I’m no Harvard-trained historian like Leah Wright Rigeur (https://www.hks.harvard.edu/faculty/leah-wright-rigueur). I’m a 40-something black man with a wife and 3-year-old twins who has written software (and led teams that write software) for over 20 years. That experience, my upbringing in Maryland as the son of two Jamaican parents, my travels to various parts of North American, the Caribbean, western Europe, Scandinavia, and my engagement with black conservatives both in my family and acquaintances online give me a different perspective on the topic of race. While there are certainly mistakes black liberals make when talking about race (if not some of the same mistakes black conservatives make when talking about race), they aren’t the focus of this piece.
I focus here on black conservatives because in the Trump era, I think authentic black conservatives are perhaps the only credible voices remaining for an ideology that has otherwise been thoroughly-discredited by the actions and policies of mainstream conservatives in the form of the Republican Party. I see merit in their pro-family, pro-faith, pro-entrepreneurial, and fiscally conservative positions. Like them, I also hope to see a political landscape where both major parties are compelled to seek black votes to retain or gain political power with real policy changes, and I believe a black conservatism divorced from mainstream conservative could be a vehicle for that if presented more effectively.
Ta-Nehisi Coates isn’t Voldemort
No one seems to live rent-free in the heads of as many black conservatives as Ta-Nehisi Coates. I’ve heard and read criticism of him from Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Coleman Hughes, Kmele Foster, and other black conservatives. Ali has accused him of spreading racial poison. McWhorter has on multiple occasions mocked Coates because of how much white liberals seem to like his work. To me, the criticism comes across as more than a little elitist. Nearly every critic I’ve named either attended, currently attends, or teaches at an Ivy League university. Coates by contrast dropped out of Howard University. By simultaneously not taking the ideas Coates puts forward seriously enough, and by making their criticism more about him and those of his fans who are white than about the flaws in his ideas, all of these critics do the cause of black conservatism a disservice. In a recent episode of the Fifth Column podcast that’s been making the rounds, the panelists (which included a number of the critics named earlier, plus Thomas Chatterton Williams) only reluctantly brought up Coates’ name, and after that skirted around it with various euphemisms as if he were a mythic figure instead of a flesh-and-blood person.
There are substantive grounds on which to challenge the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates. Having read his essays for a few years now (along with his book Between the World and Me), I think his atheism contributes to making his worldview far too negative. It also places him outside the traditional of the black Christian church–perhaps the key institution within the black community–which disconnects him from a critical element for understanding how and why the community acts the way it does. And I say that as someone who respects Coates’ work greatly. Dr. Chidike Okeem has made substantive criticisms of the work (not the man) from a conservative perspective. Dr. Sandy Darity has also done so.
Coates’ black conservative critics would do well to follow the examples of Okeem and Darity. Conceding that Coates is a talented writer doesn’t weaken truly constructive criticism in the least. Acknowledging that his experience as a child in inner city Baltimore is shared by too many black boys in this country doesn’t weaken constructive criticism either. These concessions and acknowledgements would give the criticism far more credibility than they currently have–or at least help to dispel the impression that the criticisms are due to jealousy or some factor other than fundamental disagreement with Coates’ ideas.
Maybe Actually Talk About Race, Instead of Just Dunking on Black People?
It is entirely possible (if not probable) that there are black conservatives having in-depth and nuanced conversations about blackness, whiteness, and “otherness” in America that I’ve completely missed. But most of what I see today within mainstream conservatism, black conservatism (both authentic and fake), and from notable figures on the left is dunking on black people. Glenn Loury at least brings data, and a genuine love for black people to his criticism, but ultimately he’s still dunking on black people. Barack Obama did this at various points throughout his presidency. Bill Cosby gained even more of a following than he already had for doing this (prior to his downfall for decades of predatory sexual behavior). Dr. Ben Carson gave speeches on this topic for years before he ran for president and became HUD secretary under Trump. It seems clear enough that dunking on black people (particularly in front of mostly-white audiences) served the interests of Obama, Cosby, and Carson pretty well (as it did for Bill Clinton during his presidency). But it definitely didn’t help black people.
To be clear, I’m not saying that discussions of out-of-wedlock births, work ethic, violence, or criminal behavior are somehow out-of-bounds for discussion. Exercising agency or personal responsibility (whether your reasons are morality or simple pragmatism) can be a key ally in escaping unfavorable circumstances. I’m saying that isn’t where the discussion should end–and too often black conservatives are in agreement with non-black counterparts.
Among black conservatives, there seems to be an impatience with the relative lack of economic progress of black people since the passage of the Civil Rights, Voting Rights, and Fair Housing Acts in 1964, 1965, and 1968. They can readily cite many statistics measuring the many ways in which black people are trailing their white, Asian, and Hispanic counterparts in the United States. Too often unexplored are the variety of ways in which the federal government retreated from full enforcement of civil rights, voting rights, and fair housing on behalf of black people in the same way it did after Reconstruction. Housing segregation, and the ways in which school funding formulas tend to result in segregated and under-resourced schools. It is one thing to point out the number of decades that have elapsed since the 1960s and the relatively small amount of progress for black people during that time. But that lack of progress looks a lot different when you realize that the federal government ceased any real enforcement of those laws after a decade (if even that long).