In our Manichean cultural reality, it can seem like the only two options for black Americans are either to embrace a leftist identity politics or to eschew blackness as a meaningful part of their identity altogether. While we sometimes hear the latter option presented as the conservative embrace of Martin Luther King Jr’s vision for a color-blind brotherhood of man, this is one of those gross over-simplifications that veers into straightforward falsehood. This caricature of MLK’s vision is neither true to him nor to a conservative vision of what it is to be truly human. Instead, black Americans occupy a unique position: they inherit a cultural tradition cultivated over the past 250 years, not because of the genetic facts related to the color of their skin, but simply because the exclusion they experienced based on their color shaped them into a genuine community with identifiable traditions and customs.
The fact that today’s conservatives have trouble grasping the reality of this communal identity only goes to show that they have absorbed an anorexic, hyper-individualistic account of the human person arising from a certain strand of contemporary libertarianism. The thicker and richer tradition of historical classical liberalism, however, includes all of the conservative insights about human sociality, custom and tradition as sources of identity, and the importance of communities of practice for the cultivation of virtue.
The conservative intellectual tradition includes figures like Alexis de Tocqueville, Robert Nisbet, and Russell Kirk. All three appreciate many of the advantages of modernity while worrying about the way it separates us from one another. Markets disrupt our localized ways of life; the modern-nation state engineers us from above and makes us dependent on it; and technology can make our lives so easy that we lose the habits of character that made us so inventive in the first place. While there’s no going back to the more static realities of pre-modern life (nor should we want to), modern life can feel aimless and lonely in a way that’s unsustainable for our natures as human beings. Eschewing despair, these thinkers hoped that decentralized political power, a grateful disposition toward our forebears, and a little thoughtful determination could give rise to a new kind of civil society. In this modern age, circumstances no longer force us to appreciate the social capital inherent in our neighborhoods, churches, and small businesses. Instead, we must intentionally affirm and embrace the customs and traditions that keep such communities healthy and dynamic. Black America comprises a fruitful subculture, one ripe for conservation in service of racial healing, economic stabilization, and an optimistic vision for our future together as Americans.
Blackness, but Not Whiteness
To be clear, trying to understand culture merely in terms of race really does lead us down some very stupid paths. Take the infamous Smithsonian display on “whiteness.” After confusing aspects of American culture that are widely disparate between regions (punctuality and productivity are markers of Northeastern Puritan culture, while rugged individualism comes out of the Southern tradition), this chart goes on to claim that ‘politeness’ and ‘respect for authority’ are distinctives of ‘whiteness,’ presumably in contrast to black American culture. Nothing could be further from the truth. The overwhelming majority of black Americans are of southern extraction and hold to the far less egalitarian and more hierarchical view of authority typical of that region. An older woman, for instance, ought to be referred to as Auntie or Miss so-and-so, never by her first name. Children are not to sass their parents or grandparents, and black parents are more likely to use corporal punishment.
The black church has a strong tradition of pastoral authority, as well as an embrace of a certain formality. Preachers and choirs may clap, sway, sing, and whoop, but they will do so in three-piece suits, vestments, and choir robes. It’s positively absurd to call respect for authority a marker of whiteness when the more egalitarian approach of northeastern white parents and churches is seen as deeply misguided by many black Americans. Check out this clip of Maya Angelou correcting a young woman who refers to her as ‘Maya’ when asking a question, and you’ll get the general idea. In fact, when the clip resurfaced, the young woman, now 49, explained that “she was adopted by a white family and was not raised to address adults with courtesy titles, such as ‘Mr.,’ ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs.’”
The confusion arises from several sources, one of which is that the creators of the kind of content found in the whiteness explainer are deeply ideological leftist elites, not normal black Americans. Statistically speaking, black Americans are actually quite socially conservative. They are the most religious group in the country, with about 80% self-identifying as Christian. They are the most likely to believe in God, pray, and read the Bible of any racial group. Because of this, they are also highly likely to hold traditional views of gender and sexuality. And they are a pro-market, entrepreneurial people, as evidenced by the loss of Bernie Sanders to Joe Biden when the primary election got to South Carolina in 2020. To get a more accurate picture, listen to Aretha Franklin’s pastor eulogize her at her funeral. His sermon, with its call to black Americans to take responsibility for struggling black communities, caused a firestorm in Hollywood but wouldn’t bat an eye in most black churches on a typical Sunday morning.
One of the clearest ways to see that Black America is a genuine American subculture is to understand the centrality of the black church. C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya call the black church the “cultural womb” of black America; it is that from which all else springs. Indeed, it had to be, since for so many years it was the one and only place in which black people really had something of their own. While it’s easy to imagine resentment over the idea of having one’s culture shaped by ‘the white man’s religion,’ this is really a historical misreading of the way the black church developed. Anglican slaveholders, for fear of giving slaves a legal argument for freedom based on brotherhood in Christ, rarely evangelized their slaves. Instead, some enslaved people were converted into a very different, evangelical form of Christianity through the Great Awakenings, and went on to evangelize their fellows back at home.
Naturally, these truly oppressed people were attracted to certain particularly relevant aspects of the faith: the creation of all people in the image of God; the liberation of the Hebrews from the hand of Pharaoh; the demand of the prophets that the Israelites care for widows, orphans, the poor, and strangers; and the suffering and humility of Jesus, the God who understands. All of these doctrines hang together comfortably in the black church tradition, one in which the veil between the sacred and the secular is quite thin, and God permeates every part of life. These enslaved Christians worshiped in secret, in “hush harbors,” away from the plantation missionaries and their so-called gospel of obedience to masters.
In Frederick Douglass’s later work, My Bondage and My Freedom, he starkly contrasts his loving experience of discipleship under his dear friend, Uncle Lawson, with the teaching he overhears the white Bishop Waugh give to his mistress. Lawson is a “spiritual father,” but Douglass doubts that the white minister’s teaching counts as actual Christianity at all. Later, Douglass preached in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and ran his newspaper, the North Star, out of its basement. Excluded from fellowship with white Christians in most cases, the black church became a haven in which black people held positions of authority, and could worship God with ecstatic gratitude, weaving complex theology into a musical, rhythmic preaching style.
From there, the church’s education efforts led to a majority literate black population by 1910, an accomplishment economic historian Robert Higgs says has been “seldom witnessed in human history.” The high rates of participation in fraternal societies, business associations, and political organizations typical of early 20th century black Americans spun out of their ubiquitous church involvement. Rootedness in the black church tradition defined the civil rights movement: its disciplined commitment to planned non-violent action, love of enemies, and reconciliation with whites.
We could say so much more about black America: its gospel music, as well as blues, jazz, soul, and hip-hop; soul food; black self-help—from Booker T. Washington to the contemporary movement for black ownership. I am not only suggesting that black America is a genuine American subculture that can legitimately ground a healthy sense of identity, but also that America is what it is to a significant extent because of this culture. As jazz critic Albert Murray claimed, “…for all their traditional antagonisms and obvious differences, the so-called black and so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world so much as they resemble each other.” While most countries’ creative efforts remain there, we Americans provide the music and entertainment enjoyed by the whole world, not least because of our unique blend of African and European sensibilities.
We know that the thoughtless debauchery displayed in American movies and soap operas hardly presents an accurate picture of the life of most Americans. Nonetheless, many Americans have allowed gangsta rappers and statistics from our most destabilized communities to define black culture, when ministers like Tony Evans and the majority suburban, middle income black population paint a far more accurate picture. Conservatives ought to be more nuanced than commentators like Candace Owens, with their browbeating of the “black community” for the struggles of a minority of impoverished inner-city residents.
So where does the rubber meet the road for conservatives? First, conservatives need to understand why black Americans are so unified when it comes to partisan politics. While 80% of black Americans identify with the Democratic Party, only 60% support affirmative action. Only 50% support government programs of redistribution of wealth—down from 80% in the 1960s. And scholars affirm that religion plays a huge role in the more socially conservative positions of black Americans on gender and sexuality. In other words, while black Americans are overwhelmingly Democratic, they tend to be some of the most centrist, or even conservative, members of the party. Why the loyalty? A phenomenon called linked fate drives black partisan unity. The Democratic Party drove the great accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement, and that same movement encouraged a sense of win-together-lose-together, so to speak.
This political alignment persists due to both policy and rhetoric. Black Americans tend to think of political issues in a communal way, asking themselves what this means not only for themselves as individuals, but for black people generally. For instance, black Americans have an unusually positive view of the military, since the military has historically been a source of equal treatment and social advancement for black Americans. If they are alienated or see that black people are deprioritized by the political rhetoric of the Republican Party, there will be little incentive to pay the social price of breaking solidarity with the community in order to switch sides, even if this or that Republican candidate or policy is interesting to them. Even as blacks become more and more integrated socio-economically, they will often remain deeply connected to the black community through church, fraternities and sororities, beauty and barber shops, and more. If historically the black community has had a voice through the Democratic Party, then the social pressure to remain will be strong because of the sense that splitting up the black community politically will mean the loss of any black voice in politics.
Setting aside the knee-jerk reactionism about conversations around race, conservatives ought to highlight and conserve the riches of the black American tradition. It shouldn’t be so hard for conservatives to enter into conversations about historic injustice; after all, social engineering schemes that destroyed organic black communities—FHA redlining; so-called ‘urban renewal;’ segregation by federal highways; and the demeaning micro-management of the welfare state—are all examples of the progressive obsession with central planning, an approach both morally wrong and practically destructive. Conservatives can make subtler distinctions between what they support and what they reject. No, they won’t support the Maoist demand to post a social media black box on “buy black” shopping days, but yes, they will make efforts to get mentoring and venture capital opportunities to entrepreneurs who don’t enjoy the social and financial networks available to some of us. No, they won’t hate American traditions, but yes, the century-old hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is a beautiful part of the American tradition. No, they won’t support a deeply ideological and anti-American grift like Black Lives Matter, but yes, they will thoughtfully address unaccountable policing and the mass incarceration crisis.
By warmly embracing the black American tradition we undermine those who claim that the founders’ constitutional vision is incompatible with a successful multi-ethnic society. When the black community raises the alarm about social issues such as poverty alleviation or criminal justice reform, conservatives can champion solutions that actually work by decentralizing political power and drawing on organic civil society institutions. As this polarized moment attempts to divide us, let’s emphasize how much we share.