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Douglass to Thomas

The roots of black conservatism.

The nomination of Clarence Thomas, a black conservative, will be seen by many as a Republican way of adding insult to injury on race policy. As a black opposed to busing and affirmative action, many civil rights leaders say, Thomas lends respectability to policies that ignore the brutal legacy of centuries of slavery and government-enforced apartheid. Through his anomalous personal success Thomas gives credence to self-centered, uncaring conservatives whose idea of a social policy is to wag their fingers at the disadvantaged for their poor characters. The Thomas nomination is bound to look, from the left, like the ultimate bit of cynicism: a hopeless, perhaps phony, effort to convince black people that Republicans really do have their interests at heart

He is certainly an anomaly. The largely negative role played by Republicans on race since the early 1960s has made black Republicans a beleaguered species. But it has not always been so. There is a tradition, long in eclipse, that helps make sense of Thomas and today's emergent black Republicanism. Indeed, Thomasrecalls the early days of the Republican Party and an important part of the American political culture. The key to what he stands for — and could stand for — is best located In his own frequent references to natural law, the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln, and the first great black Republican, Frederick Douglass. If conservatives want to contribute to the advancement of black Americans, it is to this tradition that they should find recourse. If there is a Republican high road on the matter of race — and it's still debatable — this tradition may point the way.

Thomas's frequent recurrence to the first principles of political morality recalls a Lincolnian constitutional perspective that Frederick Douglass also came largely to embrace. Lincoln's great aim was to preserve the Union while construing the Constitution as a moral project committed to human equality. Though not an abolitionist, he sought to confine slavery to the states where it already existed and thus to keep its monstrosity before the public eye.

Lincoln had to contend not only with slaveholders and other racists, but with Garrisonian abolitionists who called the Constitution a "compact with Hell," on account of the protections it extended to slaveholding. He also confronted a Supreme Court that had recently held, in its infamous Dred Scott decision, that the Founders never meant to include blacks among the persons protected by the Declaration or the Constitution. However, Lincoln insisted on the universality of the first principles contained in the Declaration. He adhered to the simple truth that when the Founders said that "all Men are created equal," they meant it. Blacks too owned themselves and had a natural right to the fruits of their own labor, and so blacks and whites shared a basic moral identity by nature.

By 1851 Douglass had, like Lincoln, come to accept the basic rightness of the Constitution. Later he was maddened by Lincoln's reluctance to turn the war into an assault on slavery itself. Nevertheless he contributed powerfully to the notion that blacks could be supportive of the American system, and hopeful about their place in it: The Constitution, as well as the Declaration of Independence, and the sentiments of the Founders of the Republic," he declared in a speech on the Dred Scott decision in 1857, "give us a platform broad enough, and strong enough, to support the most comprehensive plans for the freedom and elevation of all the people of this country, without regard to color, class, or clime."

In Clarence Thomas's emphasis on natural law and the principles of the Declaration, he too insists that America stands for a moral project that includes blacks as much as whites. He insists that the morality of individualism that underlies the Constitution applies to all, and provides opportunities for all. But he also asserts that full inclusion requires efforts that may be at odds with the ethos of affirmative action and the implicit teaching of many welfare state programs. This constitutes the heart of the controversy over Thomas and conservative blacks in general. How can conservative opposed to policies designed to help the disadvantaged claim to have the interests of blacks at heart? Here again black conservatives echo arguments advanced by the first Republicans.

Lincoln was painfully aware of the immense difficulties of achieving racial harmony in America — indeed, he long thought the difficulties insuperable. Though holding to the universality of the Declaration, he frequently professed doubts that blacks and whites could live together peacefully Racial prejudice was too deep, and the legacy of slavery and war would leave permanent bitterness.

Douglass, however glimpsed the possibility of a fuller black inclusion into American society if only blacks were allowed to prove their capacity to elevate themselves and contribute to the public good. The war itself provided a vehicle of inclusion: black enlistment in the military, "Give them a chance," he declared in a speech in February 1863, "stop calling them 'niggers,' and call them soldiers. Give them a chance to seek the bauble reputation at the cannon's mouth." By sharing in the fight, blacks would help overcome the prejudice of whites and the self-doubt born of slavery. They would recover their own self-respect and earn the right to American citizenship. By the end of the war Lincoln seems to have been coming around to a similar view. (See "Lincoln and Douglass" by Dorothy Wickenden, The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 1990.) The Emancipation Proclamation contained a provision for incorporating blacks into the Union Army. And in a letter to the first free-state governor of Louisiana in 1864, Lincoln suggested extending citizenship to some blacks, "especially those who have fought gallantly in our ranks."

Compare all of this to Thomas's opposition to affirmative action. He avoids the mistaken argument, made by many Republicans, that affirmative action is simply discrimination in reverse (as if affirmative action were based on the idea that whites are inferior or second-class citizens). Instead he typically argues that affirmative action undermines the moral resources that blacks need in order to earn their way into the American mainstream. Thomas's concern, expressed repeatedly and with eloquence, is that group-based preferences encourage blacks to look to government largess rather than to self-help and individual initiative.

Indeed, for Thomas, integration itself has been a mixed blessing: he suggests that it helped put many black enterprises out of business, and so undermined the initiative and self-reliance of black communities. And much recent social policy, he says, has been more of a burden than a benefit. Welfare teaches dependency and busing assumes that all-black schools are necessarily inferior. Though agreeing with the result in Brown v. Board of Education (which overturned the constitutionality of "separate but equal" public schools), he argues that the Court based its reasoning on the notion that black self-esteem and achievement necessarily suffer without the presence of white students. (See "A Question of Fairness" by Juan Williams, The Atlantic, February 1987.) All of these policies and programs, Thomas seems to insist, represent losses as well as gains. A principle of dependency is nurtured in all of these programs designed to help blacks: a teaching that blacks are disabled, maimed, incapable of doing for themselves.

Thomas and other black conservatives such as Glenn Loury, Shelby Steele, and Thomas Sowell worry that with these government programs blacks have assumed the mantle of victimhood, with its attendant temptations. These programs brought the rise of a civil rights lobby whose livelihood depends on spawning programs and fostering a taste for them. In a remarkable commencement address at Savannah State College in 1985, Thomas warned of "wallowing in excuses," and being "lured by sirens and purveyors of misery who profit from constantly regurgitating all that is wrong with black Americans and blaming these problems on others."

The core feature of Thomas's position is its insistence on the reality and redemptive potential of black pride. Past generations of blacks, he said at Savannah, "knew all too well that they were held back by prejudice. But they weren't pinned down by it." This emphasis on the necessity of self-help, and the denial of a government route to dignity, helps explain Thomas's sympathy with aspects of Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan: blacks have been victimized, but at base they are not victims. According to Juan Williams, Thomas quotes these words of Malcolm X from memory:

The American black man should be focusing his every effort toward building his own businesses and decent homes for himself. As other ethnic groups have done, let the black people, wherever possible, patronize their own kind, hire their own kind, and start in those ways to build up the black race's ability to do for itself. That's the only way the American black man is ever going to get respect.

The Malcolm X that Thomas invokes is a Black Power version of Horatio Alger. "I don't see how the civil rights people today can claim Malcolm X as one of their own," he told Williams. "Where does he say black people should go begging to the Labor Department for jobs? He was hell on integrationists. Where does he say you should sacrifice your institutions to be next to white people?"

Thomas's argument against affirmative action and the governmental path to equality is based on the judgment that equal standing as a citizen comes from individual effort; that dignity and pride of citizenship in America cannot be conferred politically by affirmative action; that all immigrant groups — from Irish Catholics, to Jews, to Asians — have suffered discrimination and progressed through dint of effort (as Sowell has long argued); that the new path charted for blacks by civil rights leaders and liberals is an experiment that is not working; and that blacks can only make real progress the old-fashioned way — they have got to earn it.

In this regard, Thomas belongs to what political theorist Judith N. Shklar in American Citizenship calls the "party of individual effort." That party, even older and broader than the Republican Party, has roots in the activist maxims of Poor Richard's Almanac, in Jacksonian suspicion of government licenses and monopolies, and in confident Emersonian self-reliance. The government, according to this view, should enforce the rules of fair play, ensure that every child gets a basic education, and then leave individuals to succeed or not on their own. It was given added acuity by the contrast of free laborers with the dependent plight of slaves: unfree, oppressed, and unable to claim a right to the fruits of their labor.

Long before Clarence Thomas, Frederick Douglass linked the cause of black Americans to this party:

All that, any man has a right to expect, ask, give or receive in this world, is fair play. When society has secured this to its members, and the humblest citizen of the republic is put into the undisturbed possession of the natural fruits of his own exertions, there is really very little left for society and government to do.

Through the "free labor" movement this notion helped spawn the Republican Party, even if the GOP has sometimes forgotten it.

In today's Republican Party, it may represent the best hope for a reversal of the last twenty-five years of thinly veiled cynicism and bigotry. The party of individual effort labors, however, under another irony. Many of its proponents are themselves indebted to the government programs they describe as a softer form of the old slavery. Thomas, like many other black conservatives, was himself a beneficiary of affirmative action. His very nomination is related to the fact that he is black. The question to be asked of him, and of other black conservatives, is how they would address this apparent contradiction. Is government aid always as debilitating as the party of individual effort sometimes implies? Granting that poverty and dependency oppress the poor as slavery oppressed their forebears, the challenge now is to show that reducing government interference with individual liberty is the key to lifting these burdens.

This article originally ran in the September 30, 1991 issue of the magazine.