Justice Thomas' Blackness: Particular Issues in Black Conservatism

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This is the fourth 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 and the general themes of contemporary black conservatism. This post focuses on how those themes lead to today's black conservatives' positions in three particular issues: education, affirmative action, and crime.

Education

The primary concern among black conservatism in the realm of education is not complete integration and never was. There are two main reasons for this. First, the assumption that black schools are not as good simply because white people aren't there, while white schools are fine without black people, is simply racist. Some black conservatives have seen the original motivation for integration among white liberals to have been exactly that racist assumption. Therefore, simply moving black students into an environment where white people are present is not going to solve whatever problems there are.

The primary concern of black conservatives regarding education includes opposition to state-mandated segregation, but it isn't diversity that's the goal. It's good education. Black conservatives differ on how that might be achieved, but the important thing to notice here is the attitude that segregation itself isn't what is bad. Forced segregation is bad, but so might be forced integration. Simply removing forced segregation isn't the solution to education problems. Something needs to be done to improve the education. Many liberals today agree on this, but this is something black conservatives have not needed to adjust their views to arrive at. They've believed this all along, even in the days when forced busing was viewed as the salvation of black children.

In today's setting, this leads to deemphasizing diversity as a goal in itself and focusing on improving learning conditions. Black conservatives disagree on how learning conditions might be improved. Vouchers and programs like No Child Left Behind are controversial among black conservatives. Some think they're the right direction, and others are less sure. Still, the emphasis is on learning conditions rather than the dominant theme among liberals in eduction, which is diversity for its own sake.

Affirmative Action

Black conservatives' views on affirmative action are the most noted but least understood, in my experience. They insist that discrimination does play some role in some of the inequities in education. They just don't believe that it plays as much of a role as most affirmative action proponents believe. Furthermore, they see affirmative action as a mixed bag. It has good and bad consequences, and, given the situation at the time it was implemented, the good outweighed the bad. Most black conservatives now believe that the amount of good has decreased as the good effects have become normal, and the bad effects have increased as affirmative action has become the assumption. People more often assume a black student wasn't able to get in but for affirmative action, and the demoralizing effect of knowing others will think that, in addition to not knowing whether it's even true (because you can't opt out of affirmative action) does little to help racial interactions and cannot be seen as anything but bad for the black students affected by it. It not only confirms white narratives of blacks as dumb, but it can easily cause negative psychological effects on the black students themselves.

Therefore, many consider the bad to have reached the point where it now outweighs the good, and affirmative action, at least in its current form, should be removed. Much of the good is mere appearance anyway rather than addressing the causes of the real disparities. It thus provides white university administrators with a nice picture to look at on campus to assuage their guilt over disparity in society, but it does much less than they think to address the problems that black students have long before they get to college. Rather than helping black students get better grades and score higher on standardized tests, affirmative action pretends we have reached equality even with a huge racial gap in grades and test scores. It merely covers over the sore but does nothing to heal it.

Even worse, most of the students helped by affirmative action are not underprivileged to begin with. Middle class black students are by far the primary recipients of affirmative action at the college and university level. The people who most need the help are hardly helped by the policies, and those who one might expect would need it much less can easily become dependent on it and not strive to achieve the grades they know they don't need or to develop the learning skills they know affirmative action allows them not to have. Many black conservatives believe liberals to continue such policies because they don't really believe black people can succeed on their own, which is a pretty insulting motivation.

The big difference between black conservatives and other conservatives is that black conservatives tend not to be opposed to affirmative action in principle. They do tend to think affirmative action achieves some good. Most importantly, the reason affirmative action is bad is not because of reverse racism and harm to whites, which I don't see how very many people can take all that seriously, even if there's something right behind the point that most conservatives never seem to express carefully enough. Black conservatives hardly ever engage in that sort of argument, and even if they do it's not their main reason for opposing affirmative action. The main reason is that affirmative action is harmful to the people it's intended to help. Very few white conservatives will frame their argument in such terms, bloggers named after Jesus' favorite style of teaching notwithstanding.

Crime

Conservatives both black and white tend to be harder on criminals and less likely to consider mitigating circumstances as warranting lesser sentences. Most conservatives emphasize harm to victims, but black conservatives focus particularly on harm to black victims. (Angela Onwuachi-Willig does not note that even black liberals such as Maxine Waters took the same sort of hard-line stance during the 80s with respect to crack cocaine and gangs but have now been critical of those who responded to their calls for higher police presence and stronger penalties for drug-related crimes.)

Some black conservatives have emphasized harsher policies with respect to criminals because if black citizens cry our for protection of their communities, it distances them from black criminals and helps fight the stereotype of the black criminal by drawing attention to the majority of blacks who are law-abiding members of the community. She doesn't say this, but if there is anywhere where black conservatives are guilty of thinking themselves better than other blacks, this is it. She does trace its origin to freed slaves' thinking of themselves as entirely different from their slave brethren, and some may see that as an unfortunate tendency.

I don't know how to evaluate her claim that that's the origin of this, but the current view of black conservatives that she's talking about seems to be an entirely justified case of thinking oneself better. Law-abiding citizens' behavior most certainly is better than criminals' behavior, and their point is to undermine the assumption that all black people fit that stereotype, something I can't but see as a good goal. The distinction between law-abiding blacks and law-breaking blacks is a real distinction, and calling attention to it in order to stop the tarring of the reputations of all blacks seems entirely appropriate to me.

The main point is that black victims tend to be voiceless in the justice system, which seems to me to be entirely reaonable given death penalty statistics. While black liberals focus on explaining why blacks commit crimes, conservatives turn toward acknowledging the victims of black criminals, the vast majority of whom are themselves black an as a result ignored far more by the justice system than white victims. Since blacks are much more likely to be the victims of violent crime than whites are, being harsher on crime tends to be better for the black community. At least some of the consequences of this mass incarceration of young black men may be counterproductive if the goal is to build the black community, but the potential benefits might outweigh that, but the main point here is that the motivation is thoroughly from a desire to seek the needs of the black community and not simply to give criminals what they deserve.

On the death penalty (and see the link in the previous paragraph for more detail), some black conservatives emphasize that killers of black victims are less likely to get the death penalty than killers of white victims, probably due to residual racism in jurors' greater ease in identifying with white victims. Another factor may be the assumption that black criminals somehow can't help themselves, which black liberals' emphasis on extenuating circumstances tends to further. Black conservatives see both attitudes as racist. Thus black victims are harmed by the unfair justice system that isn't as willing to deal with black criminals who kill black people as it is with white criminals who kill white people. Letting juries decide penalties allows for this problem, since it allows for greater subjectivity and therefore more unintentional racism. Black conservatives' opposition to allowing juries to make such decisions stems from wanting to counter the effects of unintentional racism.

[Angela Onwuachi-Willig has a very strange footnote pointing out that this argument ignores the racism that occurs before trial, e.g. how police treat suspected criminals. I'm not sure how mistreatment of black suspects will decrease their likelihood of receiving a death sentence, so I don't see the relevance. There are problems with snap judgments that tend to disfavor black suspects, but that's a separate problem that I know at least some who are labeled black conservatives, e.g. John McWhorter] spend a great deal of time calling whites to deal with.]

Conclusion

It should be fairly clear now how black the black conservative views really are. The motivation behind every single distinctive the black conservative has over the black liberal has to do with race. Comparing their motivations with motivations for similar views among most white conservatives shows how ridiculous it is to claim that black conservatives are merely parroting white conservatives' views and accepting views without realizing the consequences they will have for the black community. It seems as if it's the liberals and white conservatives who have a less nuanced understanding of the complexities of the issues raised by black conservatives, if indeed anyone does.

In my next post, I'll move back to Clarence Thomas and his own history that led him to black conservatism.

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