Multicultural Conservatism

— Christopher Phelps

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Now?
Multicultural Conservatism in America
by Angela Dillard
(New York: New York University Press, 2001),
245 pages, $16.95 paperback.

IN THE STORMY aftermath to Senator Trent Lott's giddy declaration at Strom Thurmond's hundredth birthday party, that had the Dixiecrat won his segregationist presidential campaign in 1948 the country could have avoided “all these problems,” there was a revealing juxtaposition.

On the very December day that Lott first tried to back away from his revealing endorsement of the white supremacist past, observers at the Supreme Court were mesmerized by a surprisingly powerful courtroom condemnation of cross-burning by Justice Clarence Thomas.

A burning cross, Thomas said, is not speech protected by the Constitution but an act of bigotry, intimidation and terror.

The difference between the historical sensibility of these two prominent conservatives speaks to the fact that when Lott was waving the Confederate flag as an Ole Miss cheerleader, and leading the fight to keep his fraternity white, the Georgia-born Thomas was drinking from fountains marked “colored.”

Between those experiences lies a bramble patch of contradictions for American conservatives, one that the Republican Party is likely to confront for some time to come. That many of the most persistent and vocal critics of Lott's comments were dyed-in-the-wool conservatives reveals the great desire of the political right to transcend the very racial divide that fueled its three-decade advancement.

There is no better single source for comprehending this dilemma than Angela Dillard's erudite treatment of “multicultural conservatism,” the beguiling term she coins to describe Black, gay, Latino and women conservatives.

Dillard holds that “minority conservatives,” though few in number relative to their communities or the general right wing, must be approached at the level of ideas, not dismissed as inauthentic or castigated for treason.

Taking Ideas Seriously

Simply the notion of a technicolor conservatism, Dillard knows, strikes many as oxymoronic: “Women and minority conservatives are continuously called upon to provide justification of not only their political philosophies but their very existence as well.”

Nevertheless, she insists upon examining their ideas as ideas, not mere rationalizations for Uncle Tom sell-outs.

This cool-headed interior approach yields a careful and brilliant analysis that in the end lays bare logical and political difficulties for multicultural conservatism more telling than any head-on polemic could have produced. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Now? is intellectual history at its best, political criticism at its most subtle.

Appearing coincidentally just as the first Republican cabinet to look like America was convened, Dillard's book helps illuminate an administration in which key Black officials, most especially National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell, sit as equals at the foreign policy table with the plain vanilla Cheneys, Rumsfelds and Roves.

While Powell and Rice barely rate a mention in Dillard's account, which generally puts world affairs aside for domestic considerations, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Now? is an extended exposition on a general political type that provides the interpretive framework necessary to comprehend the important Bush cabinet appointments and their precursors, such as Thomas's Supreme Court nomination.

In a stroke of graphic design genius, the cover features a pastel illustration of multicolored peas in a pod. By “multicultural” Dillard means the rainbow of backgrounds and identities evident within American conservatism despite its historical exclusivity.

“American political conservatism,” writes Dillard, “can no longer be treated, and accurately represented, as the exclusive preserve of white, male, and heterosexual persons with comfortable class positions.”

Conservatism as an ideology has in recent decades been embraced by a not-insignificant cohort of women, Latino American, Native American, Asian American, African American and gay intellectuals.

The expectation that Dillard will catalogue all forms of “the multicultural conservative style” is left a bit unsatisfied. Black conservatives take the commanding position, and the portrait of gay conservatism is thorough and perceptive as well; but Latino, Asian American and women conservatives get very little ink, and some others, like Native Americans, get none.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Now? might better have been cast as an investigation of Black neocons alone, since the book accomplishes that most completely.

Depoliticizing Race?

Black conservative thinkers, in a body of work summarized dexterously by Dillard, call for the “depoliticization” of race in public policy.

They oppose race-conscious measures such as affirmative action, busing or racial redistricting, favoring instead private strategies of “self-help” and personal moral improvement to overcome cultures of poverty and dependency. Antagonistic to government action like other conservatives, they oppose welfare, regulation, and taxation, but favor military and police power.

Although American conservatism was revived in the states' rights rebel call of Barry Goldwater, Black conservatives have recast that history by combining a revulsion against the radical 1960s with a defense of now-uncontroversial civil rights gains.

The civil rights movement they now embrace as a heroic tradition, though at the time they thought of it as Communist subversion. The civil rights establishment they see as corrupted ever since the late 1960s, when “the demand for civil rights within a limited constitutional framework . . . gave way to calls for special preferences and a crippling dependency on the federal government's handouts.”

This approach permits Black conservatives to lay claim to Martin Luther King's “I Have a Dream” vision of color blindness, despite King's own decidedly leftward course after 1965.

Against Multiculturalism

All of this should indicate that the term “multicultural” conservatism is a bit mischievous. It does not, Dillard is careful to emphasize, denote “multiculturalism as an ethic and a philosophy.”

Multicultural conservatives reject multiculturalism. They eschew particular group identities and pluralism, favoring assimilation into an imagined singular American civic culture.

They seek a world of national belonging, in which citizenship is blind to race, and in which people are judged by their specific individual conduct, not by presumed group traits or fidelities. They want nationalism and individualism to triumph over identity politics.

The central insight of Dillard is that while conservatives of color may wish to transcend race, race will not transcend them. Through close reading of memoirs by Black conservatives like George Schuyler and Glenn Loury, Dillard shows how issues of racial identity are inescapable even for those who seek a world based upon merit and conduct alone, despite the sincerity of conservatives of color so often denounced as opportunists.

Furthermore, as the career of Justice Thomas readily illustrates, Black opponents of affirmative action and “racial preference” often are the direct benefactors of deliberate promotion by a conservative leadership intent upon proving its commitment to freedom and opportunity.

Useful for the Right

Strategically, Black spokespeople have great utility for the right. The dismantling of affirmative action is far more palatable to centrist white swing voters if Ward Connerly or Stephen Carter is out in front.

That this requires multicultural conservatives to speak “not only as conservatives but, more important, as conservative African Americans, Latinos, women, and homosexuals,” writes Dillard, reveals that socially constituted identity remains an inescapable part of who they are, so much so that multicultural conservatives “come close to exchanging one form of identity politics for another.”

In keeping with her calm method of laying out conservative thought systematically rather than attacking it, Dillard lets stand many dubious condemnations of race-conscious social policy. Her conclusion, however, makes it plain that while “color blindness is not without merit” as a moral aspiration, all attempts to use it as a justification for eliminating race-specific policy measures, and to act as if present society can satisfy the dream of color blindness simply through private initiative, are wishful thinking.

Dangerously naiive, writes Dillard, are attempts to claim that problems of class and race can be resolved simply through individual attainment and exemplary conduct, reflecting “an unconscionable desire to erase the history of both de facto and de jure discrimination in America.”

While Black conservatives, borrowing from their Jewish neoconservative forebears of the 1970s, claim to speak for the “silent and silenced majority” of Black Americans against a self-interested liberal New Class, Dillard observes that the great majority of African Americans continue to recognize a need for government action aimed specifically at addressing racial inequality.

For that reason only a tiny percentage of Blacks vote for the party of Abraham Lincoln. Black Republicans like Oklahoma Congressman J. C. Watts have invariably been elected in white-majority districts.

Conservatism's Real Roots

The modern American conservative movement is indisputably shaped by a defense of white privilege. It originated in the Old South defense of slavery; was fed by resistance among southern whites to challenges to Jim Crow; and is today the preferred option of white middle-class voters nationwide whose concerns about employment security, social status, crime, taxes and education all feed a recurring politics of resentment centering on issues like affirmative action, immigration, vouchers and welfare, issues implicitly about race.

Yet many of those very same white suburbanite voters, affected by a general culture that has adapted to the transformations brought about by the civil rights movement and global marketplace, fancy themselves fair-minded, free of prejudice, in favor of “diversity,” and desirous of a color-blind society.

Hence they elect conservative Black officials from time to time and appreciate the symbolism of the Bush cabinet selections. Yet retrograde tax and fiscal policies sure to widen racial inequalities while benefiting the upper crust, when linked to a symbolic politics purporting tolerance and color-blindness, create potent frictions.

So does the bigotry that periodically resurfaces in conservative circles. Dillard observes the Republican Party has a “track record of sabotaging its own efforts” with a “schizophrenic tendency to reach out to communities of color with one hand and slap them in the face with the other.”

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Now? explains that in conservative political rhetoric “distinctions of race, ethnicity, and disparate religious identity are simultaneously invoked, symbolically, and masked, ideologically.”

Trent Lott's error lay not in his fond allusion to the era of white privilege, but in his failure to handle it with requisite implicitness.

Even in the hands of a kinder, gentler leader, a President who counts African Americans among his close advisors and speaks passable Spanish, can American conservatism serve all its impulses and potential constituencies?

Dillard is properly hesitant to provide a definitive answer. She gives multicultural conservatism “little likelihood of a deep and lasting success.” Then again, foundation slush funds can go a long way toward sustaining adherents, few in the 1960s predicted the rise of serious Black intellectual conservatism, and we would be unwise to discount it now.

Dillard herself conjectures gloomily that an assimilationist strategy built on political gay-bashing, free market nostrums, and class disdain for the urban poor might go far toward permitting a right-leaning portion of the Black bourgeoisie (my term, not hers) to continue to occupy important strategic positions within the largely white conservative movement.

Only time will tell whether conservative technicolor will revert to Black and white. A Lott of the answer may be found in the Bushes, there among the doubting Thomases.

ATC 102, January-February 2003