I still have a few white, conservative friends.
They are people who deeply dislike Donald Trump and much of the direction of the Republican Party, but also have serious reservations about the Democrats and many progressive causes. They remind me that it is possible to be white and conservative and not be fascist and racist. I think they are right about fascism. Liz Cheney is a good example. I disagree with most of her political positions, but I respect her commitment to the democratic process.
I am not so sure about the racism claim.
Is it possible to be white, conservative, and not be racist?
I am always curious about what white conservatives are trying to conserve. Some seem to long for a past age in America when “life was good.” Others suggest they seek to conserve American values they see as threatened or even lost. Still others hope to conserve – or perhaps reclaim – a politics with less rancor and vitriol. While their pronouncements sound noble, they all build upon the idea that America’s best days were in its past. These people may despise Trump, but they seem quite comfortable with “Making America Great Again.”
I often ask them when they think America was great. When asked this question in 2017, Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for the Alabama Senate race, replied, “America was great at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery.” In other words, America was great when six million Black men, woman and children were treated as property.
Most of my conservative friends were as appalled by Moore’s claim as I was, but their response to that question isn’t really all that different. They often mention some time in their childhood or early adulthood. A Pew survey of Republicans found that when asked “when was America great,” many chose the 1950s and early 1960s as the last years when America was great. In other words, America was great before the Civil Rights Movement challenged Jim Crow and restored civil rights to people of color.
This is the problem with any nostalgic desire to return to an American past – it is inherently racist. To do so is to ennoble and glorify a time when people of color had far fewer right than white people. It is to conserve a status quo that was white supremacist in tone and practice. Frankly, unless you are a white male, there is no better time to live in the United States than right now. This is true if you are woman, a person of color, physically or mentally challenged, homosexual, bi-sexual, transgender, gender neutral or any other minority or marginalized group.
When I point this out to my white conservative friends, they never ague. They know this is true. They usually shift to arguing for conserving certain American values – a belief in God, a defined moral order, slow and careful change, valuing past precedent, and social order. For example, they often lament the loss of the nuclear family as the bedrock of American greatness. Divorce is too easy. Children are raised without fathers. They yearn for a day when the family is once more honored and advantaged.
They seem completely unaware of how racist policies caused much of what they lament. Historically, public policy intentionally and consistently undermined the families of people of color by creating economic and legal obstacles to their success. Policies were designed to promote white families at the expense of black families. In the 1950’s, public policy brought millions of dollars to white veterans through the GI Bill and largely ignored black veterans. Social Security was originally designed to exclude many occupations that employed people of color. Welfare laws required poor families to be led by single mothers, disrupting many minority families. After the 1960s, many of these policies – designed to impact families of color – began to also impact white families negatively.
Here is a painful truth for white conservatives – the nuclear family with a mother at home was a result of policies which gave white families financial advantages at the expense of families of color. Women of color rarely had the option of staying home with their children. They were often working for those white nuclear families. Nostalgia for this kind of family inherently devalues a multitude of other types of family configurations that developed as alternatives to a kind of family primarily reserved for white people.
Too often, whether white conservatives acknowledge it or not – what they seek to conserve is a culture of whiteness. It is a belief in the God of a white Jesus. It is a defined moral order which values and defends a status quo where whites are vastly richer than people of color. It values past precedent without acknowledging the racist motives and prejudices of past figures, pronouncements, laws, and legal opinions. White conservatives love to talk of the founding fathers without any embarrassment that all of them were white men – most of them slave owners.
When I bring all of this into the conversation, often white conservatives admit these truths, but argue that they miss the days when such conversations didn’t have to be so rancorous, when we could talk about racism and justice without animosity.
To which I say that day never existed.
What existed was a culture where the opinions of white people were the only opinions given opportunity, value, and voice. There was little rancor around issues of race and justice because white people generally agreed that people of color – as minorities – did not deserve a voice in American democracy. And, since white people were the majority of the electorate, they were in a position to defend their privileges.
The animosity white conservatives are experiencing now is the built-up frustrations of voices long ignored or silenced. They are often aimed at those who would conserve this racist past. Are they loud? Yes. Are they insistent? Yes. Are they invalid? No. When white conservatives yearn for a day when political discourse was more tranquil and less partisan, they yearn for a day with all political parties and social institutions generally supported white supremacy.
This is my problem with my white conservative friends.
They yearn for a past that no one else misses.
It is a racist past.
Their desire to conserve that is racist.
10 thoughts on “To Be White and Conservative Is To Be Racist”
Jim, this article is outstanding. Thank you for always making me think. Your explanations are so simple and logical. You help me grow and I forward your words on to others. Thanks again.
James, your posts are always incisive and thought-provoking, and this one is no exception. I recently published a book in which I addressed some of the same issues that you have addressed here. In what I wrote, I drew the following conclusion:
The primary responsibility for the crisis confronting America today falls upon the tens of millions of white Christians who manifest this nation’s worst impulses and inclinations. The problem is neither these people’s political party nor their religious affiliation. The problem is the content of their character. Good people disagree about social, economic, and political issues; honest difference of opinion remain inevitable. Nonetheless, the members of the Religious Right who continue to embrace the deranged delusions of a blustering bully are not good people. (To Lose One’s Soul: Exposing the Apostasy of the Religious Right, Borgo Press, 2022)
Your ability to confront the issues clearly and concisely is much appreciated. Keep up the good work!
As far as the “Conservative” label goes, I’ve wondered the same thing: Conserve what? As a person effectively in that camp, I’ve never been crazy about the label, precisely because the obvious question it invokes doesn’t seem to have an obvious answer. I can hear all those responses you list, but I’d suggest they’re mostly canned responses that fail to reach the true heart of it. “Great again” to most Trump supporters really just means “not mired in this current turmoil.” “On an upward trajectory again.” To whatever degree you’re criticisms land true, it is so much more complex than the melanin-challenged apes grunting “Us white. We best. Must keep brown apes down. Serve us.”
What I want to conserve is liberty for every tribe, tongue, and nation. The reason liberty is a thing that must be actively and deliberately conserved is because power corrupts. Yes, power corrupted and still corrupts to some degree the white majority. The US constitution, however imperfect originally and still now, is ultimately rooted in the idea that the ruling class must be intentionally divided and constrained. Initially it only focused on the power of government officials. Amendments were added to incrementally constrain that white majority. I think more amendments are probably needed—to constrain the emergent powers of politically enmeshed corporations and their historically accumulated wealth. Political parties seem also to have outsized power in their monopolization of the vague branding of ideas. Conserving liberty for all means actively diffusing and restraining all forms of self-centralizing ruling power. Other than a tiny remnant of overt KKK and Nazi sympathizers (I’ve maybe met one that I know of), conservatives are generally oriented towards liberty for all. Aspirationally at least, if only haltingly in practice.
Progressives, on the other hand, have effectively said “F*** the constraint of power. Consolidate power and crush conservatives.” You, as a self-identified Socialist Democrat, aim to fully centralize control of the economy into the hands of a cadre of presumed experts and well-run agencies who know best how to allocate resources and distribute benefits in an equitable and efficient manner, leaving no one behind. I’ve never yet seen a coherent plan for such an empowered ruling class to avoid the inherent corruption of such power on the scale that would be in effect here. Have you?
Keith, I’ve missed your thoughtful conservative responses. I do find the claim that “conservatives are generally oriented toward liberty to all” to be incredible. I think everyone I mention in the blog – women, gay and lesbian, transgender, people of color, etc – would wonder if you and they live on the same planet. Our present crisis is certainly complicated, which make simplistic appeals to return to the past unhelpful when that past was one where “Us white. We best. Must keep brown apes down. Serve us” pretty much summarizes the positions of the ruling elite.
I also question your claim that the constitution was rooted in the concept of constraining the ruling class since it was pretty much written by the ruling class. Certainly, amendments have slowly changed the document to something more interested in equity, but historically conservatives have resisted nearly every one of those changes. The Declaration of Independence is probably more aspirational than the Constitution thought they get co-mingled in much thought.
Finally, while I share your concern about the corrupting nature of power, I would suggest there are several good European models for how Social Democracy can create a stable and more equitable culture, albeit in countries without our very diverse population.
As always, you remain one of those conservatives that fascinates and frustrates me. I wonder if, as you say, the progressive – conservative binary is part of our problem.
What planet, indeed. Sad thing is we live in different fact universes. We each get our information from the side we already agree with. That is why I make the effort to read your blog and weigh in occasionally.
About 46% of women are familiar with “my planet.” 15% of LGBT. 18% of Blacks. 24% of hispanics. And Kaitlin Jenner. So you’re dismissing a lot of people when you say “everyone” of these categories will wonder what planet I’m from. You seem to think I’m this vanishingly rare creature—an only slightly bigoted, though hopelessly diluted conservative. I’d like you to imagine that perhaps there are a lot more like me than unlike me. And that maybe you don’t see us exactly as we are. If only we all had a tiny bit of grace for each other, and an ability to risk some trust and learn each other’s vocabulary.
The constitution was absolutely an attempt to divide and constrain ruling power—and of course, by definition, it was written by those in power. That’s what made its constraints on power so remarkable. Enumerated powers: no powers could be assumed by the federal government not already specified in the document. The checks and balances of 3 coequal branches. Police powers delegated to the states. The Bill of Rights. Just because it didn’t immediately solve all problems doesn’t mean it wasn’t a radical turn in a good direction. People all over the world are still trying to get here, including from Africa. Is that not at least some testament to its success, however limited?
As always, well argued and stated. Though you might find out that a lot of those conservative women, LGBT, Blacks and Latinos you claim might still have serious issues with your claim that conservatives want liberty for all. The abortion issue is a good example of where conservatives assumed more than they should have about their own tribe. That’s the problem with the categories, they both help us understand and misunderstand each other.
I think “only slightly bigoted, though hopelessly deluded conservative” is probably a pretty good description of how I see you. I’d leave out the term hopeless since you’re reading my blog. LOL.
(eye roll) I’ll leave it at that.
Brilliantly written and stated. I totally agree.
“People all over the world are still trying to get here, including from Africa. Is that not at least some testament to its success, however limited?” People all over the world fell for the idea of, so called “american dream”, forgetting “The Great America” from the mainstream movies, with all the superheroes and so on, is a big, BIG lie. If the people knew the truth behind living in the US, all the injustice, inequality and hatred, I’m sure, they would be much more careful calling the US “The Greatest” America. Most of today’s world issues, and the worst crisis, is caused by the play between “big gamers”, The US (politicians) being the first and one of the most predatory players. What is the prize? Of course, money, money. And the power, because power is cool. As a person living in eastern Europe (no, not in Russia), I can see the things clearly. Time to stop thinking US and A (I think about the majority of white people) is “exceptional” or something. No, it is NOT. US and A, with its politicians, play only with the issues that are profitable for them, no more, no less. It was confirmed through our history too many times. Keeping these racist system alive is profitable, so why shoul we change that? Global crisis and fueling it is profitable, so why should we change anything? This kind of logic, forgetting that you can’t eat money, and there is no one to help you, when you destroy others.
Mr. Mulholland, keep on doing what you do! This work is hard, but nobody said it would be easy.