Building an Anti-Racist Conservatism

We are at the beginning of another cycle that makes America such a different and exceptional nation – a period in which we re-examine our commitment to equality for all to determine how far we’ve come in the last generation and how far we still have to go.

For reasons that baffle me, far too many American conservatives would rather fold their arms and refuse to take part. While this may be considered a natural instinct of conservatism (the motto of National Review was, “To stand athwart history, shouting ‘Stop!’ “), it is not and has not been the norm for American conservatism. Those who presume that anti-racism and conservatism are incompatible do so from historical ignorance and nothing more.

Not only is an anti-racist conservatism possible, it is also absolutely necessary to protect America, as well as to make it a more perfect union.

Most agree that American conservatism’s first North Star was the British statesman Edmund Burke, in no small part for his vigorous (and well-founded) criticism of the horrors of the French Revolution.

However, Burke himself would be considered a liberal in his time: opposing George III’s attempt to crush our own revolution, opposing the East India Company’s hideous administration of South Asia, and supporting a ban on slave-traders serving in Parliament. His chief ally in the House of Lords refused to become prime minister without a guarantee that King George would not block American independence. What Burke supported was more limited government and greater personal freedom where practicable. The idea that such beliefs are incompatible with anti-racism is foolish.

Of course, building an anti-racist conservatism is hardly something anyone can do in a single blog post. That said, certain underlying principles, methods, and actions can form the foundation.

We can – and must – begin by recognizing the current historical kulturkampf is a fool’s errand. The best answer to the battle between 1619 and 1776 was arguably made in 1983 – by a fictional artificial intelligence program in War Games. As Joshua itself put it, “A strange game, the only winning move is not to play.”

To presume slavery and racial inequality were somehow separate from the American experience is folly, for the simple reason that it can be so easily refuted. What conservatives should (and can) argue is that America was rare, if not unique, in how it recognized and attempted to address the problems – especially conservative Americans.

For many on the left, the American Revolution is an unfocused reflection of the Civil War – a slaveholding rebellion against a vaguely anti-slavery empire. For too many on the right, this is a perfectly safe metaphor – as they use it to defend odious Lost Cause fallacies about the Confederacy. The true historical record is something else again.

Contrary to Washington in the 1860s, London in the 1770s showed no desire to limit slaveholding anywhere in North America. Indeed, the first jurisdiction to ban slavery in North America was Revolutionary Massachusetts in 1780, the very year Lord North’s government was narrowly re-elected in a “campaign” dominated not by discussion of how to free North American slaves but rather by how to better repress British Catholics. Tory slaveowners forced to abandon the new United States were welcome to bring their human chattel into Canada. The contrast with President Lincoln’s explicit endorsement of ending slavery in 1864 should be obvious to anyone.

This is not to say America was perfect in its racial record. It wasn’t. Conservatives in particular – focused as we are on the world that is rather than the world we want to see (at least in theory) – should again be the first to recognize it. This is especially the case when one remembers that as slavery and racism expanded its power and reach in the 19th century, American conservatives were the ones most likely to oppose it.

Linda Kerber dedicates an entire chapter of Federalists in Dissent to the anti-Jeffersonians opposition to “the peculiar institution” – and how their descendants fueled the abolitionism of later generations. Sean Wilentz, in The Rise of American Democracy, goes into state-by-state detail of Democratic efforts to whitewash (literally) voting rights in early 19th century constitutions, and how both Federalists (valiantly but futilely) and Whigs (less consistently but more successfully) resisted them.

Recent history is no better for those looking to justify the assertion that “the left” was always superior on racial relations. For all the left’s hatred of “capitalism” (more on that later), the most racist policies in economic development came not from proponents of limited government but rather their big-government opponents.

Housing segregation was not a natural market reaction to inherent racial animus; it was the law of the land as imposed by FDR’s Federal Housing Authority from 1934 to 1968. Several vibrant black communities were felled by angry white mobs, but far more were victimized by the government transportation and housing agencies (never forget that Robert Moses was a bureaucrat). To this day, “urban renewal” is an epithet.

This history makes clear that there is nothing inherently racist about markets; therefore, markets can be an effective anti-racist tool, especially if racist government policies are rooted out and reversed before they can continue to damage people of color.

The role of housing policies in particular should give conservatives alarm. If our willingness to defend property rights means anything, it should be just as roused by local zoning regulations on housing as by federal regulations on insert-industry-here. We should also acknowledge – loudly – that the racism of the New Deal effectively denied full property rights to any American that isn’t white, and consider just compensation for said infringements.

What of the apparent trend among anti-racists to condemn “capitalism”? To that I answer, who cares? “Capitalist” is neither an economic nor an American term; it is a Marxist term whose best translation is not freer markets but corporatism. While conservative should prefer government act against “the interests of capital” as little as needed, that is not the same as government imposing itself to advance said interests. Conservatives understood this in the era before all-culture-wars-all-the-time. We need to remember it again.

Speaking of terminology, many conservatives are frustrated by an apparent change in tone from communities of color regarding the notion of “colorblind.” For decades, refusing to see color was considered a hallmark of racial enlightenment; now it’s part of the problem.

It would make more sense if conservatives remembered that skin color itself is only part of the story. Throughout the twentieth century, people who looked as pale as any Scandinavian were Black in the eyes of the law if they had merely an ancestor who was of African descent. The law was certainly “colorblind” back then, too.

More to the point, identity politics are not about skin color at all, but ethnicity – and America has been adept at equalizing among ethnicities (save the obvious and painful exceptions) for decades. Americans of Irish, Italian, German, and Slavic descents all have (or had) oral histories of the time in America when they were not white.

For African-Americans, that past is … well, still present. To determine they should be treated no differently than whites is not being “colorblind” but rather color-fixated. To recognize that, as an ethnic community, they have their own shared history and shared traumas means seeing them as actual, three-dimensional Americans.

No sane Irish-American would assume she looks at our history in the same way a Polish-American does, or an Italian-American, etc. Why do we assume African-Americans must see it “our way” – assuming we even know what “our way” is? To ask the question is to answer it.

Of the many things in African-Americans’ shared history and trauma, one to which conservatives must become far more sensitive, is police brutality. Far too many urban police forces have gone far afield of the Peel Principles. We should be just as ready to condemn executive branch tyranny wherever it is found – from Washington, DC, to Winsdor, Virginia, and from Brooklyn to Brooklyn Center (yes, incompetence counts).

Finally, conservatives need to recognize that white supremacy has itself become (again) an instrument of tyrannical statecraft against America. Vladimir Putin has been weaponizing white supremacy around the world for years (Washington Post), all while finding more than a few sympathizers in the United States.

For Putin and his regime, “the triumphs of monolithic white, Christian nationalism” are put forward as superior to multi-racial democracy – or democracy of any kind. For years, tyrants have exploited America’s failure to live up to our ideals of equality.

What’s new about Putinism is that the ideal of racial equality itself is considered to be the problem. Thus, the options before the world are democracy or racism. To support one, you must oppose the other. I fear far, far too many conservatives will be tempted into defending the latter over the former. This temptation must be resisted.

These will not be my last words on this subject. As I said earlier, an anti-racist conservatism will take more than one blog post to be built – but it must be built and it can be built. We can take the principles of limiting government, encouraging self-formed communities, and pluralist democracy to make this a more perfect union and a nation where the ideal of equality is closer to reality. As American and conservatives, we can do no less.

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