Black Conservative Intellectuals in Modern America

Black Conservative Intellectuals in Modern America

Black Conservative Intellectuals in Modern America

Black Conservative Intellectuals in Modern America


In the last three decades, a brand of black conservatism espoused by a controversial group of African American intellectuals has become a fixture in the nation's political landscape, its proponents having shaped policy debates over some of the most pressing matters that confront contemporary American society. Their ideas, though, have been neglected by scholars of the African American experience--and much of the responsibility for explaining black conservatism's historical and contemporary significance has fallen to highly partisan journalists. Typically, those pundits have addressed black conservatives as an undifferentiated mass, proclaiming them good or bad, right or wrong, color-blind visionaries or Uncle Toms.

In Black Conservative Intellectuals in Modern America, Michael L. Ondaatje delves deeply into the historical archive to chronicle the origins of black conservatism in the United States from the early 1980s to the present. Focusing on three significant policy issues--affirmative action, welfare, and education--Ondaatje critically engages with the ideas of nine of the most influential black conservatives. He further documents how their ideas were received, both by white conservatives eager to capitalize on black support for their ideas and by activists on the left who too often sought to impugn the motives of black conservatives instead of challenging the merits of their claims. While Ondaatje's investigation uncovers the themes and issues that link these voices together, he debunks the myth of a monolithic black conservatism. Figures such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, the Hoover Institution's Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steele, and cultural theorist John McWhorter emerge as individuals with their own distinct understandings of and relationships to the conservative political tradition.


Being a black conservative is perhaps not considered as bizarre as being a
transvestite, but it is certainly considered more strange than being a vegetarian
or a bird watcher.

So, in 1980, wrote Thomas Sowell, free-market economist and unofficial godfather of the “black right,” delivering a stinging rebuke to the liberal critics of modern black conservatism. Although amusing, Sowell’s penchant for sarcasm in this instance masks an interesting point. When one considers the extent to which American conservatism has historically been conditioned by racist notions of black inferiority, the existence of powerful conservative black spokespeople is indeed quite astonishing. Putting to one side Sowell’s playful allusions to transvestites, vegetarians, and bird watchers, the obvious question becomes: “What does it mean to be both black and conservative in America?” the inevitable corollary to that question is another: “What do black conservatives actually want to conserve?”

These questions were most famously posed by the Russian anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin on his visit to the United States nearly a century ago. While Kropotkin accepted that there was such a thing as an American black conservative—Booker T. Washington was widely acknowledged as the preeminent black leader of the day—he mocked the idea that their commitment to conservatism could in any way be genuine. a conservative, Kropotkin explained at the time, is someone who is satisfied with existing conditions and advocates their continuance. in the early twentieth century, no thoughtful African American could be satisfied with segregation and no thoughtful African American would advocate the continuation of second-class citizenship and the social, economic, and cultural humiliation that invariably accompanied it. By Kropotkin’s definition, then, a black conservative was a contradiction in terms, a freak of nature; those who claimed the mantra for themselves were opportunists, and complicit in the oppression of their own people.

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