Booker T. Washington has long been upheld as the original black conservative. In an 1896 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, he wrote
that "the negro has within him immense power for self-uplifting." But as pundits review Robert J. Norrell's "Up From History
," a new book revisiting Washington's legacy, they can't even agree on the meaning of black conservatism. Are black conservatives "Uncle Toms," black nationalists, "timid appeasers" of white supremacists, or none of the above? Commentators say there's much to learn from the complicated conservatism of Booker T. Washington and his modern day heirs.
- No Such "Post-Racial" Era Is Upon Us At The New Republic, Steven Hahn reviews "Up From History" and concludes that Booker T. Washington's brand of separatist black conservatism still lives today. It's just this group, he says, that could become disappointed with President Obama.
The world of Booker T. Washington, the world that lent him ideas and
sensibilities, and that energized him, still lives in some forms in our
midst. It is a world of poor, struggling, self-respecting, and
intensely proud people who have learned over many years to look to
themselves and their communities, and to question the intentions of
whites and other people whites have accepted. They have their own
interpretations of how the society works, and where the power lies.
(Some of them trade in elaborate conspiracy theories: tune in to
African American talk radio.) Should Obama fail to develop urban
policies that address their needs and aspirations, their patience with
him will likely wear thin.
- Black Conservatives Are Sometimes Nationalists At Think Progress, Matthew Yglesias says the ideological conflict within black politics has often been misread. According to Yglesias, Washington's legacy reveals that black conservatives are often misread as "timid appeasers of white supremacists," when in fact, they are "pessimistic about race relations and nationalistic in orientation." He explains, "Because this
controversy within black politics is embedded inside a larger
white-dominated political context it often gets confused," he writes. "Sometimes, as
in the conventional reading of Washington, the black conservative
appears to white American liberals to be the timid appeaser...other times, as with a Malcolm X, he looks like a
dangerous radical black nationalist." Yglesias says the phenomenon of a black conservative "a la Clarence Thomas" aligning himself with the (white) conservative mainstream is recent, but that "even
so, that didn’t mean there was no ideological conflict in black
politics or that general rightist sentiments somehow didn’t exist."
- A Long, Storied History of Black Conservatives At Reason Magazine, Damon W. Root seems to think Yglesias is arguing that the history of black conservatives begins and ends with Clarence Thomas. He offers a correction:
Actually, the great Harlem Renaissance author and journalist
George Schuyler—who was known as the 'black H.L.
Mencken'—published 'general rightist sentiments' long before
Clarence Thomas came on the scene, including Schuyler’s
unambiguously titled 1966 autobiography Black and
Conservative. And the celebrated novelist and folklorist
Zora Neale Hurston both endorsed conservative Sen. Robert A Taft
in the 1952 presidential election and repeatedly attacked FDR’s
- Booker T. Washington's Heirs Are Among Us In the May 2008 issue of The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote that "the split between Cosby and critics such as [Michael Eric] Dyson mirrors not only
America’s broader conservative/liberal split but black America’s own
historic intellectual divide. Cosby’s most obvious antecedent is Booker
Want to add to this story? Let us know in comments
or send an email to the author at
mgay at theatlantic dot com.
You can share ideas for stories on the Open Wire.