Last July Clarence Thomas attended a private dinner in Washington with a handful of NAACP officials. This was shortly after he’d been nominated to the Supreme Court, and Thomas hoped to soften the antipathy of the black civil rights establishment toward him. Not a chance. He was soon trashed in public statements as a snake, a black copy of David Duke, “Bork in blackface,” and putty in the hands of his conservative white wife.
Gary Franks, the first black Republican elected to the House of Representatives since 1932, got better treatment, but not much. He insisted on joining the Congressional Black Caucus when he arrived on Capitol Hill last January. At the first meeting, Franks says, he was told, “Gary, you’re not really black.” At least Franks is allowed to go to meetings, though he was banished during strategy sessions for the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which he opposes. Michael Williams, the assistant secretary of education for civil rights, has been totally ostracized by black leaders since he proposed last December to ban race-specific college scholarships for blacks. Thomas had helped persuade Williams to take the job, which Thomas held in 1981 and 1982. “Develop some relationship with the traditional civil rights community,” Thomas advised. Williams tried, but black leaders won’t “even get on the phone and talk,” he says.
Black conservatives explain this superhostility simply: they’re a threat. For the first time in decades, their challenge to one-party rule in the black community by civil rights leaders and elected officials has resonance. No, black conservatives aren’t on the verge of ousting the traditional political leadership. That’s a distant goal. And no, their ideas aren’t extinguishing the liberalism of the black elite. But “something really has happened,” says Shelby Steele, author of The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America, which argued that blacks should chiefly rely on their own resources and not on racial preferences to get ahead. There’s been an evolution in black thinking. We had a one-party system for twenty, twenty-five years, and it just wasn’t working.” Now black conservatives have broken the sound barrier. They’re being heard, so much so that they’ve destroyed the myth that black thinking is monolithic and invariably matches whatever Jesse Jackson, the Black Caucus, or NAACP Executive Director Benjamin Hooks espouses.
The nomination of Thomas, who scorns the civil rights agenda and urges black self-help, has a lot to do with this. “It makes us visible,” says Elizabeth Wright, who publishes a newsletter of black conservative opinion called “Issues and Views.” “It makes us credible.” It has also brought black conservatives enormous media attention, much of it favorable. Steele was pictured holding his retriever Sunny in a four-page spread in People last August. The Thomas nomination is “a watershed in black American leadership,” adds black TV journalist Tony Brown, who hosts Tony Brown’s Journal” on PBS. “It has forced black people to re-examine their direction.” It prompted Brown to jump ostentatiously to the Republican Party. He wrote in The Wall Street Journal that “a surprising number of blacks have told me they will follow my example.”
Maybe they will, but there’s room for skepticism. There was a similar flurry of interest in black conservatism ten years ago, and little came of it Blacks gathered then at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco to zing the civil rights establishment, denounce affirmative action, and advocate black self-reliance. An organization of black conservatives, the New Coalition for Economic and Social Change, was formed. It soon petered out. And serving in the Reagan administration proved to be an unsatisfactory experience for some black conservatives, who felt they were treated like exhibits and undercut by Reagan’s record on civil rights. In 1988 Clarence Pendleton, the black chairman of the Civil Rights Commission, died. After the funeral Ricky Silberman, vice chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, joined Thomas and black economist Thomas Sowell for coffee. “I couldn’t help thinking how bereft and lonely they were,” says Silberman. They seemed like the only black conservatives left in America.
They weren’t. A critical mass of conservatives (they’re still a small minority of black political activists) was forming. What was missing ten years ago were black conservatives with experience, credentials, and clout. That’s what they acquired during the 1980s. The Clarence Thomas of 1981 is not the Clarence Thomas of today,” says Alan Keyes. “He’s been in government, he’s dealt with problems, and his conclusions aren’t just theory anymore.” In short, Thomas is now fully credentialed. So is Keyes, who heads Citizens Against Government Waste. He was assistant secretary of state for international organizations, then ran as a Republican against Democratic Senator Paul Sarbanes of Maryland in 1988. (Keyes got 38 percent of the vote.) He’s likely to run again in 1992, this time against Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski. Williams embellished his résumé by prosecuting neo-Nazis and Klansmen for the Justice Department. Kay James was spokeswoman for the National Right to Life Committee before becoming an assistant secretary of health and human services. Franks served three terms on the city council of Waterbury, Connecticut. Robert Woodson started the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, which promotes self-help programs, and in 1990 got a $320,000 “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Steele, Sowell, Brown, economist Walter Williams, Boston University professor Glenn Loury, and others turned out a number of conservative columns, articles, and books.
A FUNNY THING happened when George Bush became president: black conservatives flourished beyond their wildest dreams. This is ironic because Bush is pals with establishment blacks of the type that traditionally get jobs or contracts in COP administrations. They’re moderates or liberals, if ideological at all. The only one of them who got a major job from Bush was Arthur Fletcher, the chairman of the Civil Rights Commission, who has recently claimed to find rampant racism in one of the nation’s least racist institutions, the military. Black conservatives got substantive appointments, not token posts. In 1990 Thomas finished a narrow second to David Souter for Bush’s first Supreme Court nomination, and this year Bush never seriously considered anyone but Thomas. Bush appointed General Colin Powell, a conservative on foreign and defense issues, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon. His choice for secretary of health and human services, Louis Sullivan, proved to be conservative on the two chief issues of his department, health care and abortion. (The influence of his neocon deputy secretary, Constance Horner, had something to do with this.) Michael Williams became an assistant secretary of education, and J. Kenneth Blackwell an assistant secretary of housing and urban development under Jack Kemp. And so on. When Joseph Watkins, who is non-ideological, left in August as White House liaison to blacks, he was replaced by Claudia Butts. She came directly from the Heritage Foundation. “I’m adamant that I’m a black conservative,” she says. “I want to say it loud and clear that it’s OK to be a conservative…. Now is the safest time ever [for black conservatives] to come out of the closet.”
The partial embrace of black conservatism by renegade intellectuals has strengthened its legitimacy all the more. The latest is Stephen L. Carter, a professor at Yale Law School and author of Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby. “I get really annoyed when I get included in these stories about black conservatives,” he says. (Sorry, Steve.) “I have trouble with this notion of a black conservative.” If a black “criticizes some aspect, however small, of the civil rights agenda,” he is called a conservative “Black people alone are labeled on this very small spectrum,” Carter is right about that, Nonetheless he takes up three themes of black conservatives in his book: racial preferences should be phased out, blacks should nurture their own excellence instead of leaning excessively on society for aid, and black leaders should quit punishing conservatives and enforcing conformity. He makes a compelling case for them. Carter sometimes sounds like a conservative, even if he isn’t one.
Carter skewers the current justification for affirmative action, that it provides diversity in the academic or professional world. This rationale assumes that middle-class blacks are “black the right way” and willing always to speak on behalf of less fortunate blacks. But blacks often have “views that are … well, not what black people are supposed to say,” Carter writes. So “race as a proxy for views” fails “unless one supposes that biology implies ideology.” He echoes Clarence Thomas in advising blacks how to prove they’ve succeeded by their own wits. We should, he says, “commit ourselves to battle for excellence, to show ourselves able to meet any standard, to pass any test that looms before us, in short, to form ourselves into a vanguard of black professionals who are simply too good to ignore.” By the way, Carter says the ranks of black dissenters like himself are “swelling.”
STEELE, WHO TEACHES English at San Jose State, is less deferential to black leaders and more sweeping in his indictment of affirmative action than Carter. And he’s not squeamish about being labeled a conservative, though he calls himself “a classical Jeffersonian liberal.” In The Content of Our Character, he writes favorably of President Reagan (“Even his de-emphasis of race was reasonable in a society where race only divides”) and faults the “one-sided approach that the civil rights establishment has taken toward black problems.” This approach explains its opposition to Thomas, Steele believes. He endorses Thomas for the Supreme Court. (Carter is uncommitted.) “Over the past few years, I have had warm conversations with Thomas over the phone,” he wrote in The Los Angeles Times. Steele noted the “crucial difference between the experience of suffering and an identity focused on the suffering.” Thomas’s life reflects this difference. “Though Thomas in no way denies his own suffering from poverty and discrimination, his entire life has been a struggle not to identify with it — and, therefore, not to be defeated by it,” Steele wrote. Civil rights leaders insist that blacks seek redress from society. “In this way, today’s black suffering only re-enacts yesterday’s inferiority,” he said. ‘The irony is that once we identify with our suffering, we lose the power to end it.”
Critic Stanley Crouch and Tony Brown, neither of them conservative, are withering in their attacks on black leaders. Crouch concentrates on the black power posturing of Al Sharpton, Spike Lee, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan, etc. He writes in Notes of a Hanging Judge that they “helped send not only black America but this nation into a tailspin on the subjects of race, of culture, of heritage.” When Brown joined the GOP, he said that black leaders “perpetuate an intellectual fascism and foster a totalitarian environment in which any independent-thinking black who breaks lockstep with their often self-serving Democratic worldview is severely condemned.” Worse, they’ve tied blacks to the “something-for-nothing entitlement dogma of the Democrats.” Poverty, not racism, is the chief problem facing blacks, according to Brown. What’s needed is self-help, not more government handouts. Brown is an enthusiastic supporter of Thomas.
Winning confirmation of Thomas would top the agenda of black conservatives, if they had one. “Aren’t all Americans flattered by his example?” Steele asked in The Los Angeles Times. Black conservatives have no explicit program, but there are a half-dozen ideas that most conservatives and their allies harp on. One is that civil rights leaders and elected officials have tragically failed the black community. Robert Woodson says he dropped out of the civil rights movement in the late 1970s when he discovered it wasn’t helping poor blacks. As an Urban League official from 1971 to 1977, “We did a lot in the name of poor people, but the true beneficiaries were middle- and upper-income people, primarily blacks.” Wright blames the NAACP, Operation PUSH, the Urban League, and other “race organizations” for making blacks economically dependent. “There is probably nothing that can undo the generations of damage done by all these organizations that have not only discouraged blacks from taking economic initiatives among ourselves, but have made a virtue of constructing excuses for our failures to do so,” she wrote in her newsletter last April.
BLACK CONSERVATIVES have their own perspective on racial preferences, opposing them not so much because they are unfair or produce economic inefficiency, but because they are bad for blacks. Steele says preferences are an “escapist racial policy” that leads to “dependency on entitlements rather than our own initiative.” Walter Williams, who teaches at George Mason University in Virginia, says affirmative action guarantees blacks will stumble in college. Blacks scoring in the top 10 percent to 15 percent of students on the SATS are recruited by elite colleges where most students are in the top 1 percent to 5 percent. “You create failures out of students who could be successes at lesser-known schools,” he argues. Butts says preferences wrongly signal blacks that “genuine opportunity is not really there for black people.”
The bedrock idea of black conservatives is self-help. It’s an old idea among blacks, pushed relentlessly a century ago by Booker T. Washington, and has its roots in the “free-labor” movement (see “Douglass to Thomas” by Stephen Macedo, page 23). More recently, Sowell has argued a historical case for self-reliance. In several books he points out that immigrant groups that relied on themselves (Jews, Japanese) prospered rapidly while those who looked to the political system for help (blacks) didn’t. I’ve yet to find a black conservative who hasn’t read Sowell avidly. “He makes so much sense,” says Wright. Black leaders, says Steele, “put such a singular emphasis on redress for past victimization as the primary source of power for black Americans, they see self-help as anathema to that I don’t. The two can coexist” Loury says that “at the base of much poverty in the ghetto lie the values and behavior of some inner-city residents and those, with concerted effort, can be changed for the better. History and common sense show that government is not the best instrument for effecting the transformation of these values.”
Black conservatives have a relatively benign view of racism in America. “I don’t see any Bull Connors around,” says Horace Cooper, a legislative aide to GOP Representative Richard Armey of Texas. Stephen Carter though not a conservative, writes that “racism is no longer the all-encompassing force it once was.” Steele sees “a marked decline in racism.” There are “new opportunities,” but blacks have an “aversion” to grasping them, he adds. As a student of Allan Bloom at Cornell in 1969, Keyes refused to join a black protest, was threatened, quit school, and later transferred to Harvard (where his roommate was William Kristol, now Vice President Quayle’s chief of staff). The experience made Keyes a conservative angry with anti-American protesters. “I came to the conclusion,” he says, “that there was something basically correct about the American system.”
But black conservatives think something has gone terribly wrong in the black community in the years since the civil rights victories of the 1950s and 1960s. “Things began to escalate in the 1970s in terms of criminality among blacks and illegitimacy,” says Wright. Then came the drug epidemic, the decline of the black family, trouble in the schools, the deterioration of inner cities. But black leaders pursued the same civil rights agenda, she says, all but ignoring the economic and moral crisis of poor blacks. They championed “some black corporation executive who wants to be CEO. I should be worried about the glass ceiling he won’t break through?” One final thing. Black conservatives believe a majority of blacks agree with them on most issues.
DESPITE AREAS of agreement, black conservatives haven’t congealed as a full-fledged movement. “What unifies us is our sense that we need more in the black community than redress,” says Steele. What more exactly? They disagree on that Walter Williams is a libertarian who wants minimalist government, arguing that regulations and licensing requirements restrict poor blacks from starting businesses. Keyes wants a moral crusade in the black community, including a “marriage bonus” for folks on welfare who get and stay married and vouchers that may be used at church-run schools, drug rehab clinics, and day-care centers. Kay James, now executive vice president of the One to One Foundation, is eager to get along with civil rights groups. “We’re all working toward the same goal,” she says, citing “access to jobs and education [and] freedom to send our kids to school where we want.” Woodson spurns these groups but promotes tenant ownership of public housing and self-help programs of neighborhood organizations, churches, and social groups.
Black conservatives tend to be loners, contrarians, or prickly non-conformists. Their lives aren’t easy. They’ve been isolated by black leaders, and their relations with white conservatives are bumpy. Thomas confessed in 1987 that whereas liberals think blacks shouldn’t be conservative, his colleagues in the Reagan administration thought blacks “could not be conservative,” Keyes got into a heated dispute at a Georgetown restaurant with Kemp over whether economic incentives are enough to lift the black poor. Kemp said yes. “Economic opportunity is great,” Keyes answered, “but people have to be prepared to take advantage of it” In 1990 Butts convinced her family in North Carolina to vote for Senator Jesse Helms — until Helms ran a TV ad denouncing racial quotas that blacks saw as a pitch for white racist votes. All her persuading went “right out the window,” says Butts. “I don’t dare bring up that discussion again.” As an aide at the Reagan White House, Bill Keyes (no relation to Alan) pleaded in vain for the president to stress issues like voluntary school prayer that appeal to blacks. He later quit politics in frustration to sell insurance. Black conservatives “are such individuals, so different in many ways, all from different professions,” says Steele. “It’s not a club,” says Michael Williams. “We don’t meet. Maybe we should.”
Meanwhile, though, black conservatives are hot. Michael Williams, who’s from Midland, Texas, and is a chum of President Bush’s son George, thinks they should capitalize on this and hit the road to market conservatism. “We’ve been theorists. Now we’ve got to get on the stump and sell ideas.” There may not be enough prominent black conservatives to go around. Franks has been flooded with an extraordinary number of speech requests for a House freshman. He’s accepted only 5 percent of them. Franks says the media must pay attention to black conservatives now that they’ve got a voice at every level of national government — the Supreme Court (Thomas, assuming he’s confirmed), the administration (Sullivan, etc.), and Congress (himself). “People can’t just talk to Jesse Jackson, Ron Dellums, and Carl Rowan. They’ll talk to Walter Williams, myself, and others. It could really change the dynamics of the debate on issues affecting the black community.” It already has.
This article originally ran in the September 30, 1991 issue of the magazine.