The recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, ought to cause us to pause and reflect on the issue of race in America. It seems like after every incident similar to what is happening in that St. Louis suburb, we hear calls from our friends on the Left for a “national conversation on race”. It is a conversation we have needed to have for decades, and it is unfortunate that there has been little serious study of race from a conservative point of view, outside of perhaps Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, and Shelby Steele. To a large degree, discussing how conservatives see race has largely been confined to those on the Left who are, essentially, on the outside looking in, and who might be trying to fit their observations to their own agendas. I am writing this essay in an attempt to spell out how the conservative sees race. It is my attempt to give us something to look back upon when that fabled national conversation finally happens.
I do not pretend to suggest that my views are held by all conservatives. What I am trying to do here is merely present a view of race that is truest to conservative principles. I would prefer to talk about major socio-political problems that one must deal with when discussing the issue of race, including affirmative action, the welfare state, and the justice system, but this essay is already long enough. I will deal with those in a future piece, along with other topics. I must also note that the race problem, including the related problems with ethnicity, is not binary. It extends beyond merely black and white. Nevertheless, my focus here is to provide a conservative perspective on the issue of race in America as it concerns blacks and whites in America.
Conservatives’ Issues with Talking about Race
If the Conservative is more reluctant than his Liberal friends to talk about the issue of race, it is because he has seen how it has been misused by those who, frankly, ought to know better. There are four major reasons for this reluctance. First, he is leery of dividing humanity into immutable groups whose differences and experiences are inscrutable to outsiders. Second, he is apprehensive about the concept of subsuming an individual’s identity to a group to which he is told he must belong. Third, particularly in light of advances in genetic research, he has come to see race less as an issue of biology and more of a social construct used by a small elitist few to tar their opposition, to empower themselves and maintain that power, and in the case of whites in this group, to assuage their own guilt. Finally, he has seen how certain groups have used the issue of race as a way to push for the revolutionary overthrow of American government and society.
As the Conservative sees it, the obsession so many on the Left (and even among those ostensibly on the Right) with forcing people into these racial groups comes at the detriment of remembering our common humanity, our individuality, and our status as Americans. Furthermore, using categories of merely “black” and “white” neglects the great variety of experiences and identities in these groups. Using the phrase “the black community” might be useful shorthand to refer to the entire population of black people in America, but it is important to not read too much into it. As an example, the experiences of the blacks who are descendants of slaves brought to the United States are different from the blacks who have immigrated here from Africa or the Caribbean (even though the latter themselves are descendants of slaves). The experiences of Northern blacks are different from those of Southern blacks, and the same could be said for those who lived in rural and urban settings. There are a similar variety of experiences across economic classes and religious faiths. While they are all united by the fact that they are black, the question arises of just what that actually means, and if there a single, unified definition of blackness can even exist.
One could can see the exact same kinds of issues when talking about whiteness, and there are many aspects of our identities that are transracial. You might be black and I might be white, but we could both be Orthodox Christians, sports fans, Atlantans, or products of a middle class upbringing. A great danger of identifying people solely as black or white lies in the tendency to believe that these groups are monolithic. This is demonstrably not true. There are communities within these groups and spanning between them, and at the smallest level, we are all individuals with our own beliefs, dignity, and rights.
As regards race as a social concept, it is important to note that our definition of race falls apart at the genetic level. As R.C. Lewontin, the Alexander Agassiz Professor Emeritus of Zoology at Harvard University explains it:
Historically, the concept of race was imported into biology, and not only the biology of the human species, from social practice. The consciousness that human beings come in distinct varieties led, in the history of biology, to the construction of “race” as a subgrouping within species. For a long time the category “race” was a standard taxonomic level. But the use of “race” in a general biological context then reinforced its application to humans.
[A]s genetics developed and it became possible to characterize the genetic differences between individuals and populations it became apparent, that every population of every species in fact differs genetically to some degree from every other population. Thus, every population is a separate “geographic race” and it was realized that nothing was added by the racial category. The consequence of this realization was the abandonment of “race” as a biological category during the last quarter of the twentieth century, an abandonment that spread into anthropology and human biology. However, that abandonment was never complete in the case of the human species. There has been a constant pressure from social and political practice and the coincidence of racial, cultural and social class divisions reinforcing the social reality of race, to maintain “race” as a human classification. If it were admitted that the category of “race” is a purely social construct, however, it would have a weakened legitimacy. Thus, there have been repeated attempts to reassert the objective biological reality of human racial categories despite the evidence to the contrary.
As he astutely notes, the fact that race is not genetic has not stopped the social and political obsession with race. All too often the people, both black and white, who talk about the race problem in America are those who materially and socially benefit from maintaining the status quo, especially among self-appointed “leaders” of the so-called “black community” and white academics and those who have pretensions toward the latter. Should one dare to question this orthodoxy or disagree with its leaders’ prescriptions, he is immediately tarred a racist, the fear which is usually enough to silence the opposition.*
As for the fourth reason, the very term “conservative” implies the conservation of something or things. For the Conservative in America, he chiefly desires the preservation of Constitutional government, civil order and society, and the Judeo-Christian tradition that has informed our civic virtue. He is not adverse to change, of course, but the change must be precise in scope, beneficial, and it must address a prudent need. Russell Kirk, unsurprisingly, explains it best:
[T]he intelligent conservative endeavors to reconcile the claims of Permanence and the claims of Progression. He thinks that the liberal and the radical, blind to the just claims of Permanence, would endanger the heritage bequeathed to us, in an endeavor to hurry us into some dubious Terrestrial Paradise. The conservative, in short, favors reasoned and temperate progress; he is opposed to the cult of Progress, whose votaries believe that everything new necessarily is superior to everything old.
Change is essential to the body social, the conservative reasons, just as it is essential to the human body. A body that has ceased to renew itself has begun to die. But if that body is to be vigorous, the change must occur in a regular manner, harmonizing with the form and nature of that body; otherwise change produces a monstrous growth, a cancer, which devours its host. The conservative takes care that nothing in a society should ever be wholly old, and that nothing should ever be wholly new. This is the means of the conservation of a nation, quite as it is the means of conservation of a living organism. Just how much change a society requires, and what sort of change, depend upon the circumstances of an age and a nation.
Accordingly, the conservative rejects the call by those on the Left who insist that we institute a radical upheaval of America’s social and political order in order to address the issue of race and racism. The Conservative shares Zora Neale Hurston’s conviction on the subject, as seen in her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road:
It seems to me that if I say a whole system must be upset for me to win, I am saying that I cannot sit in the game, and that safer rules must be made to give me a chance. I repudiate that. If others are in there, deal me a hand and let me see what I can make of it, even though I know some in there are dealing from the bottom and cheating like hell in other ways.
Obviously, we should strive, wherever possible, to eliminate racial discrimination in the system. There is nothing unconservative about that suggestion, but that is not an endorsement of the idea that the entire system should be overthrown. A survey of American history shows that, time and again, it has been able to reform itself, including by passing the 13th, 14th, and 15 amendments and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to name only a few. A survey of world history, meanwhile, shows the terrible consequences of attempts to partake in a wholesale overthrow of existing orders.
Ideally, the Conservative wishes that race would cease to be an overriding factor in American politics and culture. This includes racial discrimination, both the negative and positive varieties. This, of course, is a state of affairs that may never be reached, but we still believe in striving for it. We do so not because we believe it is a goal that can necessarily be attained, but because in the process we will forge a more perfect union.
A Matter of Perspective
As Michael White, writing at the Pacific Standard, notes in the conclusion to his article “Why Your Race Isn’t Genetic”:
Without natural genetic boundaries to guide us, human racial categories remain a product of our choices. Those choices are not totally arbitrary, biologically meaningless, or without utility. But because they are choices, we have some leeway in how we define and apply racial categories. We shouldn’t deceive ourselves; how we define race does not just reflect biology, it reflects culture, history, and politics as well.
Whatever the genetic truth of race, it is a very real thing to many people. Race most certainly does exist in the public consciousness. Arguably, nowhere has this been displayed so prominently and forcefully as in the events surrounding the killing of Mike Brown in the town of Ferguson, Missouri. It has brought a whole host of issues to the surface, including black attitudes towards the police, the issue of racism in the justice system, among others. The questions we should be asking extend beyond inquiring if black attitudes towards the police are justified, if police attitudes towards blacks are justified, or if the justice system is biased against blacks in certain ways. We should not just concern ourselves with whether these are objectively true or false, we should also be asking, “Why do these perceptions exist, and how did they develop?” Whether we agree with them or not, these issues are true to many people, both among blacks and whites, and it is not just confined to the Left (nor should it be, in my opinion).
If we wish to get the “black perspective” on an issue, the first thing we must realize is that there is no “black perspective”. There are black perspectives, and if we want them, we must speak with black people and listen to their stories. I do not mean the elites and “thought leaders” either. I mean the ordinary black person, who does not have access to a television camera or hordes of journalists at will. This has, thus far, been one of the GOP and conservatism’s biggest problems in explaining their philosophy to minority voters. In an interview with Newsmax TV, Thomas Sowell gets it right:
“When [Reagan] set out to win the black vote, he went to the Urban League,” Sowell said. “He was going to these black establishments as his entrée into the black public, as if the establishment owned the rest of the black people.”
Now, Sowell says, in plans unveiled recently by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, “they’re talking about going to the NAACP, which is the next thing to a fully-owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party — and that’s how they’re going to try to reach blacks.
“All they’re doing is increasing the sense that those are the blacks who matter and that they are the entryway for the rest of the black people,” he says.
I cannot stress it enough that we must be willing to listen to what blacks have to say. This is where understanding begins, and even when we disagree with what they say, we must address these differences while respecting the intelligence of those who hold them.
Towards a Common Destiny
As a basic description of the racial problems in America, I agree with Albert Murray, a black literary critic and essayist, when he states in the introduction to his seminal 1970 book The Omni-Americans:
To race-oriented propagandists, whether black or white, the title of course makes no sense: they would have things be otherwise. But the United States is in actuality not a nation of black people and white people. It is a nation of multicolored people. There are white Americans so to speak and black Americans. But any fool can see that the white people are not really white, and that black people are not black. They are all interrelated in one way or another. Thus the title The Omni-Americans is among other things an attempt to restate the problem formulated by the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders by suggesting that the present domestic conflict and upheaval grows out of the fact that in spite of their common destiny and deeper interests, the people of the United States are being mislead [sic] by misinformation to insist on exaggerating their ethnic differences. the problem is not the existence of ethnic differences, as is so often assumed, but the intrusion of such differences into areas where they do not belong. (pg. 3)
Of course, the book is some 44 years old by now. Race relations in the country have developed in ways positive and negative. We have seen the policies of the Great Society and the War on Poverty as well as the War on Drugs bear their poisonous fruits in full since then. Still, at its most fundamental level, I believe Murray’s description still holds true.
As the conservative sees it, our racial and ethnic identities can be important parts of our identity, but they are only part of each individual’s conception of who he is. We are men and women. We belong to different religions, or perhaps belong to no religion at all. We live in different geographic communities and regions. We are rich, poor, or somewhere in between. We have different jobs. We have different hobbies and interests. I could go on and on, but when it comes down to it, we are all united by the fact that we are Americans and human beings. Conservatives reject the suggestion that we must be kept separate, if not physically then culturally, because we see the common threads that run between our lives beyond race and upon which understanding is built. We reject the notion that “black problems” must be confined to the so-called black community. Black problems are American problems, just as black successes are American successes. If many of us conservatives are poor at articulating these ideas, it is because we have not seriously confronted them before, but we are learning as we go along. In order to build this better understanding between us, it is incumbent upon our Liberal friends across America, both black and white, to make an honest effort in good faith to discuss the issue of race with us, setting the epithets and insults aside.
We are waiting.
*=For more reading about race and genetics, the Center for Responsible Genetics has an excellent list of articles discussing the subject. This transcript of a PBS interview with Hampshire College Professor of Biological Anthropology Alan Goodman is also worth a look.