- Black Conservative Intellectuals in Modern America by Michael L. Ondaatje
“When one considers the extent to which American conservatism has historically been conditioned by racist notions of black inferiority,” writes Michael Ondaatje, “the existence of powerful conservative black spokespeople is indeed quite astonishing” (1). This [End Page 187] historical reality might explain why their very existence in our contemporary era attracts partisan-driven controversy. The rancor they engender has intensified because the job of explaining the “historical and contemporary significance” of black conservatism has “fallen to highly partisan journalists” who filled a vacuum created when scholars “severely neglected” the subject (8). Ondaatje endeavors to move the debate beyond the counterproductive approaches of condemning black conservatives as race traitors and or hailing them as “‘color-blind visionaries,’” as more polemic voices are apt to do (9).
He advances this goal by systematically analyzing the proposals boldly articulated by an “intellectual vanguard” (25) of conservative thinkers who were the African American voices of socioeconomic policies on race in the Reagan and Bush era. The “intellectual messiah” of this group was economist Thomas Sowell (30); thus, his ideas are featured prominently in the book. Other intellectuals analyzed include economists Walter Williams and Glenn Loury, cultural theorists Shelby Steele, Anne Wortham, and John McWhorter, and social activists Robert Woodson and Jay Parker. Clarence Thomas is included but to a lesser extent because, although he was a prominent conservative, his contributions to intellectual discussions of race were not as significant. Ondaatje contends that these intellectuals “carved out” and established the “ideological parameters” and “political trajectory” of modern black conservatism (2). To understand this phenomenon, he culls from their writings their proposals for ameliorating the economic and educational woes of African Americans in the era following the civil rights movement. The proposals offered by all members of this cadre coalesce ideologically around excoriations of liberal policies associated with the programs of Johnson’s Great Society and also the commendations for controversial market-based, free enterprise alternatives to what they viewed as failed policy.
The book is thoughtful, well written, and relatively short—150 pages excluding notes, divided into four chapters, flanked by an introduction, and, by its dimmest spot, a paltry two-page conclusion. It is most useful as an account that presents the historical and ideological underpinnings of a current trend, the proliferation of African American political conservatives in the era of a black president.
The introduction establishes the existence and influence of the black conservative vanguard whose ideas are the book’s focus. Reagan’s landslide victory in 1980 and his administration’s goal to create a new black conservative leadership was the catalyst, whereas the two-day Black [End Page 188] Alternatives Conference with its published proceedings known famously as The Fairmont Papers was the crystallizing event for the formation of the group and its mission. The black attendee emerged from the meeting intent on challenging “the hegemony enjoyed by civil rights groups” on matters of race (4).
Although Ondaatje seeks to bring into focus common philosophical and ideological perspectives shared by the group, his guiding thesis is that they are not monolithic. Rather, each thinker has distinctive views within the conservative political tradition. He executes this thesis in earnest, in chapters 2, 3, and 4, by analyzing the group’s individual arguments about affirmative action, poverty, and education, the political discussions on which black conservative intellectuals of the era “cut their political teeth” (8).
Before analyzing their ideas, Ondaatje’s introduction pulls together personal and professional background information about the intellectuals to consider how they had arrived at their conservatism. The contrast among their biographies establishes a foundation for his argument that black conservatives of this era did not all hold precisely the same views. For example, unlike Sowell and Thomas, Steele and Woodson were former liberals who became disenchanted with liberalism. Steele was an “existential neo conservative” who offered “little in the way of practical solutions,” whereas Woodson, who had been a civil rights advocate turned advisor to Republican administrations on urban policy...