Black conservatives are few in number, with few exceptions have no name recognition in the African American community, have little to no institutional base in our community, have no significant Black following, and have no Black constituency. Indeed Black conservatives' highest visibility is in the white, not the Black community. It is due primarily to their ties to white conservative institutions that Black conservatives have come to be viewed as spokespersons for the race, despite lacking a base in the African American community. Conservative think tanks such as the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation (which has even implemented a minority outreach program), and conservative foundations such as the Olin Foundation, the Scaife Foundation, and the Bradley Foundation sponsor Black conservatives in numerous ways.
White conservative institutions award Black conservatives fellowships, consultant work, directorships, and staff positions. They also provide public relations services which get Black conservatives television and radio appearances, help get editorials, opinion pieces, and articles by Black conservatives into mainstream, even liberal, newspapers and magazines, publish articles and books by Black conservatives, and sponsor workshops and conferences by and for Black conservatives.
Conservative and neoconservative publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Human Events, The Washington Times, Commentary, The Public Interest, The National Interest, American Scholar, and The New Republic have played a major role in promoting Black conservatives' visibility, publishing articles by and about them. And finally, the Republican Party, especially during the years of the Reagan Administration but also during the Bush Administration, rewarded Black conservatives with high-visibility government appointments and with financing for Black conservative electoral campaigns.
The Institute of Contemporary Studies, a conservative research organization established by former aides to Ronald Reagan after Reagan left the statehouse in Sacramento, sponsored the first conference of Black neoconservatives in San Francisco in December 1980. Called the Fairmount Conference, it attracted about 125 conservative Black lawyers, physicians, dentists, Ivy League professors, and commentators. It remains the best-known gathering of Black conservative thinkers and policy makers.
A review of prominent Black conservatives' careers reveals the extent to which they have benefited from their corporate-funded presence in white conservative foundations, think tanks, and publications.
Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the conservative Palo Alto think tank, the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace. Sowell is the most prolific of the Black conservative intellectuals; his 14 books have been widely reviewed in conservative and mainstream publications alike. Conservative publications such as Commentary, The American Spectator, Human Events, Wall Street Journal, Barron's, and Business Week consistently provide the most glowing reviews. Articles by and/or about Sowell have appeared in numerous mainstream publications such as Time, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, among others.
When Sowell decided in 1981 to start a (short-lived) organization explicitly intended to counter the NAACP, the Black Alternatives Association, Inc., he reportedly received immediate pledges $1 million from conservative foundations and corporations.
Glenn Loury's reputation and influence rest on only one book and a series of articles that have appeared in most of the major mainstream publications, as well as the conservative Wall Street Journal, Commentary, and The Public Interest The Heritage Foundation published one of his best-known essays, "Who Speaks for American Blacks," as a monograph in A Conservative Agenda for America's Blacks. Boston University's rightist President John Silber hired Loury when Loury left Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
Robert Woodson has served in several capacities at the American Enterprise Institute. Woodson is also an adviser for the Madison Group, a loose affiliation of conservative state-level think tanks, launched in 1986 by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC is an association of approximately 2,400 conservative state legislators and is housed in the Heritage Foundation's headquarters in Washington, DC. The conservative John M. Olin Foundation gave $25,000 to Woodson's National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. Woodson's 1987 book, Breaking the Poverty Cycle: Private Sector Alternatives to the Welfare State, was published by the conservative National Center for Policy Analysis in Dallas, then reissued in 1989 by the conservative Commonwealth Foundation, on whose board he sits.
Walter Williams is the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics at George Mason University, has been a fellow at the Hoover Institution and at the Heritage Foundation, and received funding for one of his books from the Scaife Foundation.
The importance of these ties is not white conservative patronage per se. Black liberals benefit from similar ties to liberal institutions. A critical intellectual difference, however, is that Black liberals' analyses and policy ideas originated in their experiences in the civil rights and Black Power movements, movements that emerged from the African American community. Black liberals' analyses, limited though they are, continue to be shaped by their Black constituents, who help fund civil rights organizations and elect them to office. It is important to question the implications of the fact that Black conservatives' arguments originate in white conservatives' arguments and that Black conservatives are in no way answerable to a Black constituency.
The historical distinction between white liberals and white conservatives is also a critical one. White liberal patrons and allies have historically allied themselves with, not against, Black interests. During the civil rights struggles, the only place white conservatives could be found was implicitly or explicitly beside Bull Connor, Strom Thurmond, Lester Maddox, and George Wallace. The white conservatives with whom Black conservatives are allied tried to obstruct the very civil rights legislation which even Black conservatives concede was necessary to create what they insist is now a largely discrimination-free America.
Today, Black conservatives belong to a Republican Party thoroughly tainted by racism, whose leadership openly pursues a "southern strategy," employing racially polarizing tactics. Ironically, even today white conservatives remain ambivalent over the desirability of attracting more Blacks to conservative causes and to the Republican Party. Those favoring outreach to Blacks and other minorities have various motives. Pragmatic Republican strategists want to capture at least some of the solid Black support for the Democratic Party. Further, many conservatives recognize that sometime in the 21st century a majority of the US population will be people of color. Given the historical role played by the traditionally politically liberal African American community as a catalyst for change, many mainstream white conservatives believe conservatism must become more inclusive if it is to survive.
Additionally, many Jewish conservatives seek an alliance with Black conservatives, who represent a sector within the African American community that will unite with them in support of Israel. The result is to diminish African American support for Palestinian and Arab causes and the related criticism of military ties between Israel and South Africa.
The more extreme conservatism of Patrick Buchanan and the extreme right wing of the Republican Party is, however, explicitly racialist. As Margaret Quigley and Chip Berlet detail in their oveview article in this anthology, the right has always seen the African American civil rights movement as part of a secular humanist plot to impose communism on the United States. This faction identifies sexual licentiousness and "primitive" African American music with subversion.
Patrick Buchanan wrote a well-known column titled "GOP Vote Search Should Bypass Ghetto" in which he argued that Blacks have been grossly ungrateful for efforts already made on their behalf by Republicans, who had already done more than enough to obtain their support.
It says much about his willingness to "sleep with the enemy" that, even after this notorious column and after Buchanan's outspoken racism during his 1992 run for the Republican Party's presidential nomination, Thomas Sowell could still write in a 1992 column: "If and when he [Buchanan] becomes a viable candidate on his own, perhaps in 1996, that will be time enough to start scrutinizing his views and policy proposals on a whole range of issues."
As crucial as white conservative patronage has been to the careers and visibility of Black conservatives, it should not be viewed as their sole support. Mainstream, liberal, and even progressive institutions also have promoted them to their present-day status and levels of influence.
Robert Woodson's most notable award came from the moderately liberal MacArthur Foundation, which awarded him a $320,000 "genius" grant in 1990. Walter Williams is a featured commentator on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." Both Williams and Sowell are syndicated columnists. Shelby Steele produced and hosted a public television documentary on Bensonhurst in 1990. Articles by or about Sowell, Loury, Steele, and Carter appear regularly in such established outlets as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Dissent, Time, and Newsweek. Shelby Steele, Glenn Loury, and Tony Brown were among those featured in the January/February and the March/April 1993 issues of Mother Jones magazine, in a two-part article on urban poverty.
It is similarly noteworthy that while Black conservatives received an exceptional amount of publicity throughout the 1980s, the most intellectually sophisticated and nuanced group of African-American scholars and theorists-progressives such as bell hooks, Angela Davis, June Jordan, Manning Marable, Adolph Reed, Jr., and Cornel West-received next to none.
Between January 1980 and August 1991 three prominent newspapers, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Philadelphia Inquirer, published 11 op-eds, 14 articles, and 30 reviews by or about Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, and Walter Williams. However, during this same period, three prominent progressive African-American scholars, bell hooks, Manning Marable, and Cornel West, had no op-eds, no articles, and no stories by or about them in these same three newspapers.
This is, in part, a reflection of the conservatism that pervaded the political culture of the United States throughout the 1980s. But the question remains: how and why did a group of African Americans so unrepresentative of Black majority political opinion and so uninvolved in the affairs of the African American community come nonetheless to be anointed as race spokespeople, even by white institutions claiming to reflect liberal democratic ideals? From the perspective of the African American community, there is nothing democratic about the ascendancy of Blacks who demand that we acquiesce in fundamentally racist interpretations of who we are.
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