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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Historians Rule the School

Why do educational historians have so much influence, relative to other kinds of educational scholars? This year’s Edu-Scholar influence rankings are in, and historians seem to be represented far beyond their numbers.

Like any ranking system, this one is imperfect. (It must be, since it didn’t include your humble editor.) Overall, the Edu-Scholar scale tries to couple academic influence with policy influence. As Rick Hess explains in the pages of EdWeek,

The rubric reflects both a scholar’s body of academic work—encompassing the breadth and influence of their scholarship—and their footprint on the public discourse last year. . . . I’m not sure that I’ve got the measures right or even how much these results can or should tell us. That said, I think the same can be said about U.S. News college rankings, NFL quarterback ratings, or international scorecards of human rights. For all their imperfections, I think such efforts convey real information—and help spark useful discussion.

Fair enough. Given those caveats, by this scale, at least, historians seem to punch far above their weight. Why?

Just in the top ten, for example, are historians Diane Ravitch (#1) and Larry Cuban (#8). At number four we find Gary Orfield, a sociologist whose work on desegregation is heavily historical.

We don’t have to go very far down the list (#26) to find Jon Zimmerman, ILYBYGTH’s house favorite. Penn’s Marybeth Gasman shows up at 18. Also included are David Labaree, Charles Payne (another sociologist who writes a lot about civil-rights history), and Sherman Dorn. Sam Wineburg is also on the list, and though he’s not officially an historian he writes about history and historical thinking.

That might not seem like a lot of historians, out of a total of 200 scholars. But when it comes to public policy, the surprise is that there are any academic historians at all. And doubly surprising to find more than one in the top ten! In general, academic historians get nervous when it comes to making pronouncements about current-day policy.

Many of the scholars here are full-time policy wonks. It would seem their work would do more to influence thinking about education than would the work of so many historians.

So why do all these wonderful historians exert so much influence on public discourse?