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Are Conservatives Racist?

I just finished reading a book for review, Michelle Ann Abate’s Raising Your Kids Right: Children’s Literature and American Political Conservatism (which I wrote about, in relation to the study of children’s literature, here). In Abate’s conclusion, she ponders the future of the conservative movement in relation to the grassroots enthusiasm generated by John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate during the 2008 presidential campaign. She focuses attention on the racists drawn to Palin’s campaign stops — and also on the racism of those who have shown a high degree of antipathy towards Obama since his election. This is too typical. Whereas it should come as no surprise that liberal pundits emphasize racism as the central animating factor in the modern American conservative movement — they are, after all, drawn to the sensational — that serious scholars spend so much time analyzing the racism of the conservative movement is unfortunate. Race is only one of many factors that bind the modern American conservative movement together, and not the most important such factor.

In a short post on the venerable historian of conservatism George Nash from a few months back, I casually wrote in the comments section that just because Nash barely addresses race in his important 1976 book, The Conservative Intellectual Movement Since 1945, does not mean we should discount the importance of Nash’s insights. I went on to say that historiography on conservatism is too focused on race while ignoring or diminishing other elements. The response I got from my readers — historians, mostly liberal — was abrupt. Was I serious?

Obviously, race as a central organizing principle is necessary to understanding American history, broadly conceived. It would be silly to argue that race is historically unimportant in a nation founded on the dispossession and extermination of indigenous non-whites, and made rich by the enslavement of African blacks. That the Civil War was fought over the enslavement of blacks should make this point obvious to anyone not beholden to mythical secessionist nonsense about state’s rights. It is also an important factor in understanding twentieth-century conservatism insofar as those whites who massively resisted the civil rights movement mostly found their way into the conservative camp. That Nixon won the presidency twice thanks to the so-called “southern strategy” is almost as nearly true as it is a truism.

But things change. Historians are willing to grant that things change — often, rapidly — in their analyses of most historical phenomena. For example, historians often make claims about the significance of recent technological developments such as the internet that rival the grandiosity of the most delusional technophiles. But when it comes to the role of racism in American conservatism, historical analyses tend towards continuity, as if American conservatism is an unchanging monolith.

The way most historians treat the history of Christian days schools is indicative. In 1978, the Carter administration sought to revoke the tax-exempt status of several Christian day schools. Most historians extrapolate the arguments made by the Carter-administration IRS about some Christian day schools, that the schools served as a backdoor way to avoid desegregation, to indict all such schools as racist. Few tend to grant any credence to conservative claims that Carter’s attack on their schools was symbolic of the larger war on Christian values (hyperbole aside). Though the day school movement undoubtedly originated as a response to Brown v. Board and its enforcement, by the late 1970s religion and morality were more important. By then, as Christian day schools proliferated more rapidly than ever before, including than during the heyday of massive resistance, the main reason given by parents who sent their children to such schools was that they did not wish for their children to be taught secular humanism. In fact, a critique of secular humanism, made by the likes of Francis Schaeffer, Rousas John Rushdoony, and Tim LaHaye, has formed the intellectual basis and legal strategy of the Christian Right’s struggles over public education since the 1970s. Now, as David Sehat shows in his excellent book The Myth of American Religious Freedom, it has always been difficult to disentangle race from religion and morality. But serious thinkers should do better than to just say it all boils down to residual racism. (For a good treatment of the Christian Day struggle, which pays proper attention to issues other than race, consult William Reese, History, Education, and the Schools, Chapter 6: “Soldiers for Christ in the Army of God: The Christian School Movement.”)

Again, in making the case that race is less important to the modern American conservative movement than most liberals and historians believe, I am not seeking to discount the significance of race in general. In fact, as race became less important to religious conservatives in the Christian day school movement, it became more of a factor in northern desegregation struggles in the 1970s, such as the Boston busing crisis. Similarly, as Leo Ribuffo argues (in his highly informative and amusing “Twenty Suggestions for Studying the Right Now that Studying the Right Is Trendy”), historians need to better understand what motivated those millions of northerners who voted for George Wallace for president in 1968 and 1972.

As another example, we need to better figure out how racism persisted at nominally liberal elite institutions like Harvard. Critical Race Theory emerged as one of the stiffest challenges to conventional late-twentieth-century legal thought. Its theorists, lead among them its founding thinker, Derrick Bell, drew upon older anthropological notions about the social construction of race to explain how the American legal system was complicit in the persistence — or more ominously, the permanence — of American racism. Bell’s experiences at Harvard University influenced his pessimistic rendering of American law and society, especially when, in 1990, Harvard fired Bell for threatening to remain on unpaid leave until the law school hired a woman of color. Bell took stock of how racism manifested in a supposedly colorblind institutional setting that operated much like the legal system. Just as Bell critiqued the hidden biases of the so-called Harvard meritocracy, he also leveled a sustained scholarly analysis of, in Cornel West’s words, “the historical centrality and complicity of law in upholding white supremacy.”

So perhaps the lesson is that racism needs to be taken more seriously when seeking to understand liberalism and less seriously when seeking to understand conservatism. Perhaps, since most historians are liberals who benefited from the Harvard-like meritocracy, this helps explain the inordinate attention to how racism shapes modern conservatism. From my vantage point, the more curious thing to explain about conservatism is that its rhetoric is increasingly rooted in colorblindness. In Age of Fracture (a must-read), Daniel Rodgers writes about how striking was “the rapidity with which conservative intellectuals and policy makers who had once defended the historical and social necessity of racial distinctions moved to embrace as their own the language of equal individual chances that had once seemed so threatening” (127). White conservative writers absorbed MLK (only the “I Have a Dream” MLK, of course) as part of their pantheon. (William Bennett wrote his dissertation on Madison, Lincoln, and MLK!) Some of this might be new code. For instance, conservative arguments that the defenders of affirmative action were the ones still living in the world of Plessy v. Ferguson, where separate sets of standards applied, ring hollow, given the special zeal with which the Reagan administration Justice Department (including Clarence Thomas) quit prosecuting civil rights offenses. But, I would argue that the new non-racist rhetoric had wider appeal than the old racist rhetoric, often precisely because it was conservative but not racist.