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Journal of a Black Conservative

by William L. Thomas, Jr.

Note: William Thomas and I have been having an on-again, off-again, sometimes heated debate about conservatism and it's meaning for black America. That debate continues, and although I couldn't be called a conservative according to current political labeling practice, I engage in it because I am intrigued by the fact that blacks have historically been very conservative from a social and religious viewpoint. On the other hand, blacks have been the strongest supporters of the Democratic Party, the keeper of liberal causes. I think it's clear that 90 percent or so of black voters tend to vote Democratic because conservatives, both Democratic and Republican, were the people standing in the schoolhouse door, fighting for segregation and against the full inclusion of blacks in this society. Don't take my word for it. Newt Gingrich himself hath said so, not to mention Jack Kemp as discussed in William's essay. Another reason for black support of Democratic candidates, also discussed to some extent by William, is that Republicans, with rare and successful exceptions, have simply not gone after the black vote. That will change.

I've been after William to write for Meanderings so we can begin to explore these issues in detail. This article is the first of what I hope will be a series. While I can debate him in private, I'd very much like this to be a public discussion. You can help by posting your comments and opinions on the posting page for this article or via the Meanderings email lists. --Ed.

I am an African-American.

I am also a conservative Republican.

The two are not mutually exclusive.

I was not born a conservative Republican but for many, many years considered myself a very liberal Democrat. I changed because I was honest with myself. I changed because I began to realize that the reasons I remained a liberal and a Democrat were myths. I changed because I began to realize that the reasons for me to become a conservative and a Republican were reality. In fact, the interesting thing about my now being a conservative Republican is that my ideas haven't changed so much as the labeling of them has.

How did I become a conservative Republican? It all began when I was very young.

I well remember when I was six or seven years old and I would listen to my father discuss the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, etc. My father was a very intelligent and very militant man. Although he never became a Black Muslim, my father would often read their publications and comment on their programs. He had followed almost religiously the efforts of the Black Panthers in Oakland, California as they initiated neighborhood "bread basket" programs, taking it upon themselves -- without the aid of government -- to feed the less fortunate in their own neighborhoods.

One of my father's proudest moments was when I said I preferred the legacy Malcolm X to King: an opinion I still hold. Yet my father's "militant and radical" ideas are now the basis for my own conservatism. I did not change so much as the goals and philosophies of the so-called civil rights movement changed. For it was Malcolm X who said:

"You can blame a person for knocking you down but you can't blame that person if you refuse to get back up. . . . However much slave history taught us about the injustice and misery we as a people had suffered, it did not excuse us from assuming responsibility for ourselves and each other by altering its course."

Conservative ideas from a conservative militant.

Yet it is this commonality between "Black militancy" and "White conservatism" that so few of either Whites or Blacks understand. Because Martin Luther King, Jr. thought the racial problems and prejudices of his day were problems of a nefarious society inflicting its evil and brainwashing otherwise good White people, King and others like him eventually began to blame society for the personal problems and failures of individual Black people. But Malcolm X, because he believed that individual White people were responsible for the problems of racism and discrimination, continued to hold individual Black people responsible for their personal failures and for their ultimate personal success. It is therefore no coincidence that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, conservative jurist, quotes Malcolm X from memory.

This commonality of interests and ideas should not surprise us, for it was Malcolm X (and not Martin Luther King) who most preached about self-help and community empowerment, the very heart of conservatism. Indeed, it is interesting that the predominately White liberal press and popular culture revere the memory of King but loathes and despises the thoughts and works of Malcolm.

Despite these beliefs, for many years I continued to portray myself as a liberal Democrat. I personally would have happily continued in this state forever, but destiny intervened.

About six years ago I met a Black conservative, a genuine Black conservative Republican. We met at a computer trade show and immediately struck up a friendship. Both of us being opinionated, we would often talk about politics. Being a liberal, I was amazed and flabbergasted when he told me that he voted for George Bush. One day he told me that he could not agree with his mother's politics, because she was a liberal Democrat. When I reminded him that I was also a liberal Democrat, he replied, "Yes, but we never disagree about anything." He wasn't exaggerating. When we actually talked about specific issues, we rarely disagreed. And on those very rare occasions when we did disagree, I -- the self-described liberal Democrat -- would usually take the more conservative position. For the first time I began to realize that there were conservative Republicans who thought as I thought.

The reason I, at that time, continued to believe in liberalism and that voting Democratic was in my best interest was because I thought I could find no alternative. Although I disbelieved most of the liberal agenda, often the only time I would hear from conservatives on issues like affirmative action was when there was an aggrieved White fire fighter complaining about reverse discrimination. At least the liberal Democrats would try to court my vote, even if they attempted to court my vote with nothing more than tired, old shibboleths. For the most part conservatives would simply ignore my concerns. When faced with the apparent choice between those who have the wrong solutions but express concern on the one hand and those who may be knowledgeable but seem completely indifferent on the other, the natural choice for most people will be to choose the incompetent but caring. As Jack Kemp would say, "We conservatives have dropped the ball on racial issues."

The next major impetus for my conversion happened as I was listening to a radio show featuring Stuart Butler, then Director for Domestic and Economic Policy Studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Dr. Butler was speaking about "a conservative campaign against poverty" and I wholeheartedly agreed with everything he said. I was so impressed that I not only called the radio program but I later called his offices at the Heritage Foundation to order his book. It was Dr. Butler's book, "Out of the Poverty Trap", that reminded me of what I already knew: that not only were many of his proposals originally proposed by the more "militant" elements of the civil rights movement in the 1960's but also these same "militants" were the first to warn that liberal policies, no matter how well intentioned, would have drastic consequences when enacted in the Black community. My, how the civil rights movement had changed. For the first time I began to see that there were conservative, White Republicans who not only shared my concerns but also shared my beliefs and solutions as well.

My, how I had changed -- even as my core values and what I believed in had not changed.

I still would probably have continued identifying myself as a liberal Democrat if it weren't for another program on the same radio station a few weeks later. This time the guests were Black Republicans talking about their experiences. But it wasn't anything the guests said that convinced me to identify myself as a Republican; it was what one of the callers to the program said. I will never forget the gentleman's comments. He was identified as a young White man and literally the first thing out of his mouth once he was on the air was, "How dare you do this to us, after all we've done for you." At that very moment, I began to identify myself as a Republican. I reasoned: why should I identify myself with a political philosophy that I not only disbelieved but also one whose most strident adherents did not even respect my rights to disagree with them, even as they claimed to be my greatest champions! And indeed, the caller was not the first White liberal I had heard express annoyance, anger, and condescension when I, as a Black man, disagreed with them. It was simply that the caller's comments were the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.

The only major difference between myself and many other African-Americans today, especially among the more militant among us, is that I refuse to blame White people or institutional racism for my failures personally and the problems of Black people generally. Remember the Malcolm X quote above. Yet this one simple difference leads to vastly different, even oppositional, positions, philosophies, and life strategies.

Why Blacks Don't Vote Republican

My own conversion to publicly labeling myself as a conservative leads me to make certain conclusions and offer some advice as to why more Blacks don't vote conservatively. Although a combination of stereotyping between Blacks and White conservatives and their respective political identities prohibits greater discourse and commonality between the two groups, it is probably the very rare actual interplay between Blacks and White liberals that keeps the vast majority of African-Americans firmly within the liberal and Democratic camps. Strangely enough, if grass roots Blacks (as opposed to the so-called leaders within the Black community) and White liberals actually spoke more with one another, they would see how little they actually have in common. Indeed, it is interesting that the radio program that was so instrumental in my conversion to conservative Republicanism was WBEZ radio in Chicago, a National Public Radio affiliate: a broadcasting system widely known for its very liberal, even Leftist, views. [Note: It is interesting that the radio programs which lead to William's conversion appeared on such a left-leaning broadcasting system. William still listens to NPR frequently, "if only to learn what the 'Other side' is up to," but I think it indicates NPR is more balanced in presenting liberal and conservative views than conservatives would like us all to believe. --Ed.]

There is a great difference between the liberalism expressed by liberal Whites and the thoughts and ideas of the majority of Blacks. For example, a recent poll conducted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which is itself a fairly liberal Black think tank in Washington, D.C., indicates that clear and substantial majorities of African-Americans support the death penalty, at least some restrictions on abortion, school choice, parochial school aid and vouchers programs, and prayer in public schools: Not exactly a liberal agenda!

It is this difference between liberal political and social positions and what most African-Americans evidently think and believe -- the dissonance between who we really are and what the popular media likes to think we are -- that I hope to explore in forthcoming articles in Meanderings.

As we rehearse the history of the civil rights movement, you may be surprised at what many liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans actually said and did. And you may be even more surprised at what they are actually saying and doing today. Honestly pursuing what we know is right and denying the urge to blame our problems on someone else must be OUR goal.

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Meanderings 2.03 -- March 1995