Can Conservatives Care about Black People?

Would you take twenty-five million dollars from a conservative donor?

That’s the question posed recently to the United Negro College Fund.  The love-em-or-hate-em Koch brothers gave a $25 million donation, and some voices in the academic community want the UNCF to give the money back.  We have a different question to ask.

The prominent historian Marybeth Gasman argued that the UNCF should give the money back.  [Full disclosure: Professor Gasman and I will both be contributing chapters to an upcoming volume about agnotology and education.]  For anyone who knows the history of African-American higher education, Gasman wrote, this sort of conservative funding raises ominous red flags.

As Gasman has demonstrated, philanthropists have too often exerted control over historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and the UNCF.  James Anderson, too, has argued that philanthropists have pushed HBCUs away from liberal-arts education and towards manual training courses.

With that history in mind, Professor Gasman insisted that the Koch money is tainted.  “The Koch brothers,” she wrote,

have a considerable history of supporting efforts to disenfranchise black voters through their backing of the American Legislative Exchange Council. In addition, the Koch brothers have given huge amounts of money to Tea Party candidates who oppose many policies, initiatives, and laws that empower African Americans.

Balderdash, say leading conservative intellectuals.  In the pages of Forbes  Magazine, George Leef argued that the UNCF should be celebrating.  First of all, Leef insisted, the Koch brothers’ anti-big-government activism will help African Americans, not harm them.  And in addition, the money is just money.  Take it, spend it, help people, Leef concluded.

In an interview with Michael Lomax of the UNCF, American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick Hess suggested a similar happy ending.  Lomax told Hess that he hoped to take money from whomever he could.  Too much ideological thinking, Lomax said,

has really poisoned the thinking of some people all across the country. For them, there’s this kind of purity thing that, unless we agree on everything, there is no common ground.  Call me a pragmatist but, if I can agree on something meaningful with folks that I don’t agree with on other things, I’m going to try to work on what we agree on and, hopefully, build a meaningful and productive relationship.

Professor Gasman worried that the Koch brothers will use their gift to have a nefarious influence on the UNCF. Lomax insists it won’t. But in the world of conservative education policy, we’ve seen a different struggle.

As I argue in my upcoming book, conservative intellectuals and activists have argued since the end of World War II that their school policies did not make them racist. As we’ve seen in these pages, conservatives have worked long and hard to overcome the accusation that conservatism is inherently anti-black.

In 1950 Pasadena, for example, progressive superintendent Willard Goslin pushed a new zoning plan that would have desegregated Pasadena’s schools by race. Conservatives reacted furiously and eventually booted Goslin. But their opposition to desegregation, conservatives insisted, did not make them racist. To prove it, many conservatives cited the support of prominent African American leaders. As one conservative activist told a packed school-board meeting, her anti-deseg petition could not possibly be racist, since it was signed by “her Negro, Mexican and Oriental neighbors.”  Plus, this woman told the meeting, she could not be racist, because she had become friends with a “Negro physician” in her neighborhood.

Similarly, in the fight over textbooks in 1974 Kanawha County, West Virginia, conservatives insisted that their position did not make them racist. In that case, new textbooks included provocative passages from writers such as Eldridge Cleaver and George Jackson. White conservatives hated the books, but not because they were racists, they insisted. In their support, conservatives cited prominent African American voices such as George Schuyler.

In all these cases, conservative educational activists trumpeted the support of African American voices to prove that their conservative ideas did not make them racist. In a way, foes of the Koch brothers could argue that this UNCF gift will serve a similar purpose. If folks like Professor Gasman accuse the Koch brothers of racism, the Koch brothers can now call on Michael Lomax and the UNCF to burnish their anti-racist credentials.

Professor Gasman argued that the Koch gift will come with unacceptable strings. But we could also ask this question: Is the UNCF now vouching for the Koch brothers? Is the UNCF willing to back the Koch brothers when they insist that their conservative activism does not make them racist?


Leave a comment


  1. I have no opinion on whether UNCF should accept that donation.

    On your title question “Can conservatives care about black people” — well, of course they can. But I think it is the wrong question.

    The important question is this: Can conservatives care for people as people? Can they care for people independent of the color of their skin, independent of the color of their money? Can they care for people as other than an exploitable commodity?

    Now I’m sure that there are differences between individual conservatives (and individual liberals) with respect to those questions. But, overall, those questions do seem to me to be more the issue.

  2. Agellius

     /  June 22, 2014

    I think these questions are extremely arrogant and condescending.

    • Agellius, I can see what you mean. But I think in this case some arrogance is called for. And I say what follows with great respect for you personally and for conservative intellectuals in general: Conservatives must do a better job of wrestling with the defense of societal injustice that lurks at the heart of the conservative intellectual tradition. IMHO. When Russell Kirk, for example, extols Burke’s vision of an “ordered society,” he never adequately confronts the fact that in America that “order” put certain classes of people on the bottom. Not because of lesser talent or drive, but because of racial caste. Even the luminous William F. Buckley at first defended Southern racial segregationism, a morally bankrupt position that Buckley himself later regretted. In American conservatism, however, the tradition has been to elevate liberty and order while, at times, turning a willfully blind eye to structural social injustice. Of course, one could make a similar critique of the intellectual tradition that is now generally called “liberalism.” Despite their claims to the contrary, liberal intellectuals have not adequately addressed the moral blight at the center of their twentieth-century experience. When liberals, that is, do not have the moral standing to oppose intimidation, extortion, and bullying tactics if those tactics are performed in the name of an underrepresented group, liberals can’t rightfully claim any moral compass whatever. IMHO. When has “liberalism” failed and quailed in the face of such bullying? Take your pick, but as a liberal academic I think one of the most depressing examples came up at Cornell in 1968.

  3. It all comes down to the strings which may, or may not, be attached. What is the history of the schools where the Koch Bros have contributed money previously? Did the corporation attempt to change the culture of the curriculum? If I was the head of UNCF, I’d probably have a long conversation about the implications and the expectations surrounding the gift before I accepted. I’d also ask the Board for input. Vet the money. $25 million dollars could be a terrible burden, or a great thing, depending on a vast array of questions. I see nothing arrogant about the questions raised in this blog post.

  4. Agellius

     /  June 23, 2014

    Adam: The personal respect is mutual.

    I don’t know from Kirk or Burke. My point is that as a non-intellectual conservative, for me conservatism is an idea, a political viewpoint, based on certain premises. The premises are things like “you shouldn’t change things until you understand why they’re the way they are, and are certain the result will be better than the status quo”. Conservativism as an idea opposes the notion that change is good in its own right, and denies that “progress” has any meaning absent a standard by which to measure your progress. This is why (IMHO) conservatives tend to be Christian, because Christianity provides an objective measure by which to judge whether you’re making things better or worse.

    None of this has anything to do with individual conservatives. I’m not a Kirkian or a Burkean or a Buckleyan. If those guys had racist attitudes at one time or another, I’m sorry to hear it, but what’s it got to do with me? I grew up in a Democratic/liberal household. My parents divorced when I was 5 and my (white) mother remarried a black man — quite a progressive thing to do in 1970. They took us to anti-war and civil rights rallies when we were little. My mom had an Angela Davis For President bumper sticker on her car. I had a Jesse Jackson For President sticker on my own car in my late teens in the mid-1980s. In short, I was raised to be neither conservative nor racist.

    I embraced conservatism in my early 30s, mainly due to my opposition to abortion. No conservative figure that I ever listened to or read, at that time or since, ever told me that to be a conservative I needed to hate black people. In fact, the first Republican presidential candidate I ever voted for — Alan Keyes — was black.

    The only evidence I hear in support of the assertion that conservatives are currently racist, is that they tend not to believe racism is the main thing hindering black progress. Why do we not believe it? Because we don’t consider ourselves racist, and we’re pretty sure the liberals aren’t either. Who’s left? Certainly there’s a fair amount of racism around, but not to the extent of being prevalent or pervasive. What’s pervasive is universities and corporations bending over backwards to find qualified black applicants in order to prove their non-racist credentials, and firing anyone who says anything remotely racist, even in private.

    You may agree or disagree with this view, but the point is that it’s an interpretation of the facts as we see them: Either racism is prevalent or it’s not; either racism is the primary thing hindering black progres, or it’s not. Since it’s not the kind of thing that is subject to logical or mathematical proof, we consider it a matter of opinion.

    Where the arrogance and condescension come in, is the presumption that liberal opinions on race issues (or any other issue) are so far beyond question, that anyone who doubts them must be willfully evil. Not unlike arguing theology with a fundamentalist, who considers fundamentalist religious tenets so clear and so obviously true, that you can’t possibly disagree in good faith.

  5. Interesting post and comments. One point: the title of the post and follow-up discussion appears to ignore that many black people themselves are conservatives, and especially with respect to social issues and theology. Doesn’t necessarily change any of the analysis. But we should keep in mind that black Americans are not a monolith.

    • Agellius

       /  June 23, 2014

      Yes, and conservatives are far from being racially monolithic too. : )

    • This gets to the heart of the weirdness of the issue of race in American conservatism. By most measures, African Americans tend to be MORE conservative in their religion than other groups in the US. But that does not translate into political support for conservative politicians, in most cases. (So, for example, we see folks such as Herman Cain, Clarence Thomas, and Thomas Sowell talked about as “Black conservatives,” but we never hear Ronald Reagan, Samuel Alito, or Milton Friedman talked about as “White conservatives.”) The same could be said for Latinos. This is the fractured legacy of racism that today’s white conservatives struggle to overcome. In my upcoming book, I argue that we see a decided shift in white conservative attitudes after World War II. In the 1920s, as historian Jeffrey Moran has argued, white conservatives did not even think to appeal to black conservatives for support. Indeed, in the 1920s’ controversies over evolution, we see a ferocious racism among white progressives. In some cases, conservative thinkers in the 1920s coupled their anti-evolution views with anti-racist arguments. James M. Gray of the Moody Bible Institute, for instance, opposed the “science” of eugenics just as he opposed the mainstream science of evolution. Both for the same reason: the historicity of Adam & Eve.
      Yet I stand by the original argument of this post: White conservatives have had a hard time proving that their conservatism does not somehow imply an anti-black racism. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention made some comments recently about the new anti-racism of the SBC, coming on the heels of long support for slavery and segregation. What Dr. Land DOESN’T say is that progressive leaders in the SBC were early supporters of desegregation efforts such as Brown v. Board of Education. It was only in the 1980s that the SBC was taken over by more conservative elements. For the SBC, at least, “progressive” theology was historically tied to anti-racism, and “conservative” theology was associated with racial segregationism.


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