Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Race and Conservatives

Many thanks to Julie Ponzi, and the commentators on her post yesterday, for their kind words about my recent CRB essay.

David Frisk raised an interesting point in the comments section: Do speeches and articles by prominent conservatives half-a-century ago tell a fair-minded person anything about what conservatism stands for today? Josh Patashnik of the New Republic raised a similar point. “Every party and ideology has its past errors to answer for,” he said, but arguing about whose were worst or most recent is a “pointless” endeavor, “best suited to late-night conversations in freshman dorm rooms.”

I agree that harping on the past is often a way to win debates that no one is watching, and thus a waste of time when we should be working on the issues that confront us right now. The dogmas of the quiet past are often inadequate to the stormy present. Sometimes, however, those dogmas are implicated in these storms, and we cannot disenthrall ourselves without scrutinizing them.

Consider the 1974 Supreme Court decision in Milliken v. Bradley. By a vote of 5-to-4 the Court rejected the mad scientist scheme, devised by a federal district court and approved at the appellate level, to bus school children all over the Detroit metropolitan area - the city plus 53 suburban school districts - in order to achieve racial balance. The four dissenters included William Douglas, Byron White, William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall. All, especially Brennan and White, are liberal heroes. (White complicated his legacy with liberals by joining William Rehnquist in dissent against Roe v. Wade.) Many liberal writers and politicians openly hope that the next Democratic president will nominate Supreme Court justices who emulate Brennan and Marshall.

A 34-year-old court decision about an issue that gets discussed in history books, not newspaper stories, remains relevant for two reasons. First, even though busing is old news, the question about jurists who have such a high degree of confidence in their abilities and prerogatives to be social engineers is likely to come up in other contexts. Conservatives have a right to ask whether this is the kind of jurist Democrats intend to nominate and confirm.

Secondly, the question of liberal condescension, and even hostility, to working-class whites is not moot just because it’s trite. Obama’s famous remarks about bitter folks in small towns were clumsy and clueless, but the anthropologist’s vantage point he adopted vis-à-vis his fellow citizens has had malign implications in liberalism’s history, not just supercilious ones. The position Marshall and Brennan took in Milliken was primarily stupid and secondarily wicked, but the wickedness of busing cannot be discounted. More than a few liberals took satisfaction in the torment white parents felt about the prospect of sending their children to distant schools in dangerous neighborhoods. Busing was intended as a way of doing penance for America’s racist past, and the reaction against busing confirmed liberals’ belief in the continuing pervasiveness of racism among whites less enlightened than themselves. The liberals who levied these penalties to atone for racism, of course, unfailingly arranged for other whites to pay them by suffering the adverse effects of busing and affirmative action.

Liberals, now, would be happy to go on as if all this had never happened, similar to the way many conservatives treat the legacy of states’ rights and Dixiecrats. Conservatives would do themselves and the country some good by insisting that liberals come to terms with this part of their past. Conservatives, however, can hardly press for such a reckoning without going through their own.

The conservative position, now, about the civil rights struggle then embraces three tenets. First, America did well to eradicate Jim Crow and conclude the long, disgraceful era of second-class citizenship. Second, the conservative case brought to bear against the landmark civil rights decisions and laws may or may not have been right, but it reflected a legitimate and commendable concern: to maintain “a system of divided governmental authority intended to stand against absolute tyranny.” Third, neither in the 1950s nor at any point since, have conservatives described an alternative path to the eradication of Jim Crow, one not raising this specter of tyranny.

The interconnections among these three propositions are uneasy at best, untenable at worst. As a result, conservatives face a tough crowd when they talk to black voters about school choice, faith-based initiatives and safe streets. The suspicion lingers that a tepid commitment to securing blacks’ unimpaired rights as citizens is not an accident of conservatism’s history, but a reflection of its ideological essence. Conservatives’ protestations about their own benign sentiments won’t allay these suspicions; rigorous examination of their intellectual heritage to distinguish the good parts from the bad might.

Discussions - 5 Comments

The bad aspect of civil rights legislation, especially the Constitutional amendments, was that it undermined the original concept that all men are created equal, endowed with their Creator with certain unalienable rights. That argument against rights legislation was going on at the same time as the rest you mention. I recall it well because by the time I was a young adult in the 1970s, in my pre-conservative days, that was the only compelling argument I heard against civil rights legislation. I could not have become a conservative without that argument within the conservative ranks. That may have been a ruse, but I think not. The argument was winningly and compellingly made to me. Experience confirms it for me, to make race an object like this is to leave the impression that "all men" in the Declaration does not mean all men. It really ought to mean just that. If we could have slid ineluctably into that truth, it would have been better for us.

I still meet racists today, in all parts of America. Ken Blackwell, mentioned below by Julie, was rejected by many of Ohio's white voters, urban, suburban and especially rural, because of his race. People told me to my shocked face during his campaign that they did not care about his ideas, they would not vote for any nigger, ever.

Racism is not limited to the Republican Party. I am meeting Democrats who will vote for McCain or will not vote, because Obama is black. These are life-long Democrats who are upset by their party about this. Talk about shocking. I begin to worry that racism is an insoluble problem in America.

Civil rights legislation did not help for reasons Thomas Sowell mentions in some of his books; those laws give an impression of "some people are more equal than others" and affirmative action has done harm to race relations because of that. I do not say that equals harm to blacks in a political way, but in a social way, certainly. Racism is not legislated away, but merely legislated against.

Perhaps there was no choice to the matter. We have laws against murder and theft, yet people still murder and steal. As big as those issues are, they are not debated within our Constitution the way racism is. Prohibition came and went. For the integrity of our national principle that all men are created equal, I could wish that our Constitution had not had to be cluttered with amendments about this issue of race.

The conservative case that Goldwaterites opposed the great civil rights acts for benign reasons butts up against two big obstacles in convincing the black community?

1. Why should black people care about the professed principles of people who would have preserved a system that made a mockery of every maxim that was spoken of in Fourth of July celebrations ("no taxation without representation", "one man one vote", "give me liberty or give me death") as it applied to southern blacks.

2. Many people who voted for southern white segragationists for the worst reasons suddenly started voting Republican in presidential reasons around the time the GOP nominated a Senator who voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. You can argue that it was because the Jim Crow system was no loger tenable and that the interparty competition for southern whites switched to issues like national defense, crime, taxes, abortion, whatever. There is alot of truth to that argument, but black people can clearly see white southerners moving from the Democratic party to the faction of the Republican Party that was most oppossed to the key civil rights law.

So if it seems like many black people assume that conservative Republicans are their natural enemies, they have their reasons.

Once again, you gotta listen to Pete...black people have their reasons...and benign neglect is not an adequate Republican policy.

Bill, in response to your post: I would distinguish between unsavory statements by conservatives in the early civil-rights era (e.g. Buckley's "Why the South Must Prevail," 1957) and the two examples you cite from the liberals (the judicial idiocy of Douglas, et al; and the belief by some liberals that busing was good, in part, because it tormented middle-class whites for their alleged racism). In the first case, we have an old-fashioned outlook that quickly lost any political influence on American society. And that has no prospect of revived political influence in our times. In the second and third instances, that is, the two liberal examples, we have an ongoing problem. A problem that in some respects has gotten worse over time, not better. In a word, the problem is reverse discrimination and reverse racism. Still very much with us, and probably more so if the Democrats win the presidency this year.

2 and 3: No, we don't "gotta listen to Pete." In fact, we're better off closing our ears to such nonsense. 1 -- "people who would have preserved a system ..." is nothing but cheap calumny. If someone cannot respect the ideas of people today who 50 years ago supported (let alone "would have," they assume, supported) slow, not immediate, action against segregation: They are living in the past. The grimness of that past doesn't change the fact that they are living there, and thus ill-attuned to present reality, and thus not worth losing sleep over, not in a day that has only 24 hours. In addition, the vast bulk of conservatives today were either very young or unborn in that era. No blame attaches to them if we apply the modern, Western, standard of justice, the only one compatible with Christian civilization and with liberty: Only individuals, not groups (or at any rate: groups over time) are guilty.
The fact that some people -- of all colors -- have non-Western standards of justice, and think primarily in terms of groups, is not my problem. Nor should it be Pete's, or Professor Lawler's, or conservatives' problem, or the late Mr. Buckley's. 2 -- Your statement here, Pete, knifes itself in the gut. There were, as you suggest, many reasons why the South backed Goldwater. His vote against the Civil Rights Act was a large reason. But I believe he would have done very well in the South, even if not for that vote, and would have done fairly well there even absent his relative state's rights position. The South was a conservative region then, especially in national defense and foreign policy, as it is conservative now. It is simply stupid, although quite common, to think that 1) all but the few avowedly liberal Southern whites were segregationists; 2) all segregationists were politically equivalent, e.g., equally intense in their wishes to preserve segregation; or 3) that Southern whites who backed Goldwater had no other strong motives than segregation for supporting him. Furthermore, Goldwater was a moderate on civil rights, anti-racist, and an opponent of segregation. His poll numbers in the South were good well before his fateful vote on the Act in mid-'64. I will stipulate that, if I were a black American, I would take an extra interest in the motives of, and would listen with special care to, any conservatives who ask for my vote. The historical factor Pete and Professor Lawler cite does justify such precautions. But it doesn't justify any more than that. And sadly, there is much more than that among many blacks, as among many liberal whites. And I am not willing to excuse cheap moralizing, excessive suspicion, or collective guilt by anyone, despite what are now old miseries. I am especially unwilling to do so when a person didn't himself live under Jim Crow. It has been well said that "we are all victims ... of victims." As Ward Connerly has so wisely said: "The way to stop discrimination is to stop discrimination." Capiche?

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