No matter how much they may deny it, conservative intellectuals and activists these days are often accused of being secretly racist. Influential African American conservatives such as Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, and Ben Carson are accused of being suckers and “Uncle Toms.” As an article in the New York Times argues, perhaps the racial strife in Ferguson, Missouri will give conservatives a chance to prove their anti-racist claims.
As I argue in my upcoming book, racial thinking among white conservatives as a whole has changed dramatically over the course of the twentieth century. In the 1920s, school battles did not pit conservatives as the “racist” side against “anti-racist” progressives. Indeed, in fights about evolution in the 1920s, mainstream scientists such as Henry Fairfield Osborn often supported the white-supremacist notions of writers such as Madison Grant. White conservatives in the 1920s were mostly guilty of what we would call racism, but then again, so were white non-conservatives back then.
By the 1950s, mainstream conservatives had changed their thinking on racial issues dramatically. First of all, the tumult over school desegregation led some conservative intellectuals such as William F. Buckley Jr. to support “states’ rights” over racial desegregation. And in the massively resisting South, white resistance to desegregation often became coupled with a conservative anti-communism.
But outside the South, white conservatives often tried to insist that their opposition to school desegregation was not due to racism. In Pasadena, for example, a progressive superintendent’s plan to desegregate the district met with ferocious opposition from conservatives. But those conservatives insisted that they were not racist. They insisted that their opposition to desegregation did not mean that they thought non-whites were inferior.
Similarly, in the school controversy that engulfed Kanawha County, West Virginia in 1974, white conservative activists insisted that they were not racist. They opposed new textbooks that included passages from racial firebrands such as Eldridge Cleaver and George Jackson. But, as conservative leader Elmer Fike put it,
The protesters do not object to authors because they are black, but they do believe convicted criminals and revolutionaries like Eldridge Cleaver should not be recognized.
Since then, mainstream white conservatives have worked hard to prove that their conservatism does not make them racist. Does this new racial firestorm in Missouri give them a new chance to prove their sincerity?
In a recent article in the New York Times, journalist Jeremy W. Peters suggests it might. Peters cites the nervousness of conservative leaders such as Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Erick Erickson. All three conservatives, Peters notes, have spoken out against the massively militarized police response to the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. Peters says that this sort of conservatism marks a shift. Since the late 1960s, conservatives have traditionally been the side of law and order. These days, Peters wonders, conservatism might find itself embracing instead a renewed emphasis on limiting the power of government. What conservative, Senator Paul might ask, wants to see a militarized police force bearing down on protesting citizens?
But the Missouri conflagration suggests another important question as well. If conservatives really are the anti-racists many of them claim to be, this Ferguson situation might offer white conservatives a chance to side with African American conservatives as a united anti-racist conservative voice. Legitimate protests against overweening government power could certainly rally conservative support, white and black.
And if conservative activists want to prove that they are not secretly racist, what better way to do so than to side with the protesting citizens of Ferguson, Missouri?