Conservatives Win a Prize They No Longer Want

A new report about racial segregation in Connecticut’s schools raises a painful historical reminder for conservatives: Conservatives, both white and African American, often promoted school segregation as a central tenet of conservative ideology. These days, mainstream conservatives want to shed their historic legacy of racism. Ironically, that means that no conservative is claiming “credit” for the current resurgence of racial segregation in schools.

The report from Gary Orfield’s Civil Rights Project praises Connecticut’s schools. Unlike most states, Connecticut has made real progress in racial integration of schools. In other states, though, public schools are becoming more starkly segregated.

Sixty years ago, this would have been cause for conservative celebration. Though they don’t like to be reminded, conservatives embraced racial segregation back then as a central plank in the conservative platform. At National Review, for example, William F. Buckley Jr. took a stand in favor of continued white supremacy in the South.

As Neil McMillen made clear in his history of the White Citizens’ Councils, too, leading segregationists consistently tied their racist policies to the broader 1950s conservative movement. In his famous “Black Monday” speech, for example, Mississippi Circuit Court Judge Thomas Pickens Brady denounced the US Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision in both racist and anti-communist terms. Not only would school desegregation lead to “amalgamation” of the races, Brady charged, it was also part of a “socialistic” scheme to degrade southern traditions.

Back then, conservatism = segregationism

Back then, conservatism = segregationism

As McMillen tells us, southern segregationists often joined and led other leading conservative organizations. Georgia’s R. Carter Pittman, for example, not only led his local white supremacist Citizens’ Council, but also joined the John Birch Society, the Liberty Lobby, and Billy James Hargis’s Christian Crusade.

Many white segregation leaders in the 1950s embraced religious conservatism as well. The Citizens’ Councils denounced “pinkos in the pulpit” who had declared “private enterprise, rugged individualism, and conservatism in politics . . . equally un-Christian.”

The historical record is clear, if awkward. Though most mainstream conservative thinkers these days don’t like it, in the tumultuous 1950s and early 1960s “conservatism” was tightly bound up with white supremacy.

Even weirder from today’s perspective, many African-American conservatives in the 1950s also embraced continued school segregation. Obviously, they did so in different ways and in different organizations than did white conservatives. No African Americans joined the White Citizens’ Councils, for example. And no African-American conservatives embraced school segregation in the name of white supremacy. Rather, African-American leaders supported segregation in a cautious and strategic way and they abandoned segregation as soon as better options appeared possible.

More complicated than we might think...

More complicated than we might think…

But as John Dittmer demonstrates in his careful history of the civil-rights saga in Mississippi, African-American leaders often preferred racially segregated schools, at least in the early 1950s. At that time, some leaders felt, segregated schools provided Mississippi’s African American population with a steady source of teaching jobs. Some African American leaders also believed that segregated schools offered a better option for African American students than hostile integrated ones.

These days, no one likes to be reminded of this history. African American conservatives largely got on board with anti-segregation campaigns. White conservatives, too, if a little later. But in the 1950s at least, conservatism meant racial segregationism.

And this leads us to our unusual current situation. If today’s public schools are reverting to racial segregation, as the Civil Rights Project documents, we might see this as a long-term victory for 1950s conservatism. Yet, since mainstream conservatives have since abjured their 1950s racist roots, there is no one around to celebrate this significant conservative “victory.”

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  1. Certainly after the Obama presidency I don’t believe for a minute that white middle and working class conservatives have “abjured their 1950s racist roots.” Simply looking at social media localized around specific colleges and communities during the Ferguson riots or the Trayvon Martin shooting — which have become templates for recurrent, often police-involved shootings — it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that we are seeing a regression into open racism and uncovering many of its persistent forms that are now even harder to get at because of the presumption that white racism ended with Bull Connor or Selma if not the Civil War.

    By and large white Americans have shifted their rhetoric of race to forms of “dogwhistle politics” or a kind of ventriloquism. Liberals and conservatives alike both talk about race without talking about race. They talk instead about potential “decline in standards and outcomes” when the topic for discussion is increasing student diversity, for example. On the right, the anti-leftist, anti-socialist rhetoric has endured far past the time when it had any remotely descriptive accuracy because “socialism” really means, in popular parlance, “lazy black/brown people and/or their white liberal enablers.” For many people this way of thinking and speaking is not racist in the slightest and does not concern race at all. They are completely sincere when they say it, much like the Milwaukee police chief who insists nobody is thinking about race in a north side neighborhood when they call the police.

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