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Multicultural Conservatism: What It Is, Why It Matters By: Angela D. Dillard
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, March 02, 2001

Chronicle of Higher Education | March 2, 2001

HAVING SPENT the last several years writing a book about African-Americans, Latinos, women, and homosexuals who are also political conservatives, I was almost gratified by the spectacle of inclusion and diversity on display last August at the Republican National Convention. Finally, there was incontrovertible -- and highly visible -- evidence that I hadn't been making this stuff up. Now, the cabinet choices of conservatives of color like Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Linda Chavez, and (when Chavez dropped out) Elaine Chao have filled me with a giddy sense of vindication. For my project has been something of an uphill battle, both intellectually and personally.

For one thing, I woefully underestimated the challenges of writing on individuals whose ideologies I do not particularly like and tend to oppose on principle. At the same time, I wasn't prepared for the fact that my desire to write in an evenhanded style would lead to scurrilous accusations from colleagues -- and a few friends -- of aiding and abetting the "enemy."

When I first began to present my work at conferences and seminars, I was routinely scoffed at and eyed with suspicion. In the early 1990's, the idea that we should take the existence of minority conservatives seriously was still novel in some academic circles. One senior scholar in African-American studies even questioned my mental balance, along with my politics. My parents, too, were concerned. They had been far more comfortable

with my dissertation project on the history of religion and political radicalism in Detroit, our hometown. They had lived through the various labor and civil-rights battles that I chronicled, and had worked within the activist groups I analyzed. In comparison, my interest in conservatism struck them as bizarre. They feared, I suspect, that their only daughter, a young African-American woman, would (as the anthropologists used to say) "go native."

Perhaps even more troubling, I discovered that a number of my subjects confused my critical interest with political affinity. I sensed the assumption that I was -- or might be persuaded to become – a conservative during the first interviews I conducted with members of the right. Suffice it to say that conservative organizations recruit and that their offers are seductive.

The confusion about my intentions and political leanings is understandable, given the tendency of scholars to study who they are and what they love. But my reasons for embarking on my study were fairly straightforward. Simply put, I wrote the book that I wanted to read. I would have been delighted to purchase someone else's attempt to shed a little light on the phenomenon that I have come, with ironic intent, to call "multicultural


While I found some studies on black conservatives, and a few more on conservative women, I could find nothing that looked at the intersections, parallels, and tensions among rightward-leaning women, homosexuals, and people of color. Most of all, I wanted to know who they are and what they believe, how they have influenced the tenor of the contemporary conservative movement, and what the implications are for our political

culture, particularly in terms of national debates on race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, and difference.

My book, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Now?: Multicultural Conservatism in America, is my attempt to answer some of those questions. One of the first texts I turned to for clues about who multicultural conservatives are, at least in a broad philosophical sense, was a 1987 speech by Clarence Thomas to the Heritage Foundation. In it, he described the loneliness of black conservatives who are viewed by the right with indifference or suspicion and by the left with ridicule and scorn.

Yes, to be an African-American man, or a Latina woman, or a homosexual, and, at the same time, to be a political conservative is to have an intriguing problem. As the writer Bruce Bawer notes in his semiautobiographical book, A Place at the Table: The Gay Individual in American Society, "Because I happen to be gay, the far right expects me to keep my personal life a deep, dark secret, while the far left expects me to buy into its

entire political platform or risk being designated a self-hating homosexual." The woman and minority conservatives I survey in my book are forced to navigate that double bind of identity and ideology. Many, like Bawer, have turned to autobiographical stories to explain, and perhaps to explain away, why they are involved in a conservative movement whose history, many people say, is so deeply rooted in racist, patriarchal, homophobic, and exclusionary tendencies.

Before I began my research, I, like so many others, had assumed that multicultural conservatives were either pawns in a game played by powerful white, heterosexual men with comfortable class positions – or traitors, sellouts, and self-loathing lackeys. But such stereotypes, depicting white conservatives in blackface or male conservatives in drag, are as inadequate as they are simplistic. They ignore important questions of agency and choice

while obscuring the symbiotic quality of the relationships between multicultural conservatives and their allies among various segments of the New Right. Most dramatically, invoking stereotypes fails to allow for the complicated ways in which ideology can and does cut across demarcations of identity, relying instead on a truncated set of assumptions about cultural authenticity, experience, and legitimacy.

Multicultural conservatism is less an organized movement than a broadly shared tendency with a good deal of ideological diversity: It includes social and religious conservatism, libertarianism, free-market idealism, old-fashioned iconoclasm, and -- among African-Americans – a variant of black nationalism wedded to entrepreneurial capitalism, patriarchal gender relations, and a pragmatic use of racial cohesion. Some women and members of

minority groups joined the conservative movement years ago, driven by fears of communism; others have been motivated by concern over the expansion of the welfare state; still others by disillusionment with the left and the Democratic Party, as well as with the rise of a brand of identity politics they believe is based solely on group membership and an untenable valorization of victim status.

Some individuals, like the Rev. Earl Jackson, the Christian Coalition's national liaison to African-American churches, are members of the religious right, while others are moderate Republicans. In selecting men and women who are representative of what might be called the multicultural-conservative style, I focused primarily on self-identified conservatives. I

was also forced to create a second category of "fellow travelers" to discuss more protean figures like Richard Rodriguez, Katie Roiphe, and Stanley Crouch. While not card-carrying members of the right, they have nonetheless contributed to the development of multicultural conservatism.

There is no shortage of women and minorities who publicly align themselves with the right: Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the Eagle Forum; Thomas Sowell, in many ways the father of contemporary black conservatism; Glenn Loury, Walter Williams, Robert Woodson, Midge Decter, Andrew Sullivan, Linda Chavez, and, of course, Clarence Thomas -- all need little introduction. Nor do increasingly prominent politicians within the Republican Party, including Reps. Henry Bonilla of Texas, J. C. Watts of Oklahoma, Helen Chenoweth of Idaho, and the perennial presidential candidate Alan Keyes.

Others are slightly less well-known outside conservative circles. They include gay conservatives like Richard Tafel, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans; Latino conservatives like Al Zapanta, chairman of the National Hispanic Policy Forum; Asian-American conservatives like the AsianWeek columnist Arthur Hu and Susan Au Allen, an apolitical pundit and president of the US Pan Asian American Chamber of Commerce; black conservatives like Elizabeth Wright, the editor of the newsletter Issues & Views, Anne Wortham, a professor and committed libertarian, and Ezola Foster, who enjoyed a few moments of fame when selected to be Pat Buchanan's running mate in the 2000 election season; and other woman conservatives like Katherine Kersten, director of the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis, who describes herself as a conservative feminist.

I have often been asked whether I think these woman and minority conservatives are "really" or "authentically" conservative. Given the extent to which they have used (and been used by) the New Right to wage a campaign against adversaries to the left, I'm not quite sure that the question matters. Perceiving themselves as populists, insurgents, and prophets, multicultural conservatives dream, as did radicals in the 1960's, of creating a new social order. In their concerted efforts to limit the role of the federal government in dealing with structural inequalities, and to cleanse the public sphere of identity politics via an enforced blindness to color and other forms of difference, woman and minority conservatives have, especially since the 1970's, added a distinctive voice to the chorus against affirmative action, bilingual education, immigration, feminism, and an expansive vision of homosexual rights.

Today's multicultural conservatives share in the narrative deployed by so many conservatives in the past, which depicts them as marginalized and persecuted by a liberal cultural, political, and media elite. The anger directed at them by their critics, then, merely serves to reconfirm the rightness (pardon the pun) of their views and their courage in expressing them.

The complaint of having been silenced by stringent orthodoxy, which runs throughout the political project of multicultural conservatism, adds its own distinctive twist with its focus on civil-rights leaders and activities. There is, this line of argument goes, a powerful civil-rights establishment that has determined who is allowed to speak in the name of African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, women, and homosexuals, as well as how they are permitted to do so. Hence, conservatives say, more reasonable voices (their own) are suppressed in favor of hurling charges of racism, sexism, homophobia, and rampant discrimination. That tactic, they insist, is the hallmark of a profitable industry that serves

neither the poor nor the disenfranchised, but rather the leadership of the civil-rights establishment itself -- to the detriment of the very groups those advocates claim to represent and of society as a whole. Said to be located at the nexus of a diverse array of groups, including the N.A.A.C.P., La Raza, ACTUP, as well as the remnants of the old New Deal coalition, the civil-rights establishment stands accused of perpetuating a dangerous brand of liberalism that perverts the American political system.

Recasting a strategy used successfully by Richard Nixon, woman and minority conservatives assert that they are more authentic, more representative of what the silent (and silenced) majority actually wants, and that only they have an appropriate vision for the future. Black conservatives, especially, have had much to say about being silenced (if that is not a contradiction in terms), and about their derogatory treatment by the black-liberal contingent of the establishment. Alan Keyes, for example, has written that the civil-rights establishment's portrait of Clarence Thomas – as an ingrate who bit the hand that fed him --reveals the posture that the establishment feels is most appropriate for African-Americans: "on our knees thanking 'massah gubmit' for benefits and favors." Elizabeth Wright has

told an interviewer that the establishment is run by a generation of self-serving "octoroons" who make a good living on the white plantation. They are, Wright implies, the new Uncle Toms.

In general, the vision of the future put forth by the majority of multicultural conservatives involves looking backward to a Golden Age of politics, one supposedly dominated by a consensus over the desirability of assimilation -- not as members of an artificially contrived cultural minority, but as individuals, as citizens, as Americans. Such an assimilationist

sensibility, multicultural conservatives say, was derailed by the generation of the 1960's and the excessive radicalism of liberationist movements among black people, feminists, homosexuals, and Latinos. As a result, the demand for civil rights within a limited constitutional framework, along with acceptance of cultural assimilation, has given way to calls for special preferences and a crippling dependency on federal handouts.

That's essentially the argument Linda Chavez makes in her 1991 book, Out of the

Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation. The long-standing goal of assimilation was rejected, she argues, because Latinos found that being legally regarded as a separate and disadvantaged group entitled them to affirmative-action programs, compensatory education, government set-asides, and myriad other benefits. That has proved debilitating, Chavez claims, because it has impeded long-term prospects for assimilation and locked Latinos into a place outside mainstream society.

The nature of Chavez's critique owes a great deal to black-conservative reasoning on the issue, particularly to the depiction of black liberals as poverty pimps who are determined to sustain a profitable poverty industry. While others are busy assimilating, warns Ward Connerly, the darling of opposition to affirmative action, black people are getting further away from the ideal of one nation indivisible, an ideal that is in his view both inherently desirable and that has guided generations of African-Americans in the past. There is also a homosexual version of this narrative, glorifying the early homophile movement of the 1950's and early 1960's, and denigrating the Stonewall uprising and the gay-liberation movement it generated. Arguing against the post-Stonewall embrace of a gay subculture and against such academic trends as queer theory, for example, Bruce Bawer insists that the aspirations of most homosexuals lie in precisely the opposite direction: More than anything else, they want people to see past the stereotypes of the gay label and to view them as individuals.

I am ambivalent about the conservative insistence on assimilation and individualism. I sympathize with the desire of many multicultural conservatives to escape the confines of group identity. If we agree that one of the most tragic aspects of American racism has been to deny the joys and privileges of individualism and anonymity to those marked by the burden of color, then the dream of a nonracialized, or postracialized, identity is understandable, regardless of one's politics. To me, the problem is more with the means multicultural conservatives promote than with their ends: that one can pursue individual liberty only through assimilation and colorblindness. They have embraced a strategy of assimilation (and accommodation), guided by individualism, self-reliance, and free-market

capitalism. Above all, they want to depoliticize race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and, to some extent, class in the public arena.

Implicitly rejecting the notion that the personal is the political and that the public and private constitute a seamless whole, multicultural conservatives have urged a decoupling of those separate spheres. In essence, they say, civil society should be a place where citizens meet as individuals and equals in the eyes of the law; for that to happen, civil society needs to be decontaminated and rid of the private concerns of women and minority groups. All the state need do is guarantee equal opportunity to all citizens, not equality of results.

That individualistic ethic tends to de-emphasize the realities of structural barriers to advancement -- and that is precisely the point. The doors to achieving the American Dream are now open to us all. We need only rely on ourselves (and our private support networks) to walk through them. The last remaining barriers are mostly those erected by excessive government intervention in the workings of the free market. Affirmative action and welfare, along with the minimum wage, cumbersome regulation of small businesses, tax disincentives, and closed shops must be done away with so that individuals can better themselves. Deregulating public education, especially through voucher schemes, stands alongside right-to-work legislation as further necessary correctives.

The twist that the multicultural-conservative critique of the civil-rights establishment puts on the older conservative critique of the liberal (and Eastern) establishment is an important one: The contributions of women and, particularly, of members of minority groups have allowed conservatives, some of whom once prided themselves on fighting desegregation and legislative civil-rights initiatives, to lay claim to the goals of the civil-rights movement -- at least in its 1954-65 phase. That tricky bit of revisionism is hard to imagine without the participation of multicultural conservatives, who lend the stamp of legitimacy.

The effort to lay claim to the civil-rights legacy is growing. Look, for example, at Clint Bolick, vice president of the Institute for Justice and one of the key figures in the opposition to affirmative action. Bolick is a white lawyer who has positioned himself as the true heir of the pre-1965 civil-rights movement while attacking the current civil-rights establishment. Ralph Reed Jr., the former executive director of the Christian Coalition and the chief architect of that organization's minority-outreach efforts (as well as a current adviser to George W. Bush), has appropriated the mantle of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez in his move to solidify a multiracial, multiethnic, and interdenominational base of support.

By redefining what "us versus them" means, Reed, Bolick, and others have demonstrated the enormous flexibility of the civil-rights narrative in helping smooth over the internal tensions and potential fissures that threaten the cohesion and stability of the New Right. In

packaging the narrative for public consumption, various forms of difference can be invoked, at least symbolically, but easily masked, ideologically.

Thus, the critique of the civil-rights establishment and advocacy of public blindness to race, gender, sexual orientation, and class have provided multicultural conservatives with a platform that has enabled them to exert a good deal of influence on other conservatives. By aligning themselves with the New Right and the Republican Party, multicultural conservatives have played a pivotal role in American politics and public policy.

Although relatively few in numbers, multicultural conservatives are well positioned within the New Right's coalition to exert a disproportionate degree of influence. Such influence rests largely on the extent to which they have become involved in, and indebted to, the intricate institutional infrastructure of a modern conservative movement that is held

together by a network of think tanks, foundations, advocacy groups, political-action

committees, and national and grassroots organizations, as well as by newsletters, journals, magazines, Web sites, and radio talk shows. Given the level of access to corridors of power that multicultural conservatives have already achieved -- and will no doubt continue to reach in the new Bush administration -- the left's dismissive charge that they have no

mass following within their own groups rings increasingly hollow.

Beyond taking advantage of their positions within existing conservative networks, woman and minority conservatives have also begun to knit together their own version of a movement culture to work out strategies, share resources, celebrate victories, and mourn defeats. A sense of being linked to others who share political and personal interests is key. By uniting a particular identification (being black or gay, for example) with the universal one (being conservative), multicultural conservatives are striving to replicate the coalition politics once used so successfully by the left. Each of the groups I studied has its own organizations, yet those also work in tandem with the organizations of the other groups. Far from contradicting the often-stated opposition of multicultural conservatives to identity politics, such organizations place separate identities in the service of larger conservative goals.

I came of age during the Reagan 80's, am a member of the post-civil-rights generation. I was raised within the relatively protected cocoon of the black middle class. Yet I'm still surprised at multicultural conservatism. As I've struggled to understand it, I've come to realize that my book is not only -- or even primarily -- about conservatism. Rather, it is an

investigation of the ongoing transformation of our public dialogue on the meaning

and significance of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. That, it seems to me, is exactly why multicultural conservatism matters.

It matters because woman and minority conservatives have participated in delegitimizing the idea of demanding collective redress from the state for historical and contemporary wrongs -- an idea that has traditionally guided the struggles of women and minority groups for inclusion and parity. It matters because, in seeking to liberate themselves from the confines of an oppressive group identity, multicultural conservatives have shifted the focus to individuals and away from social forces in a far-too-simple story of success and failure, one that demands no redistributive justice for a large segment of American society. And it matters, finally, because, by positioning themselves within the ranks of the right (either as diehard devotees or lukewarm fellow travelers), woman and minority conservatives

have allowed their conservative allies to ignore the criticisms -- and in some cases the very existence -- of nonconservative women, homosexuals, and people of color.

The Republican rainbow convention should not be written off as providing just an illusion of inclusion; nor should George W. Bush's cabinet appointments, nor his invitation to a select group of ministers (many of them black or Latino) to help him establish an office of

"faith-based" action in his new administration. Rather, they must be understood as the

latest attempt by the right to tap into the phenomenon of multicultural conservatism. Since it is unlikely to be the last, we would all do well to take the phenomenon seriously.

Angela D. Dillard is an assistant professor of history and politics at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. Her book, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Now?: Multicultural Conservatism in America, is being published this month by New York University Press.

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