“To be conservative,” wrote Michael Oakeshott, “is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery.” His definition of conservatism, not as a set of policy aspirations but as a deeper sensibility, explains the conservative respect for tradition and view of history as a source of norms—that’s the positive side. The negative side is that there are some issues for which the conservative partiality for history and tradition provides zero comfort.
Race is one of those issues. What does it even mean to be a conservative on race? It’s a profoundly uncomfortable question for those of us who claim the label of conservative: Exactly which part of America’s racial past are we trying to conserve?
Making this question even more troublesome is the fact that the American right and racial minorities do not exactly have a rosy relationship. 85 percent of Republican voters in the 2022 midterms were white—1% were black. Scholarly research from the early 2000s notes how “racial issues are still the key to understanding” the partisan distributions of black voters: blacks are skeptical at best of conservatives’ ability to actually care about their interests. J.C. Watts Jr., a former U.S. Congressman and Republican Conference chair, described his Democrat father’s outlook on conservatives in incredibly telling form: “A black man voting for the Republicans makes about as much sense as a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders.”
How did this happen? How did the party of Lincoln morph into a party so disconnected from racial issues that such statements made sense?
After the Civil War, the Republican Party held the loyalty of black voters for several decades, largely due to its legacy as the “Party of Lincoln” and party-level support for the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Yet, in the American South and increasingly in the North, that loyalty was about to change.
To better understand this change, I sat down with Dr. Malcolm Foley, a writer and special adviser to the president for equity and campus engagement at Baylor University, to discuss America’s racial politics between the end of the Civil War and the mid-20th century. Foley explained how the economic situation in postwar America created certain preconceptions for many white Americans, conservatives included: “With the development of Jim Crow, when that’s the status quo, what white self-styled conservatives came to believe was that ‘our way of life requires economically disadvantaged black people.’” As the Great Migration began and more than 6 million African Americans left the South, the material effects of racism that Foley describes, including lynchings and brutal discrimination, were a driving force. “While that violent Southern regime continued until the 1930s and even later, the Great Migration creates a labor threat in Northern cities. The case for integration is then perceived as a barrier to white Americans’ social standing.”
It’s here that Foley’s background as a religious historian comes into play—to him, many of the arguments used by Christians and conservatives to support the racial prejudice baked into the system were simply bastardized, misapplied religious arguments. “What undergirded the argument for segregation were passages from Acts and Ephesians and even Old Testament passages like the ‘curse of Ham’ in Genesis, and that was something that undergirded a lot of pro-slavery arguments, too. That was the way of thinking to preserve the status quo.”
Foley also points to the work of pro-slavery figures like James Henley Thornwell, a Southern Presbyterian who citedscriptural descriptions of slavery in his bid to offer a theological case for chattel slavery, exemplified in his 1850 sermon“The Rights and Duties of Masters”: “If God shall enable us to maintain the moderation and dignity … which spring from the relation of master and servant … it will be a signal proof that He has not condemned us.”
Even after the demise of slavery, such allegedly Christian arguments took time to fall out of cultural favor, says Foley, even among conservatives. “Southern evangelicals used Scripture to justify their own prejudices,” he tells me, further asserting that “post-Reconstruction, the Klan in its initial founding and second iteration was a white, Protestant, nativist group.” Even post–Brown v. Board of Education, Foley notes how “resistance to integration was part of the birth of private Christian schools.” In his view, the American struggle with racial integration was a narrative battle. “Race is a nationwide social construct. What the narrative of race does is it allows people to tell themselves they’re not evil.”
The Baldwin-Buckley debate
The conservative struggle to deal with racial issues quickly took on more familiar ideological parameters in the 1950s and ’60s. Although the racism of some Southern Democrats offered Republicans an opportunity to present themselves as more moderate on civil rights, optics blunders and actual prejudice continued to plague conservatives in prominent cultural outlets.
As the civil rights movement grew in both popularity and notoriety, skepticism of its motives and demands was not limited to torch-wielding Klansmen but was notable among the intellectual side of the political right, including from the helmsman at what was then a new conservative magazine: National Review. William F. Buckley, born into relative wealthin Manhattan, clashed a number of times with one of the fastest-rising stars within the civil rights movement, writer and Harlem native James Baldwin. In fact, the two met in debate in 1965 at the University of Cambridge, an event catalogued in the award-winning book The Fire Is Upon Us, written by Linfield professor Nicholas Buccola. I discussed with him what is often viewed as a watershed moment in the history of American conservatism’s early unease with civil rights—and a major philosophical and PR blunder by the racially insular Buckley.
“It’s less a political history than an intellectual one,” Buccola tells me. “Conservative politicians were ahead of conservative intellectuals on this issue—looking [at those] around Buckley, there wasn’t a whole lot of enlightenment on this issue. At National Review, he was sympathetic to a general skepticism about civil rights, and that led him to surround himself with people sympathetic to what his parents taught him. Even with someone like [1964 GOP presidential nominee] Barry Goldwater, who’s very different from Buckley, on questions of race … he’s still very slow, dragging his feet on a lot of these questions.”
The Baldwin-Buckley debate focused on the question of whether the American dream had come at the expense of the “American Negro,” and the Cambridge audience soundly rejected Buckley’s arguments, siding with Baldwin 544–164. Buckley, for his part, maintained his fierce opposition to Baldwin, telling media in 1968, “I didn’t give one g*****n inch. … I walked out of there tall so far as self-respect goes.”
Yet other conservatives seem to indicate that Buckley eventually mellowed on the race issue, to an extent that seemed almost repentant. Jay Nordlinger, a senior writer at National Review and a friend of Buckley’s, pointed out an incredibly telling exchange in the early 2000s, when “Bill [Buckley] said the Right, including himself, had been wrong on civil rights, and that’s all there was to it. He regretted it keenly.”
Dropping the Ball
As a young conservative, and one who’s read his fair share of Buckley and found it useful, it’s dismaying to learn about the darker parts of conservative pioneers like WFB, although it’d be too much of a stretch to call it surprising. In a sense, the Buckley-Baldwin debate seems to epitomize the conservative struggle on racial issues: a misunderstanding of appearances, an overinflated sense of own-the-libs-ism, and enough actual prejudice to make us nonwhite conservatives completely unwilling to defend what’s been said.
Yet even though Buckley may have evolved from the prejudice of his youth, the conservative movement on the whole wasn’t finished screwing up on the racial issues. Scholar Phillip J. Ardoin notes that during the 1960s and leading into the 1970s, “the Democratic Party’s general support of civil rights, and an expanded social agenda, has played a pivotal role in gaining and preserving the allegiance of African Americans. In addition, the Republican Party has also played a role in maintaining African Americans’ loyalty to the Democratic Party.”
Have we conservatives always been shooting ourselves in the foot? It’s starting to look like it.
Acton scholar Anthony Bradley minces no words when it comes to the failings of conservatives on reaching nonwhite Americans in the 1970s and beyond. “In the 1970s, conservatives showed their hand in trying to preserve racial dominance,” he begins. “It was a tragic error—instead of looking at the economic case for desegregation, they resisted it. They resisted opening the markets. There was serious work ethic to compete with.”
For Bradley, the problem wasn’t that conservative ideals regarding free markets weren’t resonating with nonwhite voters; it was that conservatives were letting prejudice cloud their commitment to those ideals. “Their struggle with race is largely an unwillingness to compete with different ethnic minorities. They will lose money before they give up their social comfort. They should have acted like free marketers.”
Bradley’s remarks hit directly at that uncomfortable question about what it means to be a conservative on race. “Conservatism means seeing history as a source of norms,” he explains. “It can easily become an idol. They blindly look at the past and miss the negative externalities. There’s a weakness in the framework—we don’t know what to conserve.”
He points out that with the rise of the Moral Majority and figures like Pat Robertson, Francis Schaeffer, and Jerry Falwell in the 1970s, there was a resurgent conservative/evangelical attempt to wrestle with what exactly we were supposed to be conserving. Unfortunately, that resurgence reached conclusions that simply did not ring true for nonwhite Americans. As Bradley argues, maybe it was never supposed to. “Conservatives dropping the ball on race in the 1970s is why they struggle today. They never figured out a place for nonwhites in the growing conservative movement.”
Fast-forward 50 years—are conservatives any better on the race issue? Bradley certainly doesn’t seem to think so. He tells me that nonwhite conservatives are stuck behind the 8-ball in talking about racial issues with their fellow conservatives. “It’s a pattern: conservatives find a black person to parrot their ideas, the black person speaks out about something uncomfortable—and they get demonized.” I asked him how this fit into the story of figures like 2024 presidential hopeful Senator Tim Scott. “If he keeps his mouth shut, he’ll be OK,” Bradley quips, and I wish that pattern didn’t seem as familiar as it does.
Even for a historian like Buccola, conservatives’ past complicity in racism doesn’t mean every conservative racial failing is rooted in prejudice. As Hanlon’s Razor would have it: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by ignorance or stupidity. “No doubt there’s maliciousness out there, but my sense of it is that there’s a large part of this where folks are getting a certain narrative in their mind that helps them make sense of their own life and mind and identity.” That doesn’t lead conservatives to racism, but it can lead us to a certain degree of apathy or partisan blindness that destroys our ability to talk about race with persuadable Americans who otherwise might have written conservatives off.
Malcolm Foley points out that racial blockheadedness is hardly limited to the political right: “Liberals fall very quickly into identity politics and people talking past each other and glossing over the material effects of racism,” and neither Buccola nor Bradley are exactly staunch progressives. Yet all their critiques of the right seem to hit in a similar area: an improper rhetorical focus that fails to zero in on practical issues. “It’s a Nietzsche thing—there’s something soothing about indignation,” Buccola tells me. “The indignation has really been shifted into these vague questions about wokeness and CRT. The current approach needs to be about being as precise as we can and trying to avoid oversimplifying for the sake of the argument.” And for Bradley, talking about practical issues means not ignoring the economics conservatives love so much: “I don’t think American conservatives are going to make real progress until they properly embrace free markets.”
It’s very easy, particularly as a nonwhite American who believes in conservative ideas, to look at the history of American conservatives and race simply as a series of ignorant and too often simply prejudicial rhetorical and political failures. While somewhat accurate, it’s not an excuse and fixing this tone-deafness (at the very least) means reexamining conservative philosophy: the most depressing parts of our history do not have to determine the potential of our future, especially if we’re honest about how depressing they are. We need to reembrace the potential of markets to create human flourishing, especially for Americans who are not part of the racial majority. And we need to recommit ourselves to making people’s lives tangibly better, not just “less oppressed” in the way a bias test might measure. Marginalized communities and populations don’t need implicit-bias test access and DEI awareness training nearly as much as they need to create generational wealth and upward educational mobility.
They’re the things America hasn’t done enough of but that we absolutely can be doing now—the tried-and-failed does not have to be the enemy of what we haven’t tried yet.