First of a two-part commentary
As the current U.S. presidential election cycle takes its predictable course and Republicans and Democrats do their utmost to draw our favorable attention to their aspiring candidates, it is useful to reflect on the two great ideological traditions of liberalism and conservatism that have always defined the American political scene and how these traditions have affected African Americans and other communities of color throughout U.S. history right up to the present day.
Liberalism and conservatism always have been tricky to define. Whole libraries have been published on these traditions and their expression in American political history. The difficulty has only grown more vexing with the recent appearance of neoconservatives and neoliberals, not to mention libertarians, some of whom call themselves right-wing anarchists.
We may take up the challenge of sorting out these terms in a future commentary, but right now, with the election of a new president just a year away, the question of the hour must be simply this: “Of the liberal and conservative traditions in America, which has done the most to help Black people, or at least has done less harm?” In our view, Robert C. Smith has it right when he says, “Conservatism as a philosophy and ideology is and always has been hostile to the aspirations of Africans in America, incompatible with their struggle for freedom and equality.”
Smith’s argument is fairly straightforward and he develops it with some thoroughness in his book Conservatism and Racism, and Why in America they are the Same (State University of New York Press, 2010). Since conservatives are bent on conserving what is and defending the status quo (if not reverting back to an earlier status quo more to their liking), they very much tend to resist change of any fundamental nature.
If they tolerate any change at all they insist it be gradual, very gradual, so gradual it may be hardly noticeable. For people who want things to change in a big way and sooner rather than later, conservatism is clearly no help. It is, in fact, quite an obstacle.
In addition to resisting change, conservatives are also committed to “states’ rights” (code words for “Do what you want with those coloreds down there”) and a small federal government, one much smaller and less powerful than what we have now. These bedrock conservative principles, along with a staunch emphasis on individualism, are why Johnson contends the conservative ideology is necessarily racist in its effects.
Smith defines policies and decisions made “for the purposes of subordinating a racial group and maintaining control over it” as racist behaviors. Since the conservative principles above were developed to defend and maintain a system designed at all levels to perpetuate White Supremacy and thwart Black people’s efforts to change it, the effect is that in this country “conservatism and racism are the same thing.”
Smith’s kind of racist behavior is not the in-your-face pathological race hate that keeps Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center so busy. It is rather the structural, systemic racism that installed Black Codes in the South and restrictive covenants throughout the North. It is the conservative ideology that continues to resist any redress for having denied many generations of African Americans decent jobs and housing and the opportunity to accumulate wealth.
Conservatism naturally works well for those who are satisfied with things as they are. Applied to economics, status quo conservatism is always popular among upper income groups, as we might expect. Why mess with a good thing? If it works well for all those who enjoy White privilege and the advantages of a prodigious head start in the accumulation of wealth, it stands to reason they would prefer to let the good times roll.
Conservatism works well for a few Black people like Dr. Ben Carson, Republican candidate for president, who as a gifted and wealthy neurosurgeon believes America has treated him very well indeed. It worked well for Bill Cosby — until recently. Maintaining the status quo suits a few star athletes and other entertainers just fine, but the great masses of Black people remain mired in economic backwaters, millions of ordinary people without special talents or genius but with no less desire and no less right to enjoy happy, healthy, productive lives.
“In no country,” says Smith, “none, anywhere, ever can a people be ideologically conservative if they are dissatisfied with the status quo. Africans in America have always been dissatisfied with America. They have, therefore, always been the most left, liberal, radical component of the nation’s population.”
Conservatism, then, does not work well for those dissatisfied with things as they are — and who among us is not dissatisfied with the current state of things? Dissatisfied with the racial gaps in health, wealth, employment and education? With the mass incarceration of Black men and runaway police violence against all Black people? The millions of Black children growing up in poverty? Attacks on Black voting rights. Attacks on Black churches. There is ample justification for outrage and none, in our view, for satisfaction.
In America, the Republican Party has been the ideologically conservative party for well over a century. Therefore African Americans as a people, insofar as they remain dissatisfied with things as they are, can never be comfortable as Republicans based on Smith’s analysis, much as they might still honor the party’s first president for his Emancipation Proclamation. Much has changed in the 150 years since then.
Next week: More reasons why Republicans, as American conservatives, are unavoidably racist.