Are Conservatives Secretly Racist?

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.

Is this the "conservative" side? ...

Is this the “conservative” side? …

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.

...Or is THIS the "conservative" side?

…Or is THIS the “conservative” side?

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?

 

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Private Schools Are Only for Bad People

Send your kids to your local public school.  Even if the school sucks.  Even if it won’t teach your child anything but how to get drunk.  Even if you have better options.

That is the provocative manifesto offered recently by Slate editor Allison Benedikt.

If you follow the latest, you’ve probably seen it by now.  Since I can’t keep up, I didn’t hear about it until this morning, and then only from the heated reaction it sparked among conservative commentators such as Ross Douthat, Erick Erickson, and Rod Dreher.

Benedikt’s diatribe was meant to poke the conservative bear.  She opens with the bear-poking line, “You are a bad person if you send your children to private school.”

Her argument, in a nutshell, is this: only if all parents send their kids to their local public schools will those schools improve.  If you send your kid to a private school, you are hurting everyone for the sake of your own perceived benefit.  Ipso facto, you are a bad person.

She proudly proclaims that she went to crappy schools and turned out okay.  She didn’t learn anything about history, literature, science, or math, but she did get drunk behind the bleachers with kids from different social backgrounds.

In fact, she promises that your children will do fine in bad public schools, if you are the sort of person who cares enough to pull your kids out of public schools.

Predictably, conservatives couldn’t resist such low-hanging ideological fruit.

Rod Dreher proclaimed, “This is one of those things that only a left-wing ideologue can possibly believe.”

Ross Douthat tweeted, “Everything for the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

Erick Erickson twisted the knife, declaring that Benedikt only holds this outlandish position because her husband told her to.

But Benedikt’s position, minus the blogosphere-riling rhetoric, is nothing new or strange.  Indeed, for anyone who has studied the history of American education, even at a public school, Benedikt’s call for full enrollment in public education sounds traditional, even boring.

It was Horace Mann, after all, in the years before the Civil War, who midwived our system of public education.  In those years, our notions of “public” and “private” had not yet taken hold.  Parents or sponsors paid out of pocket for most formal education.  Those schools that required no tuition were commonly known as “charity” schools, fit only for the lowest class.

Mann realized that tax-funded education could only work if it received the endorsement, and the children, of the emerging affluent business classes.  This is why he made a powerful two-pronged appeal.  First, Mann argued that tax funds must be used to pay for tuition-free education, an education available to all.  Second, he argued that everyone should send their children to these schools.  These would not be “charity” schools, Mann argued.  They would not be “church” schools, or “dame” schools.  In today’s lingo, he would have insisted that these would not be “government” schools.  Rather, the name Mann promoted was the name Benedikt and other commentators would use for generations, even centuries: Public Schools.

Benedikt’s essay is intentionally provocative.  But its central idea is as old as American public education itself.  Our public schools can only function if they have the full-throated support of the public.  That support, as Mann argued and as Benedikt repeats, will come most easily if everyone sends their children.