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The Conservative Curmudgeon
May 15, 2008

An Examination of the Long Tradition of
Conservative Thought in the Black Community

by Allan C. Brownfeld

Although black conservatives are becoming the most visible voices within African-American politics and culture, few realize that the black conservative tradition predates the Civil War and is an intellectual movement with deep historical roots.

In an important new book, Saviors or Sellouts (Beacon Press), Professor Christopher Alan Bracey, who teaches law and African and African-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, examines the evolution of black conservative thought. He traces it from its origins in antebellum Christian evangelism and entrepreneurialism to its contemporary expression in policy debates over affirmative action and the corrosive effects of urban black artistic and cultural expression.

Rising Influence Today
Dr. Bracey, a fair-minded scholar, examines black neoconservatives such as Shelby Steele and John McWhorter. He reveals the philosophies of prominent political conservatives such as Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, as well as of intellectuals such as Thomas Sowell, Anne Wortham, and Walter Williams. He has an insightful chapter on the infotainment effect of Bill Cosby, Chris Rock, and a number of bloggers.

"Black conservatives are quickly becoming the most visible and prominent voices within African-American politics, culture, and society," writes Bracey. "The rising tide of black conservatism will invariably shape policy that will define the social, political and economic future of African-Americans as well as other socially disfavored groups."

Conservative Origins
Those who say that black conservatism is a fringe and inauthentic voice of the African-American community, Bracey argues, ignores the real historical context. “Indeed, from the founding until the early 20th century — nearly l50 years — conservatism was the dominant mode of black political engagement with white society."

African-American Protestant Ethic
The touchstone of black conservative discourse, Bracey points out, has been the African-American Protestant ethic — a kind of middle-class morality. Its foundations for success are respectability, proper deportment, and a serious commitment to a healthy and productive lifestyle. In colonial days, Richard Allen, whose leadership rested upon his role as pastor and status as a successful businessman, repeatedly told his congregation that had work and "middle-class propriety" was vital to free blacks and that blacks were morally and spiritually obliged to make good use of the privileges of freedom.

One of the earliest examples that Bracey cites is David Walker's l829 Appeal, in which he recounts the various forms of white and black “wretchedness.” Recent works of Shelby Steele, Thomas Sowell, and comments by comedian Bill Cosby express similar sentiments — “a twofold conviction that problems and obstacles faced by blacks can be best mitigated or resolved by blacks themselves, and that white racism is just an irritant that lacks the determinant power to define African Americans individually or collectively. “

Hammon: First Published Writer
Rev. Jupiter Hammon developed and advanced the precepts of black conservatism a full century before the best known proponent of this philosophy, Booker T. Washington. Hammon, a slave his entire life, was born in l7ll and was the first published African-American writer.

According to Hammon, free blacks bore the responsibility to uphold moral standards and remain industrious in order to dispel prevailing notions about the natural inferiority of blacks and the concomitant inability to manage their personal affairs. For Hammon, living an ethical and productive life was the surest path to exposing the hypocrisy of white America's disrespect for blacks and failure to live up to its own ethical and religious ideals.

Booker T. Washington’s New Black Conservatism
Later, writes Bracey, a new and distinct form of black conservatism grounded in the “southern way of life emerged and eventually supplanted its northern counterpart as the dominant political philosophy in African-American life in the early 20th century.” Booker T. Washington was the leading exponent of this new southern black conservatism. Washington, born a slave in Virginia, worked in slat furnaces and coal mines as a child to help support his family after emancipation. He left home at age l6 and began formal schooling at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, where he supported himself by working as a school janitor. Bracey states that Washington was skeptical of political and legal rights: “After l877, it became increasingly clear to black southerners that the bestowal of rights was far more limited and, indeed, mutable, than liberal proponents cared to admit. The gap between northern idealism and southern reality grew, with the erosion of newly acquired rights and the rise of racial terror and violence toward blacks."

For Washington, economic advancement seemed to be a surer, less reversible means for blacks to progress. He saw progress for blacks taking place within southern black institutions, which by definition were less reliant upon the favor of whites. By the time of his death, Washington left behind a network of institutions that preserved his views on racial advancement. Of particular note were the Tuskegee Institute and the National Negro Business League.

Extended Legacy
Many historians contend that Washingtonian black conservatism faded with his death in l9l5, However, Bracey shows that, although the focus of black political thought shifts from the accommodationism of Washington to the NAACP in the North and the rise of the civil rights movement, "the prevailing narrative fails to account for the extended legacy of black conservatism."

Bracey discusses a host of black conservatives in American politics in recent years. When he was the only black in the U.S. Senate, Senator Edward Brooke (R-MA) maintained that racial empowerment could be brought about only when blacks developed the skills necessary to compete effectively with whites. He chastised liberals for ignoring the importance of individual self-development and focusing instead on group-based relief.

While Professor Bracey is not a conservative, the reader gets the feeling that as he pursued his subject he became increasingly positive in his assessment of the role black conservatism has played in history. He concludes: "The longevity of black conservative thought and the increasing prominence of modern black conservatives in the American public sphere are indicative of the attractiveness of modern black conservatism... First and foremost, black conservatism vindicates the deeply held desire of blacks to view themselves as architects of their own destiny... Many blacks today are weary of being viewed as victims and the perennial object of liberal charity. White liberals and the civil rights establishment remain deeply invested in the idea that blacks continue to suffer under the weight of racial oppression. Many blacks are increasingly turned off by this image of black society... Liberals can no longer afford to dismiss modern black conservatism as marginal or inconsequential to public conversation on racial issues... It is imperative to move beyond ideological wrangling and acknowledge that both liberals and conservatives possess a rich arsenal of ideas for racial empowerment."

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The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2008 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com. All rights reserved.

Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is THE REVOLUTION LOBBY (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.

He is associate editor of THE LINCOLN REVIEW and a contributing editor to such publications as HUMAN EVENTS, THE ST. CROIX REVIEW, and THE WASHINGTON REPORT ON MIDDLE EAST AFFAIRS.

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