Justice Thomas' Blackness: The Black Conservative Tradition

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This is the second 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. This tradition will be the focus on this post. The first of three sections of her paper details the long history of black conservatism in the United States, going back to the 18th century. Booker T. Washington, of course, was one of the major figures in this great tradition, but he was well over 100 years into it (late 19th/early 20th century). The liberal orthodoxy sees black conservatives as sellouts who seek to accomodate to whites to gain benefits that others aren't willing to seek if it requires giving up too much of blackness. The black conservative tradition, however, has always been the exact opposite. From the very beginning, it was an attempt to accomodate whites to the concerns of black people. Booker T. Washington states this in terms of showing blacks' worthiness by the standards of white people so that white people will accomodate black people. He even uses the word 'accomodate'.

This is a strategic effort for gradual improvement but real improvement nonetheless rather than seeking absolute change overnight, which as we have seen in the last year with gay marriage can so easily backfire. It's thus a realist view, acknowledging that blacks could succeed on their own, working hard to show whites they could do it and thus, in the eyes of whites, earning a place at the table. Through this approach, Washington was able to secure funding from rich, white Southerners (!) for the programs he thought would be of most benefit to blacks.

Yet W.E.B. DuBois said he didn't go far enough in holding whites responsible for their wrongs against blacks. Still, the tradition lived on, particularly among middle class blacks who had, not surprisingly, middle class values. This, as it does now, led many blacks with working class values to consider these people as sellouts who accomodated to whites' values rather than seeing it as genuine progress, partial acceptance by whites, and real accomodation of whites to blacks. The black conservatives insisted that the latter is a more accurate description.

The realist strain in black conservatism continued into the 20th century but took on new form about mid-century. One prominent figure, who happened to be from Syracuse, NY, where I now reside, was George Schuyler. Schuyler's version of black conservatism emphasized the accomodation to whites less and the independence of blacks more. The idea was no longer to succeed on whites' terms so that whites would accomodate to blacks but to succeed period because it was looking as if whites would never accomodate to blacks. So the realist elements took a darker motivation ("there will always be a color caste system in the United States"), but the results were the same. Schuyler encouraged the black community to succeed on their own, not relying on whites to do their work for them or give them any handouts.

Then the civil rights era hit, and the dynamics changed considerably. Schuyler and others thought the griping and complaining of the civil rights era would make more enemies than friends and would in the end harm the black people more than the overall strategy he maintained in the tradition of Booker T. Washington. Yet it was the separatist ideology of Malcolm X and black nationalists that really drew his ire. Malcolm X emphasized the work ethic approach that the black conservatives advocated, shunning the handouts proposed by many in the civil rights movement, but the grounds of that work ethic seemed to Schuyler to give up the game. Even with his more pessimistic or realistic attitude about the unlikelihood of white accomodation to blacks, he didn't see that accomodation as a bad thing. It's one thing to recognize that seeking unlikely goals isn't going to achieve much. It's another to resist those goals altogether. Still, some of the black conservatives did accept Malcolm X given the similar practical outworking of his views in many ways.

Next: Contemporary Black Conservatism

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