Black Conservatism

Last week, my friend David Modigliani took me to see The Order of Myths, easily one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen, at The Alamo, a wonderful theater in Austin where they serve delicious burgers and burritos during the film. I was in heaven, or close to it.

The film follows a number of people in Montgomery, Alabama as they prepare for Mardi Gras festivities, a key social event and a major economic driver in the community. It turns out that the Mardi Gras celebrations are separate and, in a sense, unequal — the Mobile Carnival Association is exclusively white, and dominated by the oldest and wealthiest families in town. The Montgomery Area Mardi Gras Association, in contrast, is entirely black, and it seems to draw from a very broad spectrum of middle class families. Both groups sponsor a Mardi Gras court, complete with king and queen and royal retinue. During the course of the film, we learn that the MCA queen, a slightly gawky debutante, is heir to a family that owned vast tracts of land and a large number of enslaved Africans, including a group that settled in an area known as Africatown. And in a very American twist, it turns out that the MAMGA queen, a charming, earnest schoolteacher, is a descendant of Africatown slaves. The Order of Myths is dynamite, from beginning to end, and I’m loathe to give away anything else. But in light of Barack Obama’s memorable speech on race, I’d like to discuss some of the swirling, contradictory notions it raised in my own mind.

As you might expect, The Order of Myths is a subtle and smart critique of the segregated status quo. It asks a number of vexing questions, among them, To what extent is the persistence of separate Mardi Gras celebrations a mostly benign form of self-segregation? There are a number of poignant moments during which you sense that at least some MAMGA members crave the respect of their MCA counterparts. And yet other MAMGA members exhibit a keen sense of pride and ownership, to the point of almost snubbing MCA noblesse oblige.

Almost a decade ago, Leonard Steinhorn and Barbara Diggs-Brown wrote By the Color of Our Skin, which advanced the very smart argument that while America has successfully undergone desegregation, we haven’t experienced true integration. Steinhorn explains the distinction as follows:

Like the double helix of a DNA molecule, Dr. King’s dream for America was made of two interwoven strands: desegregation and integration. To King, desegregation would tackle our laws, norms, and public behaviors, while integration would wrestle with our very personal and private choices – the matters of heart, home, neighborhood, and community.

So what does the failure of integration mean? Well, it should be obvious. Americans, and humans more generally, prefer homogeneity to heterogeneity. (David Brooks wrote the definitive piece on the subject in 2003.) We see this in our politics, we see this in the continuing transformation of urban neighborhoods, and we see this in our wonderfully fragmented culture. As Brooks argues in “People Like Us,” and as countless social scientists and other informed observers have found, we find over time that “every place becomes more like itself.” While some distinctions mellow and fade, others are sharpened by the constant churn of people and ideas. All Americans have been moving to the Sunbelt, but black Americans have been clustering in predominantly black neighborhoods and disproportionately black regions, and of course an even finer level of sorting happens by education and income and sensibility.

What’s impressive to me about MAMGA is that we’re looking at a cross-class community, with upper-middle-class black professionals taking a leadership role in a celebration that involves poor and working class and middle class people as well. This is civil society at its best — whereas the MCA spends extraordinary amounts of money, and keeps an eye on how Mardi Gras fuels the local economy, MAMGA spends somewhat smaller amounts of money to put on a more inclusive, frankly more enjoyable spectacle. To be sure, the MCA reproduces privilege. Relationships are formed in these “informal” gatherings that will shape the economic life of Montgomery in very consequential ways. Yet MAMGA has created an instrument for self-help and self-respect. Who doubts that the women and men who lead MAMGA take a more active role in civic life more broadly? Over time, this will translate into growing economic power, and indeed it already has.

Perhaps Montgomery would be better off if, for example, there were more intermarriage between blacks and whites, and thus more social interaction across the color line. But failing that, I wonder what “integration” would really look like — would a handful of ultrarich black families join the MCA? Would the upper-middle-class families who are the organizational backbone join the MCA, subsidized somehow by other MCA members, in the process crippling what is left of MAMGA? Or perhaps the MCA will be banned. Or who knows, perhaps MAMGA will be banned. All of these possibilities seem futile, and some seem tragic.

So while I think Jeremiah Wright’s views on America are profoundly wrongheaded, I imagine there is something to certain aspects of what David Schraub (via the inimitable Andrew Sullivan) calls “Black Conservatism.”

Black Conservatism essentially operates off the premise that racism is an ingrained and potentially permanent part of White-dominated institutions. As a result, Black Conservatives essentially tell Blacks they can only rely on themselves to get ahead in America — counting on White people to be moral or “do the right thing” is a waste of time. Politically, this means building tight-knit communities that emphasize the patronizing of identifiably Black institutions, with the end result being social independence from White America. In this, it mixes at least partial voluntary self-segregation with a significant aversion to external dependency, with Whites and White institutions being defined as outsiders who can’t be trusted.

Is this a “totalitarian ideology,” as Shelby Steele would have it? Well, yes. I’d find it very stultifying, and I imagine I’d reject it as too confining. And it’s also far too oppositional. The Black Conservative message could be roughly right even if there is no racism at work at all — if Whites, by and large, prefer interacting with other Whites, surely it is not shrewd for those who aren’t White to rely on White largesse and kindness. This is important. The preference for the familiar is deeply ingrained, and its manifestation in the real world looks a heck of a lot like racism. Yes, racial preferences mean kids attending elite schools will rub shoulders with a more diverse group. But the most consequential alliances are made in the context of intimate life, a sphere we are not about to regulate in accordance with our high ideals (I hope).

Which is why it is so odd that Black Conservatism is generally aligned with the political left, the party of White largesse. To be sure, the state isn’t exactly in the hands of a White cabal. Rather, it is in the hands of public sector employees (White and otherwise) with an objective economic interest in extending the purview of the public sector, and supplanting the role of civil society, including those tight-knit communities Schraub’s Black Conservatives champion.

This Conservative strategy of economic advancement seems anodyne when practiced by immigrants or religious communities, yet it seems somehow atavistic or “scary” when practiced by native-born blacks. One would hope it wouldn’t be fueled by mistrust and resentment, and that alternatives to Black Conservatism would be deemed something other than a betrayal. I’m honestly not sure quite how to think about all of this, particularly given my bohemian distaste for the ethics of solidarity. But let’s just say it’s not obvious to me that Black Conservatism is crazy or misguided.

Consider this very flawed post my way of thinking through Christopher Lasch. I’m hoping to write an essay on Lasch and how he lurks beneath a lot of important currents on the left and right. More on that to come.