Race and Conservatism
by John Derbyshire (Sept. 2006)
Race and conservatism? Yes, that was the title of the panel discussion Iâ€™d signed up for, at the Robert A. Taft Club in Arlington, Va. Iâ€™d signed up without much thought, being of an insecure and self-deprecating nature (ask anyone), and always flattered to be invited to events at clubs and institutions with impressive-sounding names. Once I did start to think about it, mild panic set in. Race and conservatism? What on earth can one say?
In order to say anything, it helps to start with a simplistic view of race, a view that regards Americans as belonging to two races only: black, and nonblack. This is an over-simplification, of courseâ€”a first approximationâ€”and I reserve the right to add more detail as I go along, should I find it helpful.
That established, I suppose the first thing one can say is that conservativesâ€”I mean, mainstream, respectable conservatives, the type who edit magazines, or run for office, or get hired to write speeches for Congresscritters and Cabinet officersâ€”are race-shy. That is, in fact, to put it very mildly indeed. While a certain amount of lampooning of the more egregious kinds of black race hustlersâ€”the Sharptons and Farrakhansâ€”is permissible in mainstream conservative circles, and the crazier manifestations of racial guilt, like affirmative action or bans on â€śracial profiling,â€ť can be gently criticized, race as an abstract topic is out of court. You could break wind in a mainstream-conservative gathering and be forgiven, Elizabeth the First style*, but if you were to try to get a conversation about race going, the well-known kitchen-light-switch-and-roaches metaphor would kick in, and your invitations to such gatherings would fall off dramatically thereafter.
The reasons for this race panic on the Respectable Right are, I think, pretty well understood. When, in the late 1950s, race became a national issue, and great numbers of white Americans became aware of the injustice of racial segregation, the activist movement for reform was led by Leftists. When not (as was rather often the case) members of far-Left fringe groups, these people belonged to the northern, urban, egalitarian wing of the Democratic Party. Thusâ€”with assistance from a sympathetic, and largely Leftist, media establishmentâ€”the equation â€śracial justice = Democratâ€ť became lodged in the public mind, and generated an obvious converse: â€śracial injustice = Republican.â€ť
This was all horribly unfair. As Pat Buchanan notes in his latest best-seller: â€śDemocrats had bedded down with segregationists for a century without censure.â€ť When Congress voted on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Republicans in both House and Senate said yea by about 80 percent to 20; among Democrats, the votes went more like 60-40.
Alas, there is no justice in politics. Republicans got stuck as the party of racial discrimination. Since racial discrimination soon came to be seen as the most unspeakable of all evils, and since, from the 1970s on, most conservatives were Republicans, it is not very surprising that conservatives donâ€™t want to talk about race.
I think we should, though. Our current silence keeps us out of present trouble, Iâ€™ll grant; but I believe it stores up future trouble. Let me try to explain.
* * * * *
I am 61 years old. Thatâ€™s old enough to have a clear memory of the Civil Rights movement. To be sure, I watched it from a distance, growing up in England. I followed it with keen interest, though, wishing it well. Racial segregation was an obvious injustice, and we had all heard lurid tales of life in the American South. Like most intelligent teenagers, I was sensitive to injustice, and wanted to see it corrected.
I can tell you a thing that has been considerably forgotten now, flushed away down the memory hole. Hereâ€™s the thing. At that time, everyone who supported the Civil Rights Movementâ€”everyone, absolutely everyoneâ€”assumed that the Movement would, if it succeeded, lead to a more harmonious society, a society in which the races mingled freely as equal citizens, a society in which race mattered to nobody but the manufacturers of cosmetics. They, we, all assumed that if the shackles of legal discrimination were removed, black Americans would swiftly distribute themselves across Americaâ€™s class, income, and status structure in the same proportions as their white fellow-citizens. Why should they not? Human beings form a single biological species. Given a level playing field, any group should perform as well as any other, in any kind of endeavor, shouldnâ€™t it?
What a terrible disillusioning there has been! Things did not happen in the least as we expected. True, there has been much improvement. Our nation now has a flourishing black middle class. There is now no obstacle to a capable black American, from any part of the country, rising to any level, in any sphere or profession. The casual mocking and insulting of black Americans by nonblack Americans has been shamed out of our social life.
Yet the numbers did not come out right, not at all. With black people at thirteen percent of our population, we should, if the dreams of the Civil Rights Movement had come true, find that thirteen percent of our engineers and airline pilots, thirteen percent of our storekeepers, contractors, and entrepreneurs, thirteen percent of our prisoners and unwed mothers, are black. This is not, of course, what we find; and the numerical discrepancies are not of the kind called â€śstatistically insignificant.â€ť Not at all. Not at all.
Worse yet, and even setting aside issues of class and status, black and nonblack Americans have drifted apart, and in many respects are further from common citizenship now than they were fifty years ago. We do not, for example, watch the same TV programs and movies. The producers of a middle-class domestic comedy movieâ€”one with someone like Meg Ryan or Tom Hanks in itâ€”can leave black people out of the movie altogether if they feel like it, confident in the knowledge that black Americans donâ€™t watch that kind of movie anyway. Similarly, sitcoms like Cheers and Friends could field all-white casts with a clear conscience, knowing that the black audience was off somewhere else, watching some different sitcom with an all-black cast.
We donâ€™t even name our kids the same way any more. Black Americans were always somewhat more adventurous than nonblacks in choosing names for their childrenâ€”H.L. Mencken has an interesting section on this in The American Language. It is none the less the case that black and nonblack Americans of 100 years ago for the most part chose their childrenâ€™s names from the same stock. This is no longer the case. More than forty percent of black girls born in the state of California in 2004 got a name that was not given to a single one of the 100,000 nonblack girls born that year.
(In this context, I note something a doctor in New York City once told me. Among Ob-Gyn practitioners in Americaâ€™s inner cities, he said, one chore that has to be performed at pretty regular intervals is dissuading illiterate teenage black mothers from naming their infants â€śLaTreen.â€ť)
Meanwhile, among nonblack Americans, a rigorous and intolerant ideology of â€śanti-racismâ€ť has grown up. The opinions a nonblack American has, or more precisely voices, about race are now a major in-group (I mean, among fellow nonblacks) status marker.
remainder here: http://www.newenglishreview.org/cust...91&sec_id=3891