Ta-Nehisi Coates article about Bill Cosby in the new Atlantic reaches that high standard of excellent for long-form magazine writing wherein it’s not really viable to adequately summarize the piece in a way that makes it possible to blog about. Instead, I’d just like to flag one interesting thread that Coates weaves — the idea of a distinct “Black Conservative” political and intellectual tradition in America:
But Cosby’s rhetoric played well in black barbershops, churches, and backyard barbecues, where a unique brand of conservatism still runs strong. […] Shortly after Cosby took his Pound Cake message on the road, I wrote an article denouncing him as an elitist. When my father, a former Black Panther, read it, he upbraided me for attacking what he saw as a message of black empowerment. Cosby’s most obvious antecedent is Booker T. Washington. […] W. E. B. Du Bois, the integrationist model for the Dysons of our day, saw Washington as an apologist for white racism and thought that his willingness to sacrifice the black vote was heretical. […]After Washington’s death, in 1915, the black conservative tradition he had fathered found a permanent and natural home in the emerging ideology of Black Nationalism. Marcus Garvey, its patron saint, turned the Atlanta Compromise on its head, implicitly endorsing segregation not as an olive branch to whites but as a statement of black supremacy. Black Nationalists scorned the Du Boisian integrationists as stooges or traitors, content to beg for help from people who hated them. […]Black conservatives like Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, have at times allied themselves with black liberals. But in general, they have upheld a core of beliefs laid out by Garvey almost a century ago: a skepticism of (white) government as a mediating force in the “Negro problem,” a strong belief in the singular will of black people, and a fixation on a supposedly glorious black past.
Needless to say, there’s an interesting ambiguity in the white mainstream’s response to this black conservative tradition. The aspect of the tradition that says African-Americans will need to solve their own problems has enormous appeal to most moderate and conservative whites. But the tradition’s analysis of why that’s the case — that America is a fundamentally racist society — is viewed with horror by those some moderate and conservative whites. This also highlights, I think, part of what’s so preposterous about efforts to insinuate that Barack Obama is a closet black nationalist — his ideas are clearly liberal ideas, and those a very different set of ideas from the ones animating black nationalism.