Justice Thomas' Blackness: Contemporary Black Conservatism


This is the third part of what will be at least a seven-part series on Justice Clarence Thomas. The first post is here, introducing the series and explaining the 98-page paper from which I'm taking the content of posts 2-6 (at least) of this series. In "Just Another Brother on the SCT?: What Justice Clarence Thomas Teaches Us About the Influence of Racial Identity", Angela Onwuachi-Willig argues that Justice Thomas' conservatism is a distinctively black conservatism with a rich history in black conservative tradition. I've already looked at that history. This post focuses on the current period of black conservatism.

One big difference between contemporary black conservatives and the earlier people in the tradition is that today they get far more media attention (with media who try to be as inclusive as possible) and far more support from whites in general, including being elected to public office and appointed to high cabinet positions. Some are far more popular than most other conservatives in public life. However, because many black people see the liberal government programs designed to adjust for "imbalances in power, wealth, and privilege" (as Onwuachi-Willig puts it), many blacks see conservative resistance to government intervention in the social and economic sphere as anti-black, and thus black conservatives are tarred as traitors for aligning with the enemy. The usual way this is put is that black conservatives are tools or puppets of white conservatives.

Onwuachi-Willig argues that this anti-black-conservative narrative is hard to maintain in the face of what these black conservatives have actually written. Their views turn out not to be like those of most conservatives in some significant ways, both in their final views and in the reasons for supporting views that they do hold in common with most conservatives.

Two main themes that run throughout black conservative thought are (1) eschewing victiomology and (2) seeking greater independence and self-reliance among blacks. The latter theme leads to support for conservative views because it means less of a value for government programs and favors, due to their tendency to create relationships of perpetual dependence. The first theme would take a whole post to cover well (which I've done), but the gist of it is that black conservatives tend to think there's a narrative of emphasis on victimhood where it barely exists if at all in order to foster delight in making the mainstream feel shamed rather than to pursue genuine progress and solutions to problems. These two themes are two sides of the same coin. One deals with the narratives within black culture, trying to move away from those focusing on the past that at best do not help and at worst hinder progress. The other deals positively toward progress within the black community, seeing how to address real problems in a way that doesn't rely on whites and their government programs.

Two general attitudes lie behind these general themes. One is that racism is still very real, not in a deliberate or outright fashion in most cases, but in the assumptions and narratives behind mainstream culture. Some conservatives tend to de-emphasize the racism that's still around, recognizing that it's not as bad as it once was. Black conservatives today make a big deal out of the fact that it's not as bad as it was, but they also insist that racism is real to the point of not expecting whites ever to be the solution. Thus black conservatism is very raced and not just some cloned conservatism derived from whites. Even more to the point, this is something that comes out of a very black suspicion that the white establishment has not truly recognized the racism at work in their midst and that the policies they've implemented are merely band-aids not dealing with the racial narratives and so on that work even without outright segregation or discrimination.

The people who don't see this are simply assuming that their conclusions must be based on something else, which means they're really not reading them carefully. The black conservatism of our time is very black. Its assumptions are even more dependent on the reality of racism than standard liberalism, which is arguably much more optimistic in its assumptions about human nature when it comes to race relations. What's especially important about black conservatism, even with this assumption of a deap-seated residual racism, is that black conservatives do not emphasize this present racism any more than they dwell on past racism. They get beyond it. They insist that black progress depends on doing what black leaders in the 19th century had to do. They worked hard. They earned the right to be at the table by putting in far more than white people would have need to put in to achieve the same thing.

Arguing stridently that white people better give black people this and that may achieve some measure of success in stopping certain behavior, while also offending lots of people (particularly those who hear the word 'racism' and assume anything short of the KKK of yore is not racism and thus will feel insulted) and making enemies. What it won't do is change hearts. What will change people's perceptions is actually seeing something different. If whites people see blacks working hard to achieve and overcome, then white people will see something different from the narrative of the lazy, poor black. In that way, the contemporary black conservative is much like the black conservative of old. With all this background, it's pretty easy to see how this general take is very black and is not the conservatism of the rich, white Republicans who never cared about black people. [I'm not saying the average Republican today is like that. I do think that there was a time that the Republican leadership contained a large number of people who fit that description, though it's worth pointing out that so did the Democratic leadership.]

Onwuachi-Willig illustrates these tendencies in black conservative thought with three examples: education and desegregation, affirmative action, and crime. I'll deal with those in my next post.


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