When I see so many urbane black people on television today, I am proud of the progress that has taken place in America during my lifetime. I listen to commentators like Donna Brazile on CNN and I am impressed. And it’s not just because I happen to agree with her politics (she is a prominent Democrat). I also like her style. She comes across as a cultured, educated woman.
But I am becoming increasingly aware of another manifestation of black progress, and the irony implicit in this development troubles me deeply.
There are so many black faces spouting the “conservative” line. I am dead certain that these people have benefited from America’s progress over the past half century. Where do you think they got their education? Where did their parents get the opportunities that led to their often-privileged upbringing? Where would they have been today if nothing had changed since the ’50s?
Surely, they are reaping the rewards of the civil rights marchers, the brave souls who dared the truncheons, dogs and fire hoses (and in some cases nooses and bullets) to free black Americans from the fetters that kept them in bondage.
Of course black Americans need feel no obligation to those who paid the price of today’s freedoms. They are “free at last” to support whatever cause they fancy, state whatever opinion they espouse, vote according to their conscience or their whims. That was, after all, what the civil rights pioneers shed their blood to bring about.
But – to me – there is an element of betrayal here. I believe that like Esau in the Bible, the black conservatives of today have sold their birthright for a mess of pottage. I cannot believe that they feel in their hearts what comes out of their mouths.
I don’t for a minute suggest that they actually receive cash payments like some so-called journalists back in the early days of the “No Child Left Behind” program. But I suspect there’s a profit motive sometimes, nonetheless.
Conservative activists and their enormously wealthy backers embrace black conservatives, boosting their careers and indirectly lining their pockets. They are always in demand to present “the other side of the story.” The fact that their arguments are often intellectually dishonest and sometimes demonstrably erroneous matters not at all.
While it seems as if an epidemic of black conservatives is afflicting America, the phenomenon is not entirely new. I have been reading about a black man named Walter E. Williams, an economist, author and columnist, now in his seventies, who has propagated right-wing propaganda on every front imaginable for decades. This man is so single-minded in his opposition to every rational thought that I have to assume he is sincere. No one could be so wrong so consistently without conviction.
This fervent disciple of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of total selfishness has prospered over the years. He is a darling of people like Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing radio commentator whose programs reduce political commentary to a kind of comical absurdity. (To give you an example of Williams’ line of thinking, his latest cause is defense of the speculators who have helped to drive up the price of oil.)
While these conservative black Americans preach self-reliance and denounce government efforts to distribute society’s wealth a little more evenly, they forget that without society, without government, there would be no wealth.
No individual can produce enough wealth to live comfortably without the help of society. Go ahead, try to grow a thousand acres of corn by yourself. Where would you be without the tractors and harvesters, fertilizers and pesticides that make such a project possible? How would you make money from the corn without society’s marketing mechanisms?
What kind of house could you build – from scratch – for yourself – without help? Even a log cabin would require a lot more skill that most modern Americans possess.
How would you get information? Would you print your own books? Build your own television sets? Create your own broadcast studios or your own Internet?
Where would you get health care? Who would develop your vaccines when deadly diseases break out? I’d like to see you mine your own petroleum and refine your own gasoline – all by yourself.
On their face, such theories are preposterous. But when this line of reasoning comes from a black person, an educated, urbane black person, few of us dare to point out how absurd they are. If we did, we would probably be accused of racism.