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Race

More - Much, Much More - On Conservatives and Civil Rights

Some NLT readers might recall the essay on "Civil Rights and the Conservative Movement" I wrote for the Claremont Review of Books. The essay was noted by the proprietors of a blog called, "This Week in Race." They said both good things and bad things about the article. I contacted them to offer the opinion that the good things they had to say were highly perceptive, while the bad things were all based on regrettable misunderstandings. A sequel to their original post includes my reply, their reply, and my re-reply.
Categories > Race

Discussions - 9 Comments

Hmm.

I think your correspondents were typical examples of the liberal mindset. They explicitly claim to seek a world in which such a thing as "race" no longer exists, or no longer matters. And at the same time, it's clear that they obsess over matters of race more than any KKK member.

They would have other people ignore race, but they themselves look at a white person and see, not a person, but a member of an "oppressor class". They look at a black person and see, not a person, but a member of a "victim class". They are not exactly stupid people so they are most likely aware that they are doing exactly that. That is, that they are doing the opposite of what they'd have the rest of us do ... but left-wing thought can almost be defined as "the ability to disassociate yourself from your fellows and view them as clay to be molded".

Nothing very new or interesting really. It's simply European-style left-wing thought adapted to the multi-racial American scene.

Your last response was particularly well written, Mr. Voegeli. Thank you for the links!

--Jonathan

what an excellent read !! Both sides acquitted themselves very well. Thanks for your work and for the link.

No true conservative could support federal Civil Rights legislation, because it is unconstitutional. Conservatives used to understand this. Today's conservatives are just a bunch of politically correct suck-ups.

Mr. Voegeli, are you seriously suggesting that Civil Rights laws are constitutional? Startling!

Thanks for this posting. Good to have certain conservatives rediscover the 14th and 15th amendments.

The disparity in comments here demonstrates nicely that this exchange was anything but "typical." A careful read of this dialogue reveals that little that is contained therein is part of the mainstream discourse on civil rights. We applaud Professor Voegeli for moving past the old, stale arguments of liberalism and conservatism with respect to this important issue of human rights. And we appreciate No Left Turns readers for taking the time to wade through all of the text involved in our exchange.

We wanted to ask for consideration of two interrelated points.

1. It is crucial that we begin to understand systemic constraints to human behavior. One of the reasons that civil rights have stalled is because of the myth of individualism in American political culture. As humans -- and especially as Americans with our protected rights and liberties -- we certainly have free will. But individual thoughts and behaviors are constrained by external parameters. That is nicely illustrated by John's comment (above) that we "look at a white person and see . . . a member of an oppressor class." Such a reading is understandable, but misses the bigger point. Attacks on racism does not mean attacks on white persons or whites as a group. It is a system of white supremacy that is troublesome; there are so few overt bigots in America today that focusing attention on them is not useful. The political scientist Dan Shea uses a nice analogy to discuss external parameters. He says that it would be faulty to say that there is no choice when one orders food at McDonald's, but it's all fast food. In other words, choice is not without constraints. This relates to civil rights because white folks generally believe that since they/we do not WANT to be prejudiced, that we're not. Further, they/we think that since we all agree that judging someone by the color of his or her skin is wrong, that everyone has the same chance to make it in America. The fact is that we all (collectively) have a lot of work to do to get to the place where race does not matter. John mistakenly assumes we are contradicting ourselves to say that we yearn for such a society but that we contribute to it by focusing on race. Since the myth of individualism has been relatively valid for middle-class whites, they/we believe that it is universally valid. That results, then, in a sentiment that if we WANT there to be equality between the races, there is, and any mention of race simply perpetuates the inequality. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have closed our collective eyes and tried to be "post-racial" for forty years, and the result is increased segregation and inequality (with a very few notable exceptions, of course).

2. Related to this is the focus on constitutionality. The U.S. Constitution is a powerful external barrier to our consciousness (both legal and psychological). Almost all discussions of public policy in America are bound by the Constitution. While stability is important, it is not the only (or even necessarily the most important) consideration for democracy. After all, authoritarian structures provide the most stability. The Constitution was written by men whose consciousness was bound by the circumstances of their time, just as ours is. In fact, they recognized this by allowing the document to be amended. Using their 18th century language to constrain our discussion of human rights in the 21st century is every bit as dangerous as ignoring their words altogether. In short, we need a more sophisticated discussion of race relations in order to get to the place where we would all like to be.

We do not argue that conservatives are bigots or are opposed to civil rights. Rather, we argue that most Americans are unable to see the complexities of the way race continues to matter in America because of the constraints on our consciousness. We decided to include Professor Voegeli's piece originally because we saw an effort to move beyond the old name-calling and labeling that has contributed to the racial stalemate in America. Our respect for his level of sophistication was only increased when he offered to engage with us in a dialogue about this difficult topic.

John is mistaken to characterize our position as "simply" European-style left-wing thought. There is nothing "simple" about our position or Professor Voegeli's. There is nothing simple about civil rights in America. The value of Professor Voegeli's work is that it urges conservatives (as we urge progressives) to move beyond such hand-waving, dismissive attitudes and buckle down to do the work that needs to be done to give all Americans a fair chance at the American dream. We're so thankful that Professor Voegeli agreed to join with us in such a discussion, and we hope that those discussions will take place in more spaces as the years roll by.

Best wishes to all. Thanks so much for your attention and dedication to advancing American political thought.

Stephen and Charlton

Good to have certain conservatives rediscover the 14th and 15th amendments.

They were never legally ratified, so I don't see why we should "discover" anything about them, except that they are not part of the Constitution.

John is mistaken to characterize our position as "simply" European-style left-wing thought. There is nothing "simple" about our position or Professor Voegeli's. There is nothing simple about civil rights in America.


Rubbish. The parallels between American leftist thought and that in Europe are numerous and well documented. Your entire victim class/oppressor class construct is borrowed in its entirety from Marxist thought, with only cosmetic alterations.


move beyond such hand-waving, dismissive attitudes and buckle down to do the work that needs to be done to give all Americans a fair chance at the American dream

Which "work", by an amazing coincidence, just happens to be the implementation of the complete left-wing political system. Funny how that works.

Naturally, you glided right past my observation that you yourself are the real racist here. You are the one who does not see people as people, but merely as members of a group. You'd like John Moser, I'm sure.

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