans' attitudes on social
and political issues. He says the
most recent data do not indicate
much support for conservative
thought in Black America.
"Clearly if you look at the data
from 1988, Black Americans
overwhelmingly - 85 to 95
percent - vote for Democratic
candidates, they identify
themselves with the Democratic
party, and in terms of most
political issues they are very
liberal, particularly on the most
salient issues.of economics and
race," Dawson says.
Dawson says this- is because
Blacks have made more social and

* 0
economic progress under liberal
administrations than under
conservative ones.-
"And except for the middle
part of the 20th century, the
parties that have been
conservative on racial issues have
also been conservative on social
issues," he says. "That's the
reason there's been, up until now,
remarkably little support for
conservativism in the Black
And Dawson does not believe
the polls that show support for
Thomas indicate support for his
"The parsimonious
explanation toward the Black
support for Thomas is that many
Black Americans feel he would be
better than any white
conservative... Second, there is a
segment of the Black community
that will support a Black for any
position, government position or
And in addition to the
statistical evidence that they lack
support, there is widespread
criticism of their policies and
"I can't speak for all Black
people, but generally, within the
Black community, those people
are not even known... except
maybe among the upper middle
class, or among college students
whose professors have had them
read the books," says first-year
Rackham student Pilgrim Spikes.
Rackham Student Trayce
Matthews, a member of the board
of the Baker-Mandela Center for
Anti-Racist Education, says
Thomas' proximity to and
support from powerful whites is
another parallel between him and

Booker T. Washington, who had
support from Theodore Roosevelt
and Andrew Carnegie.
And indeed today, as before,
the support given to such people
by white conservative interests
raises questions about the
legitimacy of Black conservatives
as spokespersons for any segment
of the Black community.
"On a personal level I think
the reason they've become so
popular is because of the views
they hold. Anyone speaking
against affirmative action is
going to get attention because
certain people want to promote
those views. I think that's the
way to get a million copies of
your book sold," says third-year
law student Mark Randon,
president of the Black Law
Students Alliance.
"There are a lot of good Black
sociologists out there who make
arguments in favor of affirmative
action, and it's a shame that they
don't get the same attention," he
"You have to look at these
things in context," agrees third-
year law student Lamont Satchel.
"What's happening within the
Black community has to be
viewed against the backdrop of
the current political climate. The
best way for them to implement
their programs is to find
conservatives within the Black
School of Education graduate
student Amy Jordan says
conservatives turn the debate
away from the real problems in
the Black community with their
emphasis on affirmative action's
shortcomings. She also levies a
criticism heard frequently during


Third-year law student Lamont Satchel sees shortcomings in programs like affirm
conservatives who de-emphasize the need to fight racism. "We've got to find a
problem," Satchel says. "But that includes racism."

the Thomas hearings.
"I think it bothers a lot of
people that people... benefit from
affirmative action and then turn
around and denigrate it."
'A New Diversity'
So the significance of Black
conservatives does not lie in novel
ideas. And it does not lie in a
widening base of support. To
many, their significance is that
white conservatives have been
successful in finding a few Blacks
to promote views that are not
supported by most Blacks.
But there are those, including
some who criticize Black
conservatives, who also see them
as playing a role that is - at least
in some ways - positive.
"They cause us to begin a
dialogue on whether affirmative
action is the best method of
achieving racial equality, or
whether we should switch to
another method," Randon says. "I
don't agree with any of their
conclusions, but their reasoning
has some points."
Allen says the growing
prominence of these
conservatives, who question the
tactics of the civil rights
movement, represents a loosening
of solidarity within the Black
community that is, ironically, a
result of the successes of the
movement itself.
"For Black Americans the old
world of crude, overt racism
produced a form of ethnic
solidarity," Allen says. "With the
successes of the civil rights
movement in eliminating at least
the crudest forms of racism,
there's no longer the pressure to be
as ideologically unified... You
can't have.the same kind of unity
you had in the era of mass
"There is a new diversity

within the Black community.
The political implication of this
is that you might have less
consensus on any given issue that
the civil rights community
decides is important," he adds.
And Allen's view of the
situation seems supported by the
fact that at least some members
of the Black community are, like
the conservatives, questioning
whether the programs of the civil
rights movement - and
particularly affirmative action
- are working the way the were
intended. This does not mean they
are arriving at the same
conclusions as the conservatives;
on the contrary most do not. But
they are posing the same
The problems
"I think the civil rights
community, back in the '60s and
'70s, thought they had hit on a
good thing - the right thing, and
I think now they're realizing
they didn't," law student Satchel
says. "I think they thought this
would alleviate all the problems
of the Black community, and it
didn't, and now we've got to find
another solution.
"We've got to find a solution
that addresses the whole problem,
that helps everyone, including the
part of the Black community not
helped by affirmative action -
which is, statistics show, lower
income Blacks."
That affirmative action does
not help the poor is a criticism
repeated by others. Cruse puts it
more bluntly. "The people who
are really faced with economic
difficulty today are being laid off
and fired. Affirmative action
doesn't speak to them.
Affirmative action is speaking to
people way up there, on some
higher level, trying to get a white

is r

English Lecturer Bazel Allen: "With the successes of the civil rights
movement in eliminating at least the crudest forms of racism, there's no
longer the pressure to be as ideologically unified."

improvement, rather than
political agitation, were the best
strategies to achieve racial
"We have a right, in a
conservative and sensible
manner, to enter our
complaints," Washington said in
1903, "(But) let us not forget to
lay the greatest stress upon the
opportunities open to us,
especially for growth in labor, in
business, and education."
However, W.E.B. DuBois,
who spearheaded opposition to
Washington during that era,
urged Blacks to fight politically
for their rights. The civil rights
leaders who oppose Thomas have
their roots in the rejection by
DuBois if Washington's
apolitical philosophy.

simply the basic fact that DuBois
was involved in the founding of
the NAACP (National
Association for the Advancement
of Colored People) in 1909, and the
NAACP was organized on the
basis of fighting for
constitutional guarantees and all
that that implied, which boiled
down to it being a civil rights
"Booker T. Washington, on
the other hand, you might call the
prototype Black conservative."
Cruse points out that, while
political action and self help are
certainly not mutually exclusive,
the debate is over where the
emphasis should be placed.
"The arguments change, the
situation changes, but the basic
thematic conflict between Black

LSA Sophomore Corey Hill calls himself a conservative. "I think what
Thomas is really saying is: You've got to have more faith in yourself. Any
policy or legislative act is not going to do it for you."

T 7 w r w w .J p _

December 6, 1991


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