Booker T. Washington and the Black Conservative Tradition


Reading Steven Hahn on Booker T. Washington, I kept thinking that the effort to re-evaluate Washington’s career would benefit from the concept of a “black conservative” political tradition that Ta-Nehisi Coates deployed in his profile of Bill Cosby. To the Google I went and wasn’t surprised to see that Coates had written as much already back in March, reviewing the same book Hahn was reviewing.

At any rate, I think it’s an important idea—the kind of thing that seems obviously correct once you understand it but that, to me at least, was totally unfamiliar until I heard it. But the basic point is that within the African-American political tradition, like within the white political tradition, there’s a conservative strain and a liberal strain. The conservative strain is pessimistic about race relations and nationalistic in its orientation, whereas the liberal strain is optimistic, cosmopolitan, and integrationist. But because this controversy within black politics is embedded inside a larger white-dominated political context it often gets confused. Sometimes, as in the conventional reading of Washington, the black conservative appears to white American liberals to be the timid appeaser of white supremacists. And other times, as with a Malcolm X, he looks like a dangerous radical black nationalist.

It’s only extremely recently that the idea of an African-American aligning himself, à la Clarence Thomas, with the mainstream conservative movement in America could be remotely possible. But even so, that didn’t mean there was no ideological conflict in black politics or that general rightist sentiments somehow didn’t exist.