What Is "Black Conservatism"?
with John McWhorter
TGS regulars are of course familiar with my friend John McWhorter. How could you not be? But newer viewers may not know how long John and I have been talking to each other in public. It’s been a long time—almost 14 years!
This week I decided to revisit our very first Bloggingheads conversation from November 2007. As you can see in the excerpt below, a lot has changed. First of all, back then I was more liberal than John on many matters, so much so that I subjected him to a little friendly interrogation regarding his position on the political spectrum. Just as I wasn’t quite a liberal, John wasn’t quite a conservative. Back then, neither of those labels fit us quite comfortably, and the same is true today.
How much have we changed? Who changed more? I’m curious to know what you think—let me know in the comments!
This video and transcript are taken from a longer conversation currently available only to newsletter subscribers. It will be made publicly available later this week. For early access to videos and podcasts, Q&As, and other exclusive content and benefits, click below to subscribe.
GLENN LOURY: I'm not interviewing you, but I really have to ask you the question. So are you a black conservative now?
JOHN MCWHORTER: Well, you know, I think that that term is one that I'm stuck with. But from what I've seen over the years, you're considered a black conservative if you have less-than-savory feelings about affirmative action, particularly racial preferences.
It's interesting, because Orlando Patterson at Harvard has a lot of the same views as mine, except that in his work he has the typical bien pensant feelings about affirmative action. So somehow he never makes the black conservative list, whereas I talk about discontinuing the war on drugs and prisoner re-entry efforts and I think that socioeconomic preferences are fine, all sorts of things. And yet I'm considered this conservative person, because I think that racial preferences are obsolete. I'm stuck with it.
Frankly, no. I think that I'm a good liberal à la 1960. But to tell you the truth, if I'm going to keep being tarred with this black conservative label, it means that I'm considered somewhat media-worthy. I'm called on to be the con on panels.
I see, you're going to make it work for you.
But not work for me. It means that I can get my thoroughly liberal and I think sensible views out there. And so not only can I not fight this label that I'm given, but in a way it allows me to have my liberal say.
As you know, having being a black conservative, or been called a black whatever at one time in my own career, I've always thought there was something kind of silly about that whole thing. Silly in the sense that what real conservatism is about is ordering basic institutions of the state in a particular way. Real conservatism is hostile to the New Deal. Real conservatism celebrates laissez faire, not merely as a policy prescription but as a kind of philosophy of government. Real conservatism is blood and guts nationalist, militarist, et cetera, et cetera, we could go on.
And what has that got to do with what Shelby Steele or John McWhorter or anybody else might say about, I don't know, affirmative action or the sources of the ghetto? In other words, if they say "black conservative" when you take a iconoclastic line on a race question, it belittles what the real political debate is about. Which is not about whether you support affirmative action, but it's about the size of the welfare state, the progressivity of the tax system, et cetera, et cetera.
Now of course, you could be a black thinker who does feel that the New Deal was a bad idea and that there shouldn't have been any Great Society programs and who has certain views about geopolitics.
That makes you a conservative.
Yeah. And there are black conservatives like that. I don't think it's unfair to say that Shelby Steele would not be uncomfortable being labeled in that way. And I'm a great admirer of Shelby Steele. But actually the number of black thinkers who have those sorts of positions is pretty small. I think that the labels really just don't fit.
Well, Thomas Sowell. I think Clarence Thomas you obviously have to put in that category, and he's a conservative who's also black.
That's right. A small number of people. But in terms of the whole list of the sorts of people who used to be asked to be on News & Notes, for example, or get invited to conferences, et cetera, the number of people who have those views is small. They tend to work outside of academia, to broach a topic that I imagine we'll be coming back to.
And in the meantime, I think that most of us are basically working towards the same sorts of things. And we have a certain basic faith in the role that government can play to some extent and consider the New Deal to have been a good thing and the Great Society to have at least been a good idea. I think that it was a good idea. A lot of it didn't work.
I think that the liberal/conservative aspect of things is based on a kind of cartoonization, a cowboys and Indians impulse that most of us have. And as far as I'm personally concerned, I just try to do my work, and we'll see how things come out in the future.
Well, you know, there's this idea out there that I'm not sure is entirely crazy, which is that of course everyone's autonomous and should think for themselves, and it's a free country, and people's ideas should be heard and debated on the merits. And because the person is black or white or whatever should not impact materially how you assess the validity of their arguments, et cetera.
But there's this notion out there about loyalty, about group fealty, about sticking together, whatever. Do you think that's also poppycock? I mean, do we have, as African American or black or Negro intellectuals, commentators, columnists, do we have any special responsibilities? Is there anything that you wouldn't say, even if you thought it was true, because you thought it might do harm to "your people"?
Hmm, that's interesting. I think that we do have a certain kind of loyalty, but I think that general conceptions of how that loyalty should express itself are rather narrow. Like for example, as a linguist, I know that Black English and its grammar is a legitimate grammar. It is not bad grammar. That's something that's easier to understand if you're a linguist than if you happen not to be. Therefore, I am very careful about saying anything about black speech that is critical in my work, because I don't like the idea of reinforcing a notion, which people hold on all sides of the political spectrum, that there's something wrong with the way many black people talk.
And in general, I do think that there's a certain loyalty. But unfortunately what I work against—what I think you have felt yourself to be working against maybe more in the past than now—is an idea that exists that it's a conclusive obstacle to the black poor and the black working class achieving, and that therefore our job is to call for the elimination of racism rather than teaching people how to do their best despite the racism. And I think that's where the sticking point is. For a lot of people, if you're a black commentator or a writer, in a way you're supposed to be mentioning racism and kind of grabbing white people's collars every 15 seconds.
You're not doing your job if you're not holding the man's feet to the fire.
You're not doing your job. And that's where I think the rub is.
Well, yeah, I see what you're saying, and you're right. I certainly know what you're talking about. I mean, I've experienced this very same reaction. And the way I think about it is that it's a battle over the narrative. It's a battle over how we're going to tell the story. History doesn't speak for itself. It has to be somehow spun out. And there are different stories that one can tell. One story about the maladies of the bottom rungs of American society and about the so-called "black underclass" and so forth, one story about that is that racism did us wrong, got your mama, whose fault is it but the white man's. There's that story.
So people are invested in that story. And if you come around being literally an iconoclast, I meant smashing up this icon, you're going to get a negative reaction. But I don't think that's the only thing that's at stake. I mean, cause there are other stories that are the counterpoint to the "racism explains everything" story, like the Horatio Alger story. This is the land of opportunity. Why don't you get busy? The story that says, well, if the Asian immigrants can do it, why don't you people do it? I'm looking at inner cities. I look here, I look there. Or the story that says we had the civil rights movement, you had Martin Luther King, those bills got passed and we're out of that and let's move on to the next case. Those are narratives, too. The narrative that says we're locking up these thugs because they're a threat to our civilization, et cetera, et cetera.
So, so it's not as if there's only one narrative out there to which your responsibility is, if you're a free-thinking person, to speak against. It’s like there's a contest of narratives, and sometimes it's a question of where you stand.
And the hardest thing is that those two narratives are ones that both sit very well into the limits of human cognition. I think there are two dangerous narratives. One is racism, racism, racism, and until we have a perfect world, nothing can happen. That narrative, I think, is very dangerous for black people and for any people.
The other dangerous narrative, which worries me every bit as much, is black people need to just buck up and take care of themselves the way Korean immigrants do. And until they do that, then basically they're just going to have to stew in their own juice. That won't do either. Unfortunately, it's something in between, and it's hard to get the in-between across to people who are not interested in actually doing thinking about the issue. And that is, I think, both yours and my greatest challenge. The narratives are complex at this point.
Do you spend much time countering this other narrative that you think is equally problematic?
Yeah, I do.
Because I missed that, John.
No, I don't know if you would say that if you had some reason—and then of course nobody ever will—but if you had some reason to read every column I've written for the Sun since last July. And one of the biggest challenges for me is, whenever I am doing conservative radio—and I do do it, and I do it a lot—my job is to, one, be a guest, but two, to quietly but decisively counter the host's tendency to adopt that buck-up narrative. I try to teach the host, because I think that's part of our job. And any forum where they're trying to fit me into the notion that black people need to just shape up, I resist it. I will not say anything like that in public, because I think it's frankly stupid and unfeeling. So yeah, that is something which is very much there. And I think it's there even in my books. Maybe I don't hit the note hard enough.
I'm going to look at the Sun columns—I well could have missed them—and I'm glad to hear it, frankly. But let me ask you this, because you say conservative radio, and I spent many years, I'm sure not doing as much as you, but you I spent many years being the kind of guy that they call up to come on Bill O'Reilly or to come on this or that. You know, Al Sharpton would've done something idiotic or something somewhere.
The thing is, sometimes I didn't feel all that good coming out of there, even though I certainly did believe what I said. I didn't say anything I didn't believe, but I felt like I was being used, is one way of putting it. Like I was playing a certain kind of role, you know what I mean? Like they were looking at me in a functional capacity. Let's get this guy in here, he happens to be black. There's a kind of racist aspect of this whole thing. Get him in here to say stuff that we might not want to say ourselves. We don't want to be called racist by anybody.
I'm not a trained monkey. I'm a guy who's thinking for myself. I can disagree with conservatives just as much as I can disagree with black people, so don't pigeonhole me in that way, I would feel sometimes.
The only difference between you and me is that, because I came along a little later and had read a lot about you and the others and what you went through, I knew from the beginning to be wary of that. And actually the story of my trajectory is in 2000 I wrote Losing the Race, and I was immediately swept up by that very circuit who expected me to say those very things, the new darling black conservative.
Over the next two or three years, the story really was that places like the National Review and O'Reilly learned that I'm not that dependable. Because when they have called me up and asked me to take that particular kind of black-bashing view, any view that implies that black people need to just shape up, I just won't do it. I'm just not that dependable. Now I'm happy to say that those people know it. And I turn down as many appearances with them as I take, because I don't want to play that role. That's not to say that sometimes Bill O'Reilly is not correct on a particular thing. And when he is, I will go on that show.
A stopped clock is correct twice a day, John.
No, no. There are times when he has got the right message. I won't let them make me say something I don't believe, but the message gets out there. You have to use the media. And as you know, you don't get paid to be on TV. But everybody doesn't read books. As a matter of fact, most people don't read 300 page nonfiction books, so you have to use other venues. But I know what you mean, and I try very hard not to be used in that way. I'm pretty sure I'm not.
Okay. That's good to hear. And I can vicariously enjoy this idea that, ah, you thought I was conservative, but I said something you didn't expect. Oh what, you don't want to call back? Okay. That's quite okay.
You have to disappoint people sometimes.