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Harry Alford: The Conservative Al Sharpton

Some post-July 4th fireworks were on display at a Senate Environmental and Public Works Commitee hearing last week, chaired by Barbara Boxer. You could be forgiven for missing them, as they flew during the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings. But the incident was equal parts comical and pathetic, and telling for what it says about the state of today's conservative movement.

Testifying was Harry Alford, president and CEO of an outfit called the National Black Chamber of Commerce, an organization which I had never heard of prior to last week, and which Alford runs with his wife. Alford was testifying against climate change legislation for reasons not dissimilar from those of most business lobbies which oppose climate change legislation. Alford is especially useful to the anti-climate change legislation lobby in that he brings a veneer of multiculturalism to the effort, as he claims to speak on behalf of black business owners. The NBCC's positions are identical to those espoused by the United States Chamber of Commerce (Alford sits on the group's Board of Directors), and it receives a hefty amount of money from a variety of businesses. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's important to recognize that the organization is distinguished solely by the presence of "Black" in its title. 

In light of this background, it was strange to witness Alford's outraged reaction to Boxer's entering a statement from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People supportive of her legislation into the record. I'd prefer a world in which we could debate the merits of climate change legislation without discussing its effects on every imagineable ethnic group, but it was Alford's presence at the hearing as the self-appointed spokseman for black business owners that  prompted a response from another African-American organization, and Boxer, good, racially-sensitive liberal that she is, was more than happy to play along in the identity politics game. Yet at the mere mention of another black group, Alford lost his cool. "Madam Chair, that is condescending to me," he intoned. "I'm the National Black Chamber of Commerce and you're trying to put up some other black group to pit against me."

Well, duh. If you go around Washington claiming to represent black business owners, what right do you have to complain about a Senator using a statement from another black organization to counter you? It's the logical counterstrike in the game of identity politics. "Your" blacks think this way? Well, "my" blacks think my way. The game can be played with any group, whether it be gays or Jews or Hispanics or women. Yet usually this game is played by liberals, not conservatives.

Alford compounded the outrageousness of the situation when he took to the airwaves to denounce the hearing as "vile Jim Crow" and "Mississippi 1945." This is the sort of racial hypochondria that conservatives have (rightly) criticized when manifested by the likes of Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson or the more hysterical members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Yet when racial blackmail is used by an ostensibly conservative figure against such a welcoming target as Barbara Boxer, conservatives drop their principles and rush to the guy's defense. Here's a blogger from the Heritage Foundation's Salem Communications' applauding Alford for exposing Barbara Boxer's "racial condescension." Ed Morrissey of Hot Air condemned Boxer for trying to be an "arbiter of racial authenticity" (which is no doubt accurate, but no less true of Alford). Dozens of conservative blogs, perhaps distraught at the lack of racial drama in the Sotomayor hearings, promoted Alford as a hero.

What's sad about this episode is that conservatives crafted a useful critique of the racial grievance and identity politics movements of the 1980's, stressing  the importance of individual achievement and a color-blind society as alternatives to racial preferences and the ghettoization encouraged by ethnic studies programs. That they would now be glomming onto an explicitly race conscious charlatan like Harry Alford shows that they're putting politics ahead of noble principles. To maintain intellectual consistency, conservatives must challenge -- especially on their own side -- the noxious identity politics that they're so quick to condemn in liberals.

--James Kirchick