The descent of black conservatism – Class Notes

The descent of black conservatism – Class Notes – Column

Adolph Reed, Jr.

Beware the proliferation of a peculiar political species–the black conservative crusader against “race-based” policies.

Shelby Steele, Clarence Thomas, and Thomas Sowell are the progenitors. But in the last few years, Ward Connerly and a host of others have been showing up all over. Connerly, California Governor Pete Wilson’s longtime crony and appointee to the University of California’s board of regents, first became visible by leading the attack on affirmative action in the state’s public universities. Then he jumped into the forefront of the movement for Proposition 209, the anti-affirmative-action initiative that passed last fall. Connerly now plans to take his show on the road, hoping to use his celebrity to spur similar anti-affirmative-action initiatives in other states and in Congress.

Typically, members of this species report having overcome either dire poverty or profligacy in youth, or both. Connerly recounts the suspiciously familiar tale of having had to stick cardboard into his shoes to compensate for their worn-away soles. And he claims that as a child he occasionally had only sweet potatoes to eat. But an article by A. Lin Neumann in the July 21 issue of The Nation casts doubt on Connerly’s claim. “He didn’t have to go raggedy, and that sweet potato shit, that’s a lie,” Connerly’s uncle, who has known him since infancy, told Neumann.

One Sunday this summer, The New York Times ran a huge front-page story on Connerly. On the very same day, the Chicago Tribune ran a splashy feature on Star Parker, whose claim to fame,,rests on her supposed journey “from welfare cheat to conservative crusader.” She has used her radio program, public lectures, and now a book to attack liberals, civil-rights advocates, and public assistance to poor people.

Parker recounts a wild past as petty criminal, drug abuser, and sexually promiscuous welfare cheat–all supposedly linked to her participation in the welfare system. Parker’s authority supposedly derives from having been a victim of welfare addiction (she boasts of quitting welfare “cold turkey”). But by her own account, she doesn’t fit the stereotype in which she casts herself. She comes from a stable, intact, two-parent family. Her father was an Air Force sergeant and her mother a beautician. Her descent into criminality and drug abuse–as well as her confessed promiscuity that supposedly led to her multiple abortions–actually well-preceded her entry to the AFDC rolls. If anything, the system kept her alive while she worked through whatever had set her off as a rebellious, troubled adolescent (though even her profligacy was pretty tame).

Now we come to the key question: What is the reproductive advantage driving the principle of selection among this strange, new species? Simple: Getting paid.

Being a public black opponent of “preferences” and public assistance is clearly a good career move. Parker discusses marketing herself, noting that she has had a makeover–shedding her large hoop earrings, bright-red lipstick, and the star embedded in her front tooth–to appeal to conservative audiences. She now makes her living on the college lecture circuit and as a radio/TV talking head.

Steele was obscure as a San Jose State University English professor before his transmutation into black conservative pundit. He was scarcely known even among scholars in his academic specialty. He is haunted by perceptions of black inadequacy and a fear of being tarred with the same brush as those he imagines to be inadequate. He projects his personal and idiosyncratic anxieties about racial inferiority onto all black Americans, blithely assuming that we all must feel what he does–even as he attacks liberal orthodoxy for denying black individuality.

J.C. Watts, the former Oklahoma football star who evangelizes the catechism in Congress, was an over-the-hill refugee from the Canadian Football League.

Connerly was a real-estate investor who had spent his entire adult life moving back and forth between being a black Republican appointee in state housing agencies and taking advantage of minority set-aside programs and his personal contacts to make money–at least once provoking conflict-of-interest charges.

Sowell had a lackluster academic career and, as with Steele, landed a cushy job at the rightwing Hoover Institution as compensation.

Clarence Thomas rode affirmative-action programs to Holy Cross and the Yale Law School, where even his supporters acknowledge his performance was undistinguished. His tenure as head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under Reagan was marked not only by willful violation of the office’s mandate but by incompetence and inattentiveness as well. His putative law scholarship is puerile, and his record on the federal bench was that of a cipher and cue-taker. Only his race and his conservative politics account for his presence on the Supreme Court.

These conservative black intellectuals have no legitimate claim of authority. They hold the proxies of no identifiable groups of black citizens anywhere. Yet they are pawned off as the new voice of a sizable portion of black America.

Black conservatives don’t have to be luminaries to serve the reactionary cause. Witness the controversy raging recently over the attempt by Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) to create an undergraduate major in African American Studies. Creation of majors is typically a routine faculty and administrative issue and hardly provokes intervention from oversight bodies. And you wouldn’t think at this point that the legitimacy of African American Studies as an official major would be open to question in principle. After all, much ink has been splashed in the last few years about Harvard’s Afro-American Studies department and its “Dream Team” of high-profile faculty.

But this doesn’t take into account the likes of Jeff Brown, a black, thirtysomething Circuit City executive and aggressive rightwing voice on the Virginia State Council on Higher Education. Brown has led a one-man charge against the VCU proposal. Brown is an appointee of reactionary Governor George Allen Jr. His qualifications seem to be his accomplishments as a Naval Academy grad, jet pilot, and “employee of one of Richmond’s most visionary companies,” as a local columnist characterized the electronics chain. Most important of all, though, he is black, and his militant ideological commitment to a simple-minded notion of “colorblindness” comforts the conservative orthodoxy. That orthodoxy insists that any attempts to do anything specifically in behalf of nonwhites or women are self-defeating, debilitating, and unjust.

Brown first complained that an African American Studies major would not prepare students for any employment. But when the provost, a black woman named Grace Harris, presented him with a list of occupations among black-studies graduates, Brown cried foul, dismissing the list as “so long that it is virtually meaningless. . . . One could pursue the careers on the list having attained a degree in any major.”

As Harris’s letter noted, any liberal-arts-and-science curriculum should prepare students for a broad range of jobs and careers. Brown’s objection, therefore, would apply equally to majors in history, English, classics, philosophy, sociology, political science, or anthropology. Surely, Brown wouldn’t deny the legitimacy of those majors by imposing a condition that they be justified as narrow job-training programs (and it’s unlikely that he had a double-major in flying jets and electronics-company management). Either Brown doesn’t recognize the merits of liberal-arts education, or he’s being disingenuous. But whether he’s acting naively or cynically, his declarations raise serious questions about his fitness to serve on a state board of higher education.

The VCU African American Studies controversy speaks of the breadth of the right’s combativeness, and its eagerness to employ any black conservative to carry its water.

Perhaps the favorite black conservative of the moment is Glenn Loury, who is once again being born again. Loury was an economist on the Harvard faculty when he surfaced in the public spotlight early in Reagan’s second term. Loury didn’t really come on as a committed conservative at first. He called only for open-mindedness regarding the Reaganite economic and social-policy agendas. He appealed to black elites to take responsibility for organizing the moral rehabilitation of the defective underclass, and he softened the uncomfortable rhetorical tension between rightwing and nationalist versions of self-help ideology.

As he grew increasingly visible, Loury took on more of the characteristics of a black conservative crusader. He denounced affirmative action for stifling individual initiative with presumptions of entitlement and for fueling self-doubt among its beneficiaries. He railed against predatory, irresponsible black males who must be coerced into proper behavior. “The criminal behavior of a relatively small number of young black men in big, central cities is in my judgment a critical factor undermining the quality of life of black and white people who live in those cities, and also a contributing factor to race relations,” he wrote.

Loury drew on the confessional narrative tradition to establish his authority, thus exhibiting a standard trait of his political species. He tirelessly rehearsed an admission that in adolescence he had impregnated a girl and that his father had beaten him into taking responsibility for his actions and getting his life in order. In a tortured turn of logic, he presented this personal saga as evidence for a claim that drug abuse and street crime derive principally from the absence of strong fathers.

He quickly became a top-shelf product in the punditry industry. He was ubiquitous in the mainline media, all the while whining–in Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Commentary, at lectures on elite college campuses, and all over the national newschat television circuit–that a liberal ideological tyranny was keeping him from being heard.

Loury self-destructed on the way to a 1987 sub-Cabinet level appointment in William Bennett’s Education Department. He was discovered–despite the famous patriarchal lesson–to have fathered a second child out of wedlock, and to have failed to provide regular support for that child. Having survived those revelations, he was arrested (on the eve of his confirmation hearing) and charged with beating the young mistress he had been keeping. Then, six months later, he was arrested and charged with possession of cocaine and marijuana. Loury pleaded innocent in both cases, and all charges in both cases were subsequently dismissed.

After the second arrest, Loury left Harvard for rightwing haven Boston University, where he availed himself of one of the first refuges of the scoundrel: He got reborn as a holy roller and took up lay preaching on the side. Although he never publicly acknowledged the breathtaking hypocrisy on which his political celebrity had been built, he kept on issuing jeremiads about the need for black moral rehabilitation. And he circulated new confessions of youthful transgressions, blaming an oppressive black culture for his failings of character.

Then, as President Clinton approached his second term, Loury’s tune began to change somewhat. He conspicuously severed his connection with the American Enterprise Institute because of its support for Dinesh D’Souza’s execrable book, The End of Racism. Oddly, he hadn’t been so moved after publication of The Bell Curve the year before.

Once again, as another Administration steams into its final term, Loury is positioning himself as a nonpartisan voice of reason, one whose concerns with moral rehabilitation transcend ideology. He even had the audacity to join bell hooks (Gloria Watkins), Cornel West, and others in the second round of a pompous, high-profile symposium on “The Responsibility of Black Intellectuals in the Age of Crack” (though, perhaps in deference to Loury’s prior arrest, that round dropped “in the Age of Crack” from its official title).

Loury’s repackaging seems to be working. A few months ago, The Nation’s Eric Alterman praised him as an important public-policy voice and finger-wagged at those who characterize him as a conservative. In his new book, Liberal Racism, Jim Sleeper hypes Loury as one of the good, post-ideological black voices. And Loury is showing up again in the corporate media.

His resignation from the American Enterprise Institute and his announcement that he doesn’t want to be seen any longer as a conservative ideologue apparently were all that was required to legitimize the image change. I guess that makes sense; in the era of Clinton-led “new liberalism,” the only way you can tell the difference between those who are supposed to be liberals and those who are supposed to be conservatives is by self-proclamation and organizational affiliation; their ideas and programs are otherwise indistinguishable.

If Loury’s new persona proves to have adaptive advantages, perhaps it will spawn a new mutant subspecies of bipartisan, “I’m-not-really-a-conservative” black conservative crusaders.

Already, Loury, Watts, and Parker offer pro-forma criticisms of their allies’ inattentiveness to the persistence of white racism, and even the doltish Connerly backs and fills, acknowledging the need to maintain some of the very anti-discrimination mechanisms he has made it his mission to destroy.

The black conservative species does not select for intellectual sophistication; none of its output rises above banality and fatuity.

The most important point about the emergence of this new species, though, is that its success is linked to the ideological environment. Despite the predictability, superficiality, and obvious contradictions of their patter, these black conservative crusaders trade on a man-bites-dog standard: the image that it’s a rare inversion for blacks to oppose initiatives aimed at pursuing racial justice. But this is bogus. They’re a dime a dozen, and their line is always basically the same.

Their visibility is a function of the opinion-shaping politics of conservative, corporate media. If we can create a different political climate, they’ll almost certainly decline toward extinction.

Adolph Reed Jr. teaches African American Studies and political science at the University of Illinois-Chicago. His latest book is “W.E.B. DuBois and American Political Thought” (Oxford University Press).

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