Kanye West and the Future of Black Conservatism

Kanye West and the Future of Black Conservatism

Coleman Hughes
Coleman Hughes
6 min read

On April 21st, Kanye West sent a tweet out to his 13.4 million followers that read: “I love the way Candace Owens thinks.” A celebrity endorsing his favorite political pundit is hardly unusual, but one of the most famous rappers of all time endorsing a black, pro-Trump firebrand like Owens is a once-in-a-lifetime event. Owens has taken stances against Black Lives Matter, feminism, and various other causes championed by the Left and, although she doesn’t follow the Republican party line on every issue, she has advocated for tax cuts, personal responsibility, and many other traditionally right-wing values.

The core of her message is that there’s a stubborn refusal—among blacks and whites alike—to let go of the narrative that blacks are continually beleaguered by white racism. What we need, according to Owens, is a new story about what black America can be, which looks toward a bright future instead of clinging to an ugly past. It’s easy to see why West—a man with grandiose visions of his own future, who considers himself to be our generation’s Shakespeare—would prefer Owens’s message of black self-creation to the prevailing leftist view that modern systems of oppression recapitulate the overt injustices of the past and therefore constrain black potential.

Like his support for Trump (which he later withdrew), West’s support for Owens has been covered more favorably by the Right than by the Left. Conservative media seizes upon black conservatives as evidence that conservatism has nothing in principle to do with racism, even if the dwindling number of committed anti-black racists in this country tend to vote Republican. By contrast, liberal and leftist media do their best to ignore black conservatives and to pretend they don’t exist, lest they disrupt the narrative that the Left has a moral monopoly on race issues. The fact that Kanye West is a rapper and a black icon—credentials that ‘should’ place him on the Left—makes his fondness for conservatism more disruptive still.

But the Left’s strategy of sweeping black conservatism under the rug, and of pretending that blacks unanimously converge on Left-wing opinions, can’t continue forever, not least because it’s out of touch with reality. When black people are asked what they think about myriad race-related issues, their answers often deviate from liberal orthodoxy. For example, if a white person were to say, “I don’t think racism holds poorly-educated blacks back,” it would mark them on the Left as woefully ignorant of systemic injustice, if not downright racist. But a 2016 Pew poll found that 60 percent of blacks without college degrees say their race hasn’t affected their chances of success. If a white person were to say that “Rap music is a bad influence on society,” it might mark them as subconsciously prejudiced in the minds of many on the Left. But according to a 2008 Pew poll, 71 percent of black people agreed with this statement.

Moreover, most black people don’t care about microaggressions. A 2017 poll carried out by the Cato Institute found that over half of black respondents weren’t offended by the phrases, “You are so articulate,” “I don’t notice people’s race,” “Everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard enough,” and “America is a melting pot.” Nevertheless, phrases like these have been sternly criticized as insensitive by progressives in the name of defending minorities, most of whom don’t seem to care.

The perception that blacks align with ‘progressive’ policies—while understandable given that most blacks vote Democrat—is equally mistaken. Affirmative action is a case in point. Although the policy has been virtually unchallengeable on the Left for decades, this consensus is not reflected among black people themselves. A 2016 Gallup poll found that 57 percent of blacks agreed that race/ethnicity “should not be a factor at all” in the college admissions process. And, as early as 2001, a similar poll conducted for the Washington Post found that 86 percent of blacks agreed that hiring and admissions decisions “should be based strictly on merit and qualifications other than race/ethnicity,” even if the goal of a preferential policy is to “give minorities more opportunity.”

Whether the majority views within the black community listed above are actually correct is another matter. But there is no doubt that these views, which many white liberals wouldn’t dare espouse or condone, are utterly commonplace among black people. To make matters worse, many progressives seem to be uninterested in, and unaware of, the considerable evidence that enforcing racial preferences actually hurts black students. Richard Sander, a Stanford Law Professor, has argued that affirmative action sets up black students to fail by placing them in environments for which they are academically unprepared—that is, by systematically mismatching them with schools. While this evidence can be disputed in good faith, Sander and others who have made similar claims have been faced with accusations of racism from many on the Left.

The Left may be able to ignore public opinion polls, but it cannot easily ignore Kanye West. In the past, the Left has successfully ignored black celebrities when they’ve challenged prevailing orthodoxies. Witness, for example, Lil Wayne’s refusal to support Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest; or watch Denzel Washington blame the high black incarceration rate on fatherless homes rather than on ‘the system’; or listen to Morgan Freeman argue that racism is no longer a problem. To engage these views seriously would be to legitimate them, which would threaten the myth that left-wing ideas are the only ones that an anti-racist can hold. It’s easier to simply ignore these celebrities, or else to write them off as sellouts, nutjobs, or ignoramuses deranged by their own wealth. It remains to be seen which tactic will be deployed in an effort to discredit West. But if progressives think that they can easily silence the man who famously declared on live TV that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” then they are probably mistaken.

The Left often uses accusations of racism to guard its monopoly on issues of racial justice; and if the dissenter is white, then—as University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax recently discovered—the accusation is likely to stick. That’s why black conservatives like Owens are so threatening: their mere existence disrupts the Left’s power to enforce its taboo on dissenting thought. The fact that prominent black conservatives like Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell grew up in an era of overt racism, and lived through the Sixties as activists and Marxists before making a principled switch to conservatism, belies the notion that conservatism is one gigantic front for white supremacy. If the existence of such black conservatives doesn’t exculpate conservatism from the charge of racism, then consider that, according to a 2016 analysis by Theodore R. Johnson in the Washington Post, fully 45 percent of black Americans identify as conservative, compared to 47 percent who identify as liberal. Additionally, blacks tend to be, on average, more religious than whites.

But if blacks are almost as likely to be conservative as liberal, then why do they vote for Democratic candidates in overwhelming numbers? As Johnson points out, “No Democratic presidential nominee has received less than 82 percent of the black vote since Kennedy’s 68 percent in 1960” and “93 percent voted for the reelection of Barack Obama.” Johnson’s research suggests that the answer has nothing to do with blacks preferring liberal policies: “[W]hen presented [with] two candidates who have identical policy positions and who are running under identical societal conditions, blacks still strongly prefer a Democratic candidate over a Republican.” [emphasis mine] Johnson suspects that the true cause of black loyalty to the Democratic party is the general perception that Democrats push civil rights legislation and that Republicans don’t.

But the belief that the Democratic party has a better civil rights record than the party of Abraham Lincoln is dubious at best. As the sociologist Musa Al-Gharbi has pointed out, it was the Republican Dwight Eisenhower who actually enforced civil rights legislation and his Democratic predecessor Harry Truman who was largely unable to do so. And for all the criticism that has been levelled at Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs, Bill Clinton’s crime bill has proved to be hugely unpopular as well. Nevertheless, the perception—born of Lyndon Johnson’s sweeping civil rights legislation in the 1960s—that the Democrats have been the good guys all along has been enough to win the overwhelming majority of the black vote in every presidential election for the past five decades.

In the era of Trump, much ink has been spilled over the fact that liberal elites are out of touch with ordinary white Americans. Less attention has been paid to the fact that liberal elites are out of touch with ordinary black Americans, and less still to the fact that those elites have taken opinions held by millions of blacks and painted them as, at best, unsupported and, at worst, racist. Given his celebrity, one can only hope that Kanye West’s outspokenness will help break the liberal taboos that have arisen around conversations about race and social policy. However, these manufactured taboos are so deeply embedded in the fabric of liberal elite wisdom that they are unlikely to be broken without a fight. But if people like West break them over and over again, then it’s only a matter of time before the Left’s self-image as the last bulwark against resurgent racism, and the only serious option for anti-racists, collapses under the weight of the millions of black Americans who quietly disagree.

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