J.D. Vance, venture capitalist and author of Hillbilly Elegy, speaks on the American Dream and our Civilizational Crisis....
Black Conservatism in America Today
IR: How do you begin a conversation with an African American progressive about the merits of conservatism? What’s your elevator pitch?
Chidike: One of the fallacies that black progressives promulgate about black conservatives is that we have nothing to conserve except historically oppressive structures. Black conservatism is often presented as an ideology that is about protecting and preserving white supremacy. This argument is absurd. Black conservatives believe in the preservation of institutions that have been important to black life and survival, such as the nuclear family, the church, and the community. Although conservation is an important part of the black conservative worldview, it is not about the protection of pillars of oppression. Where demonstrably immoral structures exist, the black conservative cannot ethically justify attempting to look for the positive aspects of such structures. The black conservative is justified in subverting and seeking to dismantle oppressive systems. The conservation mind-set of the black conservative applies only to constructs that are both moral and salubrious. The notion that conservatives of African descent must look for the positive aspects in the apparatus of white supremacy is a caricature of black conservative thought.
Aside from the idea of conservation, black conservatism can also be understood as a stringent rejection of the Afro-pessimistic perspective that typifies black progressivism. As one of the key features of modern black progressivism, Afro-pessimism is essentially the belief in the permanence and omnipotence of white supremacy. It is this Afro-pessimism that makes black progressives constantly downplay the racial progress that has occurred in the United States. Afro-pessimism also leads to the promotion of black helplessness in the face of white supremacy. Genuine black conservatives, by contrast, have a viewpoint that focuses on optimism and the belief in the indomitability of the human spirit. Black conservatives believe in the human capacity for greatness and the ability to thrive—with or without the actualization of perfect racial harmony.
IR: You were born in Nigeria and raised in London. How has your experience of these two places formed your understanding and experience of conservatism?
Chidike: Many Nigerians are philosophically conservative, even though that conservatism does not necessarily translate to votes for right-wing parties in the West. Although I am a Nigerian, I identify much more with my Igbo ethnicity. Igbos are ferociously conservative. Aside from the famous entrepreneurialism of Igbo people, which led to the sobriquet “the Jews of Africa,” Igbos are notoriously individualistic. There is a popular adage in Igboland: “Igbo enwe eze.” This translates to “Igbos do not have a king.” The point of this adage is that Igbos are fiercely democratic. While other tribes can be easily led by a potentate who dictates what commoners should and should not do, there is no one man capable of dominating the Igbos with kingly pontifications. This brand of individualism is fundamentally conservative. Immediate parallels between the Igbo philosophy on governance and the Lockean perspective opposing “the divine right of kings” can be drawn.
As a result of the aforementioned individualism baked into Igbo culture and my Christianity, I always grew up philosophically conservative—even if I did not always have the vocabulary needed to express the niceties of my worldview. It is also important to note that my local library while growing up in London was the Marcus Garvey Library. That library was the place where I spent most of childhood and early teenage years. It was my second home. While frequenting a black library named after one of the most consequential black conservatives in history certainly does not guarantee that a young black boy would grow into a black conservative adult, it certainly adds an interesting piece to the puzzle of the social conditioning that led to my philosophical development.
IR: How would you describe the relationship between a black conservative philosophy and conservatism in America today?
Chidike: The relationship between black conservatism and mainstream conservatism in America is deeply problematic. Not only is black conservatism viewed as subordinate to mainstream conservatism, but it is wholly ignored when black conservatives do not engage in the performative anti-black rhetoric many mainstream conservatives enjoy. As long as mainstream conservatives continue to be titillated by anti-black rhetoric coming from the lips of black people, there can never be a harmonious relationship between black conservatism and mainstream conservatism in America. As I have posited in previous essays, there are solution-oriented and fame-oriented black conservatives. Fame-oriented black conservatives are the cartoonish characters promoted in mainstream conservatism.
Being an outrageously anti-black “black conservative” like Sheriff Clarke gets one money from mainstream conservative organizations and pathetically obsequious profiles in mainstream conservative publications. Being a “black conservative” writer like Jason Riley, who incessantly pens anti-black pabulum for white conservative audiences, means one gets rewarded with comfortable writing gigs. Mainstream conservatism incentivizes black conservatives to become anti-black cartoons; it does not incentivize thoughtful black conservative thought. It takes a strong person to resist the blandishments of mainstream conservatism and speak the truth irrespective of whose ox is gored. There are few people with such courage.
IR: You mention on your “About” page that a “black conservative” tends “to be identified as a self-hating person who is simply a puppet for white conservatives.” Are “white” and “black” conservatisms reconcilable?
Chidike: Mainstream conservatism—as it currently exists—and authentic black conservatism cannot cohabit. They must be separate movements. As it stands, mainstream conservatives have no use for solution-oriented black conservatives. This is something that could conceivably change in the future; however, it should not be something that solution-oriented black conservatives wait for.
IR: Many are concerned about the rise of alt-Right and nationalist white supremacy movements. If these groups are indeed on the rise, how should we resist them?
Chidike: In order to resist white supremacy, the truth needs to be told about the movement. First, people need to be serious about understanding white supremacist stratagems. The fact that “alt-right” has even become a name that is used for white supremacists shows the power of their propaganda. White supremacists are experts at what I call nomenclatural shapeshifting. White supremacists used to be comfortable being called white supremacists. When the phrase “white supremacy” was sufficiently anathematized, they switched to “white nationalism.” The shift was so seamless that some people today still erroneously believe there is a fundamental ideological difference between white supremacists and white nationalists. Because white supremacy under the label “white nationalism” has been attacked successfully, white supremacists are now using the term “alt-right.” In many ways, the ideology of white supremacy operates like a deceptive for-profit college. When people start finding out the truth about the ideology, white supremacists surreptitiously change names in an effort to rebrand and save their image. There is no ideological difference between the Ku Klux Klan and the alt-right. The only difference is one of packaging—and media outlets are often complicit in this repackaging.
In order to resist white supremacy, conservatives need to be honestly self-critical. Mainstream conservatives have the tendency to pretend that every unflattering remark made about conservatives is a liberal invention. Mainstream conservatives are embarrassingly incapable of self-reflection, and it is the reason why the movement cannot attract and keep genuine superstars. Hucksters and opportunists rise to the top of mainstream conservatism because mainstream conservatives never want to listen to people who tell them the unpleasant truth.
One major truth that mainstream conservatives must address is that they have coddled white supremacists and promoted white supremacy. Rather than pretending as though this is only an allegation from lying liberals, it is time for conservatives to tell themselves the truth. The heads of National Review, for example, fire writers every few years for “going too far,” but they never ask the question: “How did so many white supremacists get on staff in the first place?” When has National Review ever addressed Buckley’s support for Jim Crow in the South? Mainstream conservatives think issues should be swept under the rug, and the only time one should discuss race is to point out that the Democratic Party was the party of Jim Crow. It never occurs to them that although racism does not have a permanent political residence, liberal Democrats have largely resolved their issues with overt racism. Conservative Republicans cannot say the same.
Jason Richwine is another example of the right’s coddling of white supremacists. Richwine is an alt-right figure who was plucked from the fringes to work as a policy wonk at the Heritage Foundation. Although Richwine does have a PhD from Harvard, why would any respectable conservative organization choose a white supremacist to work as a policy wonk? Conservatives cannot keep hiring white supremacists to work at leading think tanks and magazines only to turn around and pretend not to know why conservatism is associated with white supremacy. It is intellectually dishonest to do so, but this is what mainstream conservatives have done for years.
The best way for mainstream conservatives to resist white supremacy is to produce self-critical leaders—not self-promotional swindlers. Mainstream conservatives need to assess carefully the various ways they have coddled and promoted white supremacy. There is a reason why white supremacists choose to associate with the right. Rather than pretending that linking the mainstream right to the alt-right is merely liberal slander, mainstream conservatives need to be much more truthful to themselves.
IR: Many on the left associate any form of “conservatism” with white supremacy, because the principles of Western civilization that conservatism aligns with are perceived as inextricably linked to slavery and colonialism. How do you respond?
Chidike: Unfortunately, while this line of argument is wholly fallacious, it is the kind of reasoning that conservatives have fostered. The dogged refusal of mainstream conservatives to meaningfully distance themselves from noxious characters is why this perspective persists. In any event, the notion that white supremacy and conservatism are a package deal is logically unsupportable.
Racism is not baked into either conservative or liberal philosophy. While liberals have largely dealt with overt racism on their side, the idea that liberals can simply wipe away their history of racism—as if the history was written with a dry-erase marker on a whiteboard—is risible.
The historical racism of liberals cannot be disputed. Margaret Sanger was a liberal, and she was a racist eugenicist whose vision for Planned Parenthood was the extermination of the black race. Woodrow Wilson was a progressive Democratic president who literally caused the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan by showing the racist film The Birth of a Nation in the White House in 1915. There is no plausible argument that can be made that Wilson was representing a conservative worldview. For all the talk of LBJ being a liberal Democratic civil rights hero, very little attention is paid to the fact that he was an arrant anti-black racist who recognized the political opportunity in civil rights for blacks, but he did not genuinely believe in racial equality.
Liberals enjoy engaging in the rhetorical prestidigitation of claiming that the parties switched places, so all the good policies promoted by the Republican Party are really attributable to liberal ideology. By contrast, conservatives, they argue, are responsible for everything negative about American public policy. However, any serious look at American history reveals that racism is not something that can be understood as a liberal or a conservative phenomenon. It is something that is a deep part of the history of the nation. The notion that support for slavery, colonialism, and/or racism can be found exclusively on the left or on the right is a partisan charade.
IR: Who are some of your heroes past and present?
Chidike: This is an interesting question. I have many influences, but it would be best to limit it to three major ones.
Thomas Sowell is definitely one of my influences, but I must make an important distinction. Sowell’s books are far superior to his columns. I stopped reading Sowell’s columns before he retired because they were extremely disappointing, and I did not want to lose respect for him. Comparing Sowell’s books to his later columns is the perfect example of how mainstream conservatism deteriorates the production of brilliant black minds. Also, Sowell’s decision to blurb white supremacist books, most notably White Girl Bleed a Lot by Colin Flaherty, was among the worst decisions of his career. I find that those who enjoyed Sowell’s columns in the last years before his retirement were likely not serious readers of his books. Any serious reader of Sowell’s books would notice the conspicuous difference in quality between his books and later columns. My sneaking suspicion is that Sowell made the calculation that his intellectual legacy would be judged on the basis of his sensational books—not his mediocre, hacky columns. Sowell’s books are some of the most life-changing texts I have ever read; they were hugely influential to my philosophical and intellectual development.
Carter G. Woodson is also one of my influences. His book The Mis-Education of the Negro is one of the most important books I have ever read. The book gives people like me the blueprint of how to be a free-market advocate and pro-black at the same time. What I adore about Woodson is that he was not just pro-black in the American sense, but he had a deep understanding of the achievements of Africans. Moreover, he understood that publicizing these achievements is integral to achieving racial equality. Woodson shows that belief in the power of markets does not have to coincide with self-hatred and anti-blackness. It is curious that Woodson is an ignored thinker on the black right. That is probably directly attributable to the prominence of fame-oriented black conservatism and the scarcity of solution-oriented black conservatives.
Lastly, Chinua Achebe, the Father of African Literature, is also one of my influences. While Achebe did not identify as conservative and was resolutely leftist, there is no Igbo writer who came after Achebe who can honestly claim not to have been inspired by him. His critiques of racism, colonialism, and white supremacy were exceedingly powerful, and they have influenced my writings and worldview considerably. While he is justly celebrated internationally for his literature, his nonfiction essays are brilliant. I read them constantly and always find them to be sources of great inspiration and wisdom.
About the Author
Chidike Okeem is a writer born in Igboland (Southeastern Nigeria) and raised in London, England. He currently resides in Dallas, Texas. Read his work at voiceofchid.com.
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