Do White Conservatives Hate Black People?

What is the connection between conservatism and school segregation?  A new “retro report” in the New York Times about the desegregation project in Charlotte, North Carolina assumes that “conservatives” obviously opposed desegregation.  Is that connection really as obvious as it seems?

The desegregation documentary describes Charlotte’s experience.  In the 1970s, Charlotte and surrounding Mecklenburg County became the focus of a newly aggressive court-ordered busing program.  Schools and school districts, the Supreme Court ruled, must do more to ensure racial balance in public schools.

The initial reaction in Charlotte was furious, but the program eventually became the poster child for busing.  So much so that a federal judge ruled in 1999 that the district had fulfilled its deseg obligations.  At least partly as a result, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools are now resegregated by race and income level.

For historians of race and education, the story is not news.  But for those of us trying to understand the meanings of “conservatism” in American education, the way it is told is important.  The New York Times piece includes comments by journalist B. Drummond Ayres Jr. In that “Reporter’s Notebook,” Ayres offers an explanation for the winning campaign to resegregate America’s schools.  As Ayres explains,

White parental anger was the most obvious cause of this rollback. But an equally important factor was the election of two conservative Presidents, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. They did not oppose the nation’s move toward racial equality, but as conservatives they favored a slower, more measured approach to desegregation and underscored that approach by appointing staunch conservatives to the Supreme Court and lower Federal courts. Concurrently, Congress took a more measured approach to desegregation, too, as voters began sending more and more anti-busing conservatives to Capitol Hill. [Emphasis added.]

In this telling, “conservatives” have been the brake on the progress of racial desegregation.  Politicians who considered themselves conservative had a prescribed opinion toward school desegregation.

Is that a fair accusation?  Did conservatives as a rule really push for slower desegregation?  More interesting, how did conservatism come to be perceived as the side of white racial status-quo-ism?

In my current book, I explore two twentieth-century school controversies in which race and school deseg played leading parts.  The first took place in Pasadena, California, in 1950, the second in Kanawha County, West Virginia, in 1974.

In Pasadena, a “progressive” school superintendent added racial desegregation to his list of progressive reforms.  Conservatives kicked him out.  In Kanawha County, a new textbook series included provocative excerpts from black militants such as Eldridge Cleaver.  Conservatives boycotted to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the books.

Each time, the conservative side became the side of anti-black racism.  But in each case, conservatives insisted they were not racist.

In Pasadena, for example, one woman stood up at a heated school-board meeting and denied all charges of racism.  She opposed the desegregation plan but said she could not be racist, since one of her closest friends was African American.

In Kanawha County, too, book protesters often insisted they were not racist.  Teacher and activist Karl Priest, for example, has insisted for decades that the conservative protesters embodied the true anti-racist position.

But evidence contradicts these conservative anti-racist claims.  In Pasadena, conservatives rallied political support based on opposition to race mixing in public schools.  Conservatives accused the progressive superintendent of raising taxes and dumbing down white schools by including students of other races.  If that’s not racism, what is it?

And in Kanawha County, as documentarian Trey Kay has shown, conservatives really did see the book protest as a race war.  Steve Horan remembered in 2010 that a rumor spread among white conservatives in 1974: African Americans planned to invade.  The men readied their guns.   Women and children took shelter in church basements.  If that’s not racism, what is it?

There seems to be at least some justification for journalists’ assumptions that “conservatism” stands staunchly opposed to racial integration in schools.

But it is also important to recognize the complexity of conservative attitudes toward race and schooling.  It is not enough to simply say that “conservatives” block school desegregation because they dislike black people.

The case of Kanawha County helps make this more complicated point.  Many of the conservative leaders of the protest, such as Karl Priest and Avis Hill, belonged to conservative churches with a thoroughly biracial membership.  If that’s not anti-racism, what is it?

And conservative leader Alice Moore built her anti-textbook arguments on the work of African American activist Stephen Jenkins.  Jenkins had argued that textbooks that included only violent writings by African Americans actually represented the true anti-black racism.  Those who wanted to oppose the depiction of African Americans as violent anti-American criminals, Jenkins argued, needed to oppose the wrong-headed push for “multiculturalism.”  If that’s not anti-racism, what is it?

Across the country, “conservative” anti-busing protesters made similar claims to be the true anti-racists.  In Boston, for example, as Ron Formisano has shown, “conservative” anti-busers in the 1970s accused “liberal” federal judge Arthur Garrity of being the true racist.  Garrity had ordered busing to achieve racial balance in Boston’s schools, yet he lived in the affluent lily-white enclave of Wellesley, where his children would attend all-white schools.  Who was the racist in that scenario?

Did conservatives oppose busing and forcible school desegregation?  In most cases, yes.

Will we understand conservatism in schooling if we explain that position as simple racism?  In most cases, no.

White conservatives seem, in many cases, to have been motivated by anti-black racism.  But in almost all cases, that racism was only one component of a complex conservatism that also included issues of school funding, textbook content, religious rights, classroom practice, and a host of other issues.

Calling it “racism” and walking away doesn’t do enough.  Ayres deserves credit for noting that leading conservatives often supported anti-racist policies.  Conservatives often insisted that they opposed forcible busing and forcible integration.  They did so as part of a complicated conservative worldview, one that looked toward the status quo–including but not by any means limited to the racial status quo–for support.

So did white conservatives hate black people?  Did conservatives oppose school desegregation out of disdain for non-whites?

In some cases, probably.  But it is not very useful to assume that such racist attitudes are the end of our discussion.  Rather, understanding the complex attitudes toward race among conservatives–as among Americans as a whole–requires a more careful understanding of a complex conservative ideology.



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  1. It is best to think in terms of culture instead of race. In almost all cases where desegregation has been forced it’s been an example of forcing two disparate and often antithetical cultures to mix and to have that mix occur between more vulnerable members of each culture, their children. That rarely meets with approval by those with nothing to gain from it and only meets with approval from those expecting gain because of that gain.

    Race is nothing; culture is everything. The Blacks’ own hate and despite for those Blacks who “act too White” is evidence of that.

    There’s also the perfectly valid argument of the lowest common denominator. Anytime you move Blacks past a very young age into White schools you have to deal with the fact that they’re NOT the equals of the White students because, by and large, they have had the earlier education. As the Liberals wants equality of result as well a equality of access, this causes either a “dumbing down” effect or forces the schools to “carry” the Black students and pass them up the line where they will either fail or be carried further.

    Take as an example Black college enrollment vs. graduation rates. More Blacks per capita enroll in college than White but significantly fewer of them per capita graduate. This, in my opinion, is not from a lack of raw intelligence but from a lack of preparation and being carried up to that point.

  2. Hey Laat,

    Does it ever bother you that you only attract right wing readers and commenters? Why do you let racist crap like the comment above remain without any rebuttal? It really makes me doubt you are as objective as you say. You seem much more interested and convinced by conservative arguments and you but little effort in presenting the liberal side (which you often caricature with a nasty snarkiness). It’s your prerogative but why play this game at pretending to be objective? Just say you are a conservative and be done with it…

  3. Pray tell, what is racist about accepting that later stage remediation doesn’t address or correct for earlier inequalities and that demanding equality of result w/o first addressing fundamental inadequacies is detrimental to the groups as a whole…and that people know this?

    Pray tell also, what is racist about saying that race is unimportant and that culture is or that White and Black cultures are incompatible in many ways?

  4. Folks I have never been raceist. NEVER! My church in St. Albans, had at least 40% Black and memeber of The Black Panter’s called on the Black members and theatened them if they failed to stop going to Freedom Gospel Mission For Human Development, They would burn their homes. The called and shared with me the threats and I said, I am sorry to hear that and ask if I could stop by and have prayer with them. They being scared said oh No Brother Hill, we are afraid we are being watched. We don’t wish to run the chance of loosing our homes this is all we have… And then those who like to try and brand me in particular as being raceist. How can you say that when in fact. I have been married to a beautiful South African Woman now for almost 7 years… Come on folks as an old country boy would say, “That Dong won’t Hunt!” I have marched with Black Mayors here in the Palm Beaches area and stood on behalf of homeless and sheltered, people of every race and nationality, Black, White, Red, Brown, Yellow… But it makes for good social propaganda for the Left Wing Radical Liberiials…..

  5. The liberals who promote abortion practice a more dangerous brand of racism than any white supremacist group. Liberalism has killed more blacks than the Klan could have ever wished for. According to the founder of 1, 786 black children are killed in the womb daily, 52% of black pregnancies are aborted, and black births were below the replacement level in 2006 and still declining.,

    Dr. Martin Luther King said, “The Negro cannot win if he chooses to sacrifice the future of his children for immediate comfort and safety.” I hope black folks heed Dr. King instead of the leaders that are swiftly leading the black race to oblivion.

    Also see Racial Reality at

  6. As for Kay’s documentary: Horan was speaking about a rumor that would have had the same result had the rumor said that armed lily white Russians (or, insert any categorey you want for “Russians”) were coming to attack a neighborhood.

  1. Can Conservatives Care about Black People? | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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