There’s A Policeman In My Head And He Must Be Shelby Steele (On Black Conservatives)

The most intellectually dishonest move any talking head can make in this part of the 21st century is to assume that bigotry and racism are synonymous. If such a move can be thought masterful, then conservative columnist Shelby Steele has no peer as its master:

“The oppression of black people is over with. This is politically incorrect news, but it is true nonetheless. We blacks are, today, a free people. It is as if freedom sneaked up and caught us by surprise. Of course this does not mean there is no racism left in American life. Racism is endemic to the human condition, just as stupidity is. We will always have to be on guard against it. But now it is recognized as a scourge, as the crowning immorality of our age and our history. Protest always tries to make a point. But what happens when that point already has been made—when, in this case, racism has become anathema and freedom has expanded?”

“Black Protest Has Lost Its Power” | Shelby Steele | The Wall Street Journal

Broadly put, liberals prefer faster while conservatives prefer slower rates of social and political change. While the liberal temperament is sensitive to broad social forces and structures that shape what individuals believe and do, conservatives by temperament view political, cultural, and moral spheres of life in terms of individuals and individual choices.

When aggregated, individuals and their choices form markets, which conservatives see as the most efficient way to organize human activity. This view was most succinctly conveyed when Margaret Thatcher’s said, “There is no such thing as society.” It’s a principle that’s true at all times and is never to be seen as the product of history’s contingencies. Further, its truth is also expressed in human nature.

It’s within this frame that Shelby Steele’s intentions are rendered clear as crystal. With such claims as “racism has become anathema,” he’s simplifying complex phenomena for a specific purpose and audience.

27% of African American voters describe themselves as conservative. 7% identify as Republican. However, I distinguish individual black conservatives, as well as the deep history of black conservatism that goes back to Booker T. Washington, from a distinct media creation we can think of as the black conservative agenda, an ecosystem of African American politicians, scholars, commentators, business people, propagandists, and personalities who champion the Republican list of economic and social priorities as they’ve changed and developed since the Reagan era. A list of individuals pushing the black conservative agenda ranges from the scholarly (Thomas Sowell) to the scandalous (YouTubers Diamond and Silk.)

Given the political history of black people in America (particularly after three decidedly anti-black presidential campaigns from Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon), the black conservative agenda seems a curious development. The Republican Southern Strategy pushed most of the black vote to Democrats, but that doesn’t mean that black Democrats became as liberal as white Democrats. That American blacks are more conservative on social issues than white liberals has never translated into mass support for black Republican commentators or the party as a whole.

My grandfather was temperamentally conservative though he always voted for Democrats. Born in the 1920s and raised on a farm not far from where Lee surrendered to Grant, he had an 8th-grade education but read The Baltimore Sun and The News American every day and Time on the weekends. Whenever he said “History ain’t random” he meant that things happen for a reason, so there should be good reasons for changing them. But that doesn’t mean he supported Reagan-era tax cuts, believed in limited government, or was staunchly anti-communist. Still, people like him have something important to say to us about values, culture, education, the ways in which post-civil rights era politics de-emphasized the importance of stable two-parent black families, and how today’s accelerated pace of change itself makes us change our values just to keep up.

But the black conservative agenda as a mass media entity is something different. Most black conservatives I’ve known or paid attention to know there’s a difference between racism and bigotry. So we should wonder why those with mass media platforms such as Walter Williams, Larry Elder, or Shelby Steele should have a blind spot that prevents them from distinguishing individual bigotry from racism that works systemically and institutionally in ways that are engineered to be invisible. Instead, they only see racism as a defect in the human heart, not as a historic, economic and cultural system that’s never had anything to do with heart and everything to do with power.

The market for this message coalesced in the early 80s and grew through the rise of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. The black conservative agenda is a product. Black conservatives sell it by seeing the world through the eyes of their predominantly white consumers and patrons. In that world racism is a bug, not a feature of American modernity.

Like Thomas Sowell, Steele is a Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. He also writes for The Wall Street Journal. Walter Williams’ opinion pieces are published regularly on Townhall and WND. He has also subbed for Rush Limbaugh on his radio show. Larry Elder has his own show on AM radio. Juan Williams moved from NPR to Fox News in 2011.

On almost exclusively white conservative platforms, black conservatives can make claims about vast improvements in race relations that are quite true, but only in a “the part of the iceberg you see” kind of way. But that’s all the truth needed. The goal is to use their blackness to sell the idea that white people don’t owe black people a thing. (In Steele’s world whites who believe they do suffer from white guilt.)

Thus the black conservative media agenda gives its audience no work to do and no challenging thoughts to think. Once you’ve searched your heart for ill thoughts and intentions towards someone of color and found yourself innocent, your job is done. You don’t have to think at all about how you’re three times more likely to get a home loan than a black person with a similar credit score and the same down payment.

And once absolved, it’s easier for you to see racism as a fiction, a trick played by socialist liberals to discriminate against you while simultaneously giving non-whites benefits that should be yours. Though white women benefit most from affirmative action now, and there are good reasons to believe the American middle-class benefits more from “white socialism” than from white guilt, the black conservative media agenda makes it easy for you to portray you and yours as the real victimsbecause victims vote.


IMAGE SOURCE: Black Republicans (by B.J. Hawk)

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