1999 No. 1
Table of Contents
The Loneliness of the “Black Conservative”
Hoover fellow Shelby Steele on the price of his convictions.
I realized that I was a black conservative when I found myself standing on stages being shamed in public. I had written a book that said, among many other things, that black American leaders were practicing a politics that drew the group into a victim-focused racial identity that, in turn, stifled black advancement more than racism itself did. For reasons that I will discuss shortly, this was heresy in many quarters. And, as I traveled around from one little Puritan village (read “university”) to another, a common scene would unfold.Whenever my talk was finished, though sometimes before, a virtual militia of angry black students would rush to the microphones and begin to scream. At first I thought of them as Mau Maus but decided this was unfair to the real Mau Maus, who, though ruthless terrorists, had helped bring independence to Kenya in the 1950s.
My confronters were not freedom fighters; they were Carrie Nation–like enforcers, racial bluenoses who lived in terror of certain words. Repression was their game, not liberation, and they said as much. “You can’t say that in front of the white man.” “Your words will be used against us.” “Why did you write this book?” “You should only print that in a black magazine.” Their outrage brought to light an ironic and unnoticed transformation in the nature of black American anger from the sixties to the nineties: a shift in focus from protest to suppression, from blowing the lid off to tightening it down. And, short of terrorism, shame is the best instrument of repression.
Of course, most black students did not behave in this way. But the very decency of the majority, black and white, often made the shaming of the minority more effective. So I learned what it was like to stand before a crowd in which a coterie of one’s enemies had the license to shame, while a mixture of decorum and fear silenced the decent people who might have come to one’s aid. I was as vulnerable to the decency as to the shaming since together they amounted to shame. And it is never fun to be called “an opportunist,” “a house slave,” and so on while university presidents sit in the front row and avert their eyes. But this really is the point: The goal of shaming was never to win an argument with me; it was to make a display of shame that would make others afraid for themselves, that would cause eyes to avert. I was more the vehicle than the object, and what I did was almost irrelevant. Shame’s victory was in the averted eyes, the cowering of decency.
Today a public “black conservative” will surely meet a stunning amount of animus, demonization, misunderstanding, and flat-out, undifferentiated contempt. And there is a kind of licensing process involved here in which the black leadership—normally protective even of people like Marion Barry and O. J. Simpson—licenses blacks and whites to have contempt for the black conservative. It is a part of the group’s manipulation of shame to let certain of its members languish outside the perimeter of group protection where even politically correct whites (who normally repress criticism of blacks) can show contempt for them.
Not long ago I heard a white female professional at a racially mixed dinner table call Clarence Thomas an incompetent beneficiary of affirmative action—the same woman whom I had heard on another occasion sneer at the idea that affirmative action stigmatized women and minorities as incompetent. Feminists who happily vote for Bill Clinton are free to loathe Clarence Thomas. In a sense Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Ward Connerly, Stanley Crouch, myself, and many, many others represent a new class of “unprotected” blacks. By my lights there is something a little avant-garde in this. But, as with any avant-garde, the greater freedom is paid for in a greater exposure to contempt and shame.
The Czech writer Milan Kundera—a man whose experience under the hegemony of the Communist Party taught him much about the shaming power of groups over the individual—says that shame transforms a person “from a subject to an object,” causes shamed persons to lose their “status as individuals.” And to suffer this fate means that the group—at least symbolically—has determined to annihilate you. Of course we have no gulags in black America, but black group authority—like any group authority—defines itself as much by whom it annihilates as by whom it celebrates. Thus it not only defines group, it also defines grouplessness. And here, on this negative terrain, where his or her exclusion sharpens the group identity, the black conservative lingers as a kind of antithesis.
But is this loneliness? I’m not sure.
The problem for the black conservative is more his separation from the authority of his racial group than from the actual group. He stands outside a group authority so sharply defined and monolithic that it routinely delivers more than 90 percent of the black vote to whatever Democrat runs for president. The black conservative may console himself with the idea that he is on the side of truth, but even truth is cold comfort against group authority (which very often has no special regard for truth). White supremacy focused white America’s group authority for three centuries before truth could even begin to catch up. Group authority is just as likely to be an expression of collective ignorance as of truth; but it is always, in a given era, more powerful than truth.
All of this is made worse by the fact that black Americans have been a despised minority surrounded by indifference and open hatred. An individual’s failure of group love is a far greater infraction among blacks because it virtually allies that individual with the enemy all around. An Uncle Tom is someone whose failure to love his own people makes him an accessory to their oppression. So group love (in one form or another) is a preoccupation in black life because of the protective function it serves, because we want to use the matter of love as a weapon of shame and thus as an enforcer of conformity. Love adds the seriousness and risk to nonconformity.
If this gives black America the means to enforce its group authority—and its explanation of its fate—it also plagues us with a repressive, one-party politics. Because of historic vulnerability and the resulting insistence on conformity around a single strategic explanation of group fate, black America has not yet achieved a two-party politics. Thus black conservatives do not yet constitute a loyal opposition; they are, instead, classic dissenters. This differentiates them from white conservatives, who work out of a two-party group. In his dissent from a one-party–one-explanation group politics, the black conservative lives the life of a dissenter, a life too conspicuously gambled on belief, a life openly subversive to his own group and often impractical for himself—a life at odds.
What, in fact, is a black conservative?
Well, he is not necessarily a Republican or free-market libertarian or religious fundamentalist, pro-lifer, trickle-down economist, or neocon. I have met blacks in all these categories who are not considered conservatives.
The liberal-conservative axis is a bit different for blacks than for Americans generally. Under his American identity a black Republican is conservative, but under his racial identity he may be quite liberal. Many black Republicans, for example, are intense supporters of preferential affirmative action and thus liberal in terms of their group identity. (Colin Powell is a case in point, as is Arthur Fletcher, a black Republican who helped President Nixon introduce America’s first racial preference in the famous “Philadelphia Plan.”) But the “new” black conservatives—the ones who have recently become so controversial—may even be liberal by their American identity but are definitely conservative by the terms of their group identity. It is their dissent from the explanation of black group authority that brings them the “black conservative” imprimatur. Without this dissent we may have a black Republican but not a “black conservative,” as the term has come to be used.
And what is this explanation of black group authority? In a word it is victimization. Not only is victimization made to explain the hard fate of blacks in American history, but it is also asked to explain the current inequalities between blacks and whites and the difficulties blacks have in overcoming them. Certainly no explanation of black difficulties would be remotely accurate were it to ignore racial victimization. On the other hand, victimization does not in fact explain the entire fate of blacks in America, nor does it entirely explain their difficulties today. It was also imagination, courage, the exercise of free will, and a very definite genius that enabled blacks not only to survive victimization but also to create a great literature, utterly transform Western music, help shape the American language, expand and deepen the world’s concept of democracy, influence popular culture around the globe, and so on. No people with this kind of talent, ingenuity, and self-inventiveness would allow victimization so singularly to explain their fate unless it had become a primary source of power. And this is precisely what happened after the sixties. Victimization became so rich a vein of black power—even if it was only the power to “extract” reforms (with their illusion of deliverance) from the larger society—that it was allowed not only to explain black fate but to explain it totally.
A black woman journalist I met recently for lunch said, “I don’t think we can tell the story of our victimization enough.” We were talking about an article she was writing. She was young, Ivy League educated, and, sitting across from me in the patio restaurant, she might have been an advertisement for any number of blessings—good health, good upbringing, good fortune. Politely we argued about how much victimization blacks were still subjected to. I said it was number three or four on the list of things that held blacks back. She said it was number one. And here we had arrived at one of the most telling impasses two black Americans can reach. Her number-one ranking aligned her with the explanation of black fate on which black group authority rests. For her, victimization was not a fact of black life, it was the fact. It was a totalism—an ultratruth that not only supersedes but that makes a taboo of all other truths. My lower ranking of racism as a barrier violated this taboo, put me at odds with black group authority, and made me, alas, a “black conservative.”
Very simply, then, a black conservative is a black who dissents from the victimization explanation of black fate when it is offered as a totalism—when it is made the main theme of group identity and the raison d’être of a group politics.
The young journalist was a liberal and in harmony with black group authority because of a predetermined willingness, even commitment, to seeing two things: that black difficulty in America was the result of ongoing racial victimization and that white America was responsible for bringing change. The only time she transgressed her natural politeness was when she smugly said, “Well, obviously we have a different time schedule as to when white people ought to be let off the hook.” Certainly even a black conservative would not want to let white people off the hook. And yet, as time marches on, I can’t help but feel that a far greater danger for blacks is the belief that doing so makes a difference. What is clear is that a group politics devoted to keeping whites on the hook also requires that victimization be a totalism in black life—that it define group identity, become a part of the self-image of individual blacks, and keep in play a permanently contentious relationship with whites.
I said to her that when victimization is treated as a totalism, it keeps us from understanding the true nature of our suffering. It leads us to believe that all suffering is victimization and that all relief comes from the guilty good-heartedness of others. But people can suffer from bad ideas, from ignorance, fear, a poor assessment of reality, and from a politics that commits them to the idea of themselves as victims, among other things. When black group authority covers up these other causes of suffering just so whites will feel more responsible—and stay on the hook—then that authority actually encourages helplessness in its own people so that they might be helped by whites. It tries to make black weakness profitable by selling it as the white man’s burden.
“But isn’t it really about power? And if victimization brings power, it’s the power that counts.” She surprised me. I hadn’t realized she was even listening. “I mean, you could say that whites got power by killing the Indians and enslaving the blacks. That’s worse than using your history of victimization to get power. People get power all sorts of ways.”
We were outside the restaurant now, and she was hurrying to cover the few blocks to her rented car to make her next appointment. Working to keep pace, I suddenly felt a familiar doubt. Let’s call it the black conservative doubt—the feeling that one is talking into a void, that one might be right, might even have a compelling piece of truth, but that it is a truth unattached to any necessity, a truth with no means of enforcing itself. Often people don’t listen as much for the truth as for the necessity that will hold them accountable to the truth. Failing to hear any such necessity, they can conclude that the truth itself has no relevance.
The great problem for the black conservative is that the necessity of his or her truth is hidden so that it seems irrelevant, academic. What keeps it hidden is the symbiosis between whites and blacks by which they agree to let victimization totally explain black difficulty. Whites agree to stay on this hook for an illusion of redemption, and blacks agree to keep them there for an illusion of power. I can say that these investments are illusions, that whites have no real redemption, and that blacks have no real power, but then what do I have? That’s really what the young journalist was saying to me as we walked to her car. Government, corporate America, universities, foundations—they were all in the business of seeing blacks as victims, of trading an illusion of power for an illusion of redemption. Everybody was practiced in these negotiations, so the fact that they encouraged helplessness in blacks, kept them mired in a victim-focused identity, gave them a disinvestment in success and an investment in failure . . . well. The black conservative is at odds with a very cozy and very functional symbiosis, and there is always something to be said for function. He may believe that there are bodies under the floorboards, but until that truth is more widely understood, there is not much necessity in what he says.
I was not surprised when we turned a corner and came upon the journalist’s rental car. It was a huge, white Lincoln Towncar with plush leather upholstery, and it sat so regally on the street that the smaller cars around it seemed to compose its court. I thought she might apologize for it, as people often do with their ostentations, but she said only that she had a “good” expense account. After quickly shaking my hand good-bye, she swung open the driver’s door and all but plunged in. In a moment the white boat was floating down the street.
A Dream Deferred, by Shelby Steele, was recently published by HarperCollins. For ordering information, visit the HarperCollins web site at www.harpercollins.com. Available from the Hoover Press is the Hoover Essay Race, Culture, and Equality, by Thomas Sowell. To order, call 800-935-2882.
Shelby Steele is the Robert J. and Marion E. Oster Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He specializes in the study of race relations, multiculturalism, and affirmative action. He was appointed a Hoover fellow in 1994.