Magazine | November 19, 2015, Issue

Black America and the Right

(Peter Turnley/Corbis)

While not as uncommon as popularly supposed, the black conservative is ever considered an oxymoron, thought by most people left of center to be deluded at best and evil at worst — and certainly “self-hating.”

As someone who would have been readily classified as liberal on race in about 1960 but who disagrees with the leftist swing of civil-rights orthodoxy since, I have broken bread with conservatives extensively. I am therefore often regarded as a “black conservative” and have been bemused that many reasonable people have sincerely believed that I express my views solely in a quest for lucrative speaking engagements.

Yet, as often noted, black Americans are in fact deeply socially conservative. They are America’s most religious group, according to a 2009 Pew Research Center poll. Despite the public image of black people as “ghetto” libertines, overall they tend to be more openly opposed to premarital sex than many other groups are. Black America has been slow to accept homosexuality and gay marriage. Social views that blue-state Americans describe, with a chill, as “Republican” are often held by a majority of the black Americans whom those same blue-state Americans think warmly of as “real.”

Moreover, the radical strain of black political ideology has little purchase among ordinary black people. Few have any interest in the fantasy of reparations for slavery. Most black people, if presented with the proposition that we need something as unprecedented in human history as the absence of racism (social or institutional) to solve our problems, would recoil.

The reason black America nevertheless votes Democratic almost to a man is, in its way, religious. As I have argued, one sign that America has made more progress on race than certain doomsayers insist is that the nation’s true religion is now Antiracism. In whites, it manifests itself as treating the Manichaean pessimism of a book such as Ta-Nehisi Coates’s latest as scripture; urging ritualistic atonement for original sin in the form of “acknowledging” one’s White Privilege; discouraging the blasphemy of serious questions (such as why one white cop’s killing a black man is a more urgent problem than black men’s killing one another by the hundreds); and yearning always for a hazily defined Great Day, a Revelation (whoops, revolution), when whites “out there” truly understand black pain and walk in grace.

Among black Americans, the religion manifests in the guiding idea that racism is the most urgent and interesting thing about being black. This sense is most vivid among the intelligentsia and the politically radical. But it has become part of the general black-American way of thinking to such an extent that one is not to vote for a Republican, regardless of his beliefs and platform, simply because “Republicans are racist.”

As progressive as it may seem today to treat racism as a decisive issue in allotting one’s vote, it would have seemed self-defeating to black people 50 or 100 years ago. W. E. B. Du Bois supported Woodrow Wilson despite knowing that Wilson was a racist whose ideal world would be “inhabited by flaxen-haired wax dolls.” Martin Luther King Jr. and his allies had no interest in whether John F. Kennedy felt for black people’s plight “in his heart,” as the Black Lives Matter questioner put it to Hillary Clinton in August. The idea was not whether a candidate “understood” racism, but whether his policies were, comparatively, better for black people than the other person’s.

That such a rationale seems backward today reveals the extent to which Antiracism distracts us from what actual politics is supposed to be. For example, social conservatism (which I myself do not adhere to) is not the only thing black people and Republicans tend to have in common; pro-black political programs are hardly as unusual among Republicans as typically thought. George W. Bush, for example, opened his presidency proposing No Child Left Behind as a way to address the racial gap in school performance and faith-based initiatives as a way to help poor black communities help themselves. Yet after mentioning the Bush administration’s pro-black policies in print around 2003, I received a tart note from the editor of a prominent black publication asking what policies I could possibly be referring to.

Only the religion of Antiracism could have blinded him to something at the time so obvious. One might suppose black people fear that Republicans will eliminate the safety net that the Roosevelt and Johnson administrations provided for the poor and, therefore, much of black America. However, any such fear is now a habitual gesture rather than a response to an actual stimulus. Progress happens slowly, but it happens; a party that sought to re-create the heartless social-welfare policies of America before the 1930s would rapidly cease to exist. The revision of welfare policies in 1996 was not an exception: It was an obscure matter to most people other than policy wonks and social scientists, and it did not lead to the misery and indigence that skeptics had predicted.

At this point, however, Republicans bear a heavy responsibility for perpetuating the disconnect between black beliefs and black voting patterns. Today, a claim that Republican policies are not racist is readily shouted down via reference to the notorious voter-ID laws that Republicans have backed.

In seeking to reduce Democratic voting tallies by making it harder for their most dependable allies to cast a vote, these voter-ID policies are brutally pragmatic more than racist. The pragmatism is, to be sure, callously dismissive of a black person’s basic right to vote, especially since, not long ago, many black people were barred from voting on the pain of their bodies and even lives. Nevertheless, there is a massive difference between forbidding people to vote and indirectly discouraging them from doing so. Claims that voter-ID laws take us back to Selma are performance art.

Yet the distinction here is fine, and few black people or other Democrats will be inclined to acknowledge it in a culture that fetishizes the exposure and denunciation of racism. Voter-ID laws are resolutely interpreted as “racist,” and they have set the relationship between black voters and the Republican party back for at least a generation. In the religion of Antiracism, the equivalent of the ongoing menace of Satan is the notion of an ever-looming “backlash” against the gains of the 1960s, led by Republicans and desired by the unenlightened whites, always “out there,” who didn’t vote for Obama. Nothing has ever been more readily interpretable as that vision come to life than voter-ID laws.

Of course, some Republicans, pragmatic again, might object that none of this matters because blacks could never have been swayed to vote for them anyway. But that is an untested proposition. Republicans have been much too indirect in demonstrating the benefits of their policies to black voters. Antiracism is not the only reason that editor couldn’t see the Bush administration’s pro-black programs. The administration had failed to spell out the implications of those programs for black America in a direct and ongoing way. One speech to that effect by the president could have done wonders; it never happened.

The problem continues today. Paul Ryan’s plan for fighting poverty could easily pass for an NAACP policy paper. Black America will never know a thing about it, however, if Ryan continues to refer only to poverty and not to race. Why not a clear statement that the plan, in being aimed at poverty, will benefit black America directly, along with editorials stating this in black publications? Meanwhile, the Antiracism religion handily paints Ryan’s plan as paternalistic, pathologizing, and — of course — racist.

For the time being, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the caricature of the black conservative as a sinister unicorn has a lot of life left in it. There was a time when black persons with unquestionable black-authenticity bona fides, such as author Zora Neale Hurston, were fans of Booker T. Washington — advocate of self-help — rather than of Du Bois, who focused on decrying racism. Today, a rallying book such as Tavis Smiley’s The Covenant with Black America incants at the end of each chapter that black people must hold politicians “responsible” for following through on promises to the black community. But, with voting for racist Republicans off the table and not voting at all seen as a way of handing the contest to them, the idea of holding a Democrat “responsible” is meaningless.

The voter-ID laws, combined with the forces of America’s true religion, will keep black America in this holding pattern for some time. But it is to be hoped that someday black America will go back to expressing its diversity — i.e., itself — in its politics.

– Mr. McWhorter teaches linguistics, philosophy, American studies, and music history at Columbia University. His latest book is The Language Hoax.

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