The Corner


There’s a Need for More Constructive Conservatism on Race

Al Sharpton speaks to members of the National Action Network during a rally in New York City in 2015. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

I have a question. If you’re a young person of good will who is concerned about racial division in this nation, longs to understand how race has played a role in American history, and seeks racial reconciliation — which is to say, one of millions of politically and culturally engaged young people in America — how many thoughtful conservative voices will you encounter compared to thoughtful progressive voices? Yes, I know that there are conservatives who’ve written outstanding and compelling works on race and culture (Thomas Sowell is indispensable, of course), but if all you’ve got is curiosity and Google, conservative voices are simply swamped, and the conservative commentary that is out there is dominated by a particular tone and approach.

It strikes me that an enormous amount of conservative or right-leaning commentary on race is dedicated mainly to debunking the excesses and hypocrisy of the identity-politics Left. Make no mistake, that is a target-rich environment (people twisted themselves into ideological and conceptual pretzels to justify Sarah Jeong’s malicious tweets, for example). Less is dedicated to seriously grappling with the consequences of racism in American life and culture. And no, I don’t mean dwelling on microaggressions or proclaiming that police have declared some kind of “open season” on black men. But it does mean having something to say after you’ve taken on Al Sharpton or Linda Sarsour.

In fact, at least in my experience, showing particular concern for issues of race is often seen as evidence by itself that you’re thinking like a progressive or that you’re somehow not sufficiently conservative.

I’ve been pondering this in part because American Evangelical churches are in a bit of a religious battle over “social justice” and intersectionality. Time and again I see concerned young people ask probing questions about stubborn racial gaps in a host of areas of American life, their elders ask them not to follow the siren song of the so-called social gospel, and then drop the ball on providing any meaningful alternative answer. They can debunk, but they can’t (or don’t) construct. Even worse, I see church members get particularly prickly when race is mentioned by the pulpit. Honestly, it’s amazing how much Sharpton or Louis Farrakhan come up, as if they represent the sum total of progressive thinking on race.

So the question hangs out there. If I care about bridging racial divides, what should I do? The identity-politics Left has an answer, one that provides millions of people with religious-level meaning and purpose. The conservative response is far harder to find.

It’s an imperfect analogy, but I’m reminded of Christ’s admonition that you can’t sweep out an “impure spirit” and replace it with nothing. If you do, the spirit will return, with allies, and the person will be worse off than before.

One final thought: It’s growing increasingly clear that politics is now only magnifying the racial divide. And for those who care about racial reconciliation, the every-two-year race-based mobilization in an increasingly polarized electorate does further damage to an already-frayed social fabric. How many Republicans actually try — really try — to reach out to black voters? How many Democrats have used scare tactics and hyperbole (“put y’all back in chains”) to increase African-American turnout? Politicians intentionally exploit suspicions and mistrust to win, and it’s all justified because of the necessity of advancing the larger cause.

Political tactics exacerbate divisions that people of good will have real difficulty closing. I don’t see a way out of this dilemma (at least for now), but at the very least those conservative religious leaders and cultural commentators who aren’t focused on the political cycles can keep in mind that inquiring minds want to hear more than just claims that one side is wrong. They actually want to know what’s right.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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