In the latest New Republic, historian Steven Hahn has a long and very interesting review of the recent Booker T. Washington biography Up from History. As Hahn discusses, Washington famously championed economic advancement and education over political activism as the key to black equality, an approach Washington perhaps best articulated in his “Atlanta Compromise” speech of 1895.
After reading Hahn’s review, liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias was apparently struck by the need for “the concept of a ‘black conservative’ political tradition” in order to best understand Washington’s life and accomplishments. Thankfully, a little Googling revealed that a black conservative tradition does exist, though Yglesias might have searched a little further before typing this:
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.
Actually, the great Harlem Renaissance author and journalist George Schuyler—who was known as the “black H.L. Mencken”—published “general rightist sentiments” long before Clarence Thomas came on the scene, including Schuyler’s unambiguously titled 1966 autobiography Black and Conservative. And the celebrated novelist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston both endorsed conservative Sen. Robert A. Taft in the 1952 presidential election and repeatedly attacked FDR’s New Deal, including this 1951 assault from the pages of the Saturday Evening Post:
Throughout the New Deal era the relief program was the biggest weapon ever placed in the hands of those who sought power and votes. If the average American had been asked flatly to abandon his rights as a citizen and to submit to a personal rule, he would have chewed tobacco and spit white lime. But under relief, dependent upon the Government for their daily bread, men gradually relaxed their watchfulness and submitted to the will of the "Little White Father," more or less. Once they had weakened that far, it was easy to go on an on voting for more relief, and leaving Government affairs in the hands of a few. The change from a republic to a dictatorship was imperceptibly pushed ahead.
So I think it’s safe to say that Clarence Thomas has a few more prominent forebears than just Booker T. Washington. And while I wouldn’t call him a conservative, Frederick Douglass absolutely counts as one of America’s greatest classical liberals.