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Why America Needs Anti-Racist Conservatives

I first addressed this subject in April of 2021 with the post Building an Anti-Racist Conservatism [1]. Events since then have made its necessity all the more clearer. If anything, the conservative movement has moved backwards on race. They have retreated to old shibboleths about the Confederacy, the Founders, and nearly everything else. This damages both the movement and the nation. America need anti-racist conservatives.

Racism is Populism

For most on the right, even the concept of an anti-racist conservative might seem strange. We have allowed the term anti-racism to be wholly owned by the left – and for no good reason. The conservative, by definition, must be an anti-populist. Yet for years, if not decades, conservatives have taken aim at anti-racism despite – and in many cases, because – of its anti-populism.

Indeed, racism itself is populism: an ideology that raises and enables a collective group over the individual. Lest you doubt me, consider this. When was the last time you read about a “lynch protest”? A “lynch demonstration”? A “lynch march”? The question answers itself. We use the term “lynch mob” to describe lynch mobs because they were, in fact, mobs.

Nearly every example of a major populist movement in America had racist origins or overtones. The “Know-Nothing” movement took aim at Irish immigrants. The 19th Century Klan warred against Blacks. The Populists of the 1890s chose to ally with the racist Democrats and dabbled in anti-Semitism. The 20th Century Klan tarred Blacks, immigrants, and Catholics. The racism in the George Wallace boomlet began with the man himself.

There is no reason conservatism need align itself with any of these historical dead-ends. Indeed, the pre-Civil Rights era conservative movement opposed these mobs. It even made the Federalist Party [1] the first major White anti-slavery movement in American history.

Yielding the Field to the Left

By forgetting its own history, conservatives have basically withdrawn from the discussion about racial equality. We have yielded the field entirely to the left. History shows us that does not end well.

First, we have to realize what the left is actually saying and what makes it problematic. To argue that white supremacy has been part of the American reality for so long that – in many respects – it simply continues on automatic pilot should not be controversial. The left, being the left, assumes this to be societal problem that can only be fixed with an active government. Sadly, far too many who claim to be on the right simply and ignorantly accept these as the the terms of the debate. They just go into denial – and withdrawal.

However, American history reveals something very different: the institutions involved in institutional racism are nearly always governments. Therefore, an anti-racist conservative can reasonably and rightly ask that we prioritize reversing government’s continuing role in racial inequality. A government that intervenes on behalf of white people and against everyone else – whether by historical design turned modern accident or actual current bias – is the exact opposite of the conservative ideal of limited government.

It Used to Be Different

This may come to a surprise to Millennial and Gen-Z readers, but there was a time when conservatives actually did this. Milton Freeman [2] argued that the minimum wage exacerbated racial inequality in income and in employment. The first Republican proponents of school choice – Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin and Tom Kane of New Jersey – linked up with Black Democrats [3] who saw public schools in their state as part of the problem. When the left called for racial quotas in government contracts, the 1990s right asked if the Davis-Bacon Act [4] made it harder for Black-owned firms to win contracts in the first place.

Then there was the racist coup de grace: FDR – yes, that FDR – making redlining the law of the land [5].

Anti-racist conservatives would not cower in fear and denial whenever the issue of race in America arises (as it does infinitely often). They would make clear that they are just as interested in building a racially equal society as the left is. Only that, in the words of Reagan himself, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

Before the movement can do any of that effectively, it needs to re-examine both American history and its own. What has truly made America great was not a perfect founding, but the willingness to improve upon the imperfect founding. In that, conservatives once led the way. We can – and must – do so again.