What Conservatives Get Wrong on Race

By Thomas Wheatley

On race, conservatives are right—but also wrong. To be sure, the fundamental principles of conservatism are the perfect antidote to racism in America: free market economics, Aristotelian virtuousness, and equality in a state of nature provide a field-tested model for prosperity that is wholly intolerant of unjust prejudice. Additionally, the conservative understanding of America’s founding is spot on—the Founders did not aim to make slavery a permanent fixture in American life (quite the opposite, in fact). Where conservatism falls short, rather, is its inattention to the lasting scars of history. Although the pain of institutional racism recedes with each generation, the memory nonetheless survives, affecting how many black Americans today understand their relationship with the rest of the world. Time heals wounds—but it does not undo them.

I. America’s Original Sin

America’s racist past is undeniable. Since the republic’s inception, people of color have struggled to find equal treatment both under the law and among their fellow countrymen. An early example of this racism may be found in the revisions surrounding the Declaration of Independence. Although the Declaration’s text reveals hundreds of worthwhile insights into the minds of the Founding Fathers and serves as the basis for sound ideas that would later appear in the Constitution, it is likewise revealing, however, to note what the Founders struck from the Declaration’s text—specifically the following:

“[The King] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation tither.” 

Historians explain this omission as an act of judiciousness; that the success of the war of independence relied on the unity of the colonies, and such unity could only survive if all involved—including slaveholders—believed the new government would preserve their most valued institutions, slavery in particular.

A similar compromise was repeated at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Four provisions were offered to the slaveholding states in exchange for their support for the new Constitution. First was the Three-Fifths Clause, a compromise on representation which deprived the Southern states of a decisive numerical advantage in Congress. Second was the Slave Trade Clause, which imposed a limit on Congress’s authority to regulate the slave trade until 1808. Third was the Fugitive Slave Clause, which provided that escaped slaves would be returned to those who claimed ownership. Finally, Article V bestowed upon the first and fourth clauses of Article I, § 9 immunity from repeal by constitutional amendment. Although the words “slavery” or “slave” never appeared in the Constitution’s text, the demands of politics ensured slavery’s survival.

However, despite the Constitution’s slavery provisions, no person can reasonably conclude the Framers erred in their decision to table the abolition of slavery. Nor should the Constitution or Declaration of Independence be read as unreservedly sanctioning the supposed inferiority of black people, as Roger Taney and Stephen Douglas believed. In 1860, of the Framers and the Constitution, Frederick Douglass remarked, “American statesmen… thought they were providing for the abolition of slavery. All regarded slavery as an expiring and doomed system, destined to speedily disappear from the country… the intentions of the framers of the Constitution were good, not bad…”

Indeed, had the Founders sought to abolish slavery at the outset, the rights of people of color would have been doomed to the moral compass of their enslavers. In a terrifying alternative to history, the slaveholding states would have likely ratified their own constitution and fixated slavery in explicit positive law, burying any prospect of emancipation once and for all.

Still, for people of color, circumstantial prudence—in this case, the Founder’s decision to tolerate slavery in the short term to prevent the nation’s demise—understandably falls short of full amelioration. Today, the reality for virtually all black people in America is that they, unlike whites, must accept a history of inferior treatment, and must ultimately come to the conclusion that such inferior treatment helped forge a nation of massive triumph. Prudence, it would seem, is just a euphemism for deferment; effectively, a command for black Americans to bear the brunt of white political limitations.

That terrible command has resurfaced throughout American history. Although the 750,000 casualties of the Civil War consigned the institution of slavery to antiquity, the moral failures of 1776 and 1787 continued to haunt the United States well after the surrender at Appomattox Court House. Black Codes, or laws passed to maintain white supremacy and to prevent the amalgamation of freed slaves into white society, arose in the South as a means to skirt the Thirteenth Amendment. In response, Congress passed the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to guarantee equal protection under state and federal law and to protect the franchise of black Americans, respectively.

White supremacists, however, remained undeterred. Poll taxes and literacy tests, coupled with threats of violent reprisal by lynch mobs and the resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan, erected massive barriers for black Americans seeking to effectuate their right to a republican government. Despite small victories in the courts (notably, the Texas primary cases14), it was not until the mid-1960’s with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did black Americans finally enjoy robust federal protection to exercise the same rights whites had enjoyed largely without encumbrance since the Founders’ time.

In other words, only after 189 years were black Americans, at least on paper, finally considered equal to whites.

Such a humiliating lag transcends generations. Not only were black Americans originally cast by their white brethren into a status barely above livestock, but it took nearly two agonizing centuries before the nation could purge its laws of barefaced racial prejudice (activists like Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, still contend much of American law continues to enable at least implicit racism). All the while, people of color have had to reconcile this abominable past with the ubiquitous absolution of their original enslavers—the Founders—as heroes of American statesmanship.

II. Beckoning Empathy

In light of the foregoing, it should surprise no one that a person of color understands the issue of race differently than do whites. When a person of color is followed in a store, hears car doors lock as they walk by, or is inexplicably stopped by law enforcement, they, unlike whites, do not see an isolated occurrence of antipathy. They understand such happenings as would any people bearing the generational scars of Bull Connor, William Joseph Simmons, and John Calhoun; that is, as a horrible reminder that the seeds of America—the most prosperous, free, and advanced society in human history—were sown through their enslavement and cultivated amidst their torment.

It is little wonder, therefore, that many black people feel somewhat alienated by America’s heritage. Indeed, that any person of color could feel completely at home in a country possessing such a legacy is extraordinary. To once more quote Frederick Douglass:

“What to the American slave is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless… a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”

For black Americans, being wronged so egregiously without meaningful recourse or even compassion from those unaffected by America’s original sin is a fate of interminable anguish. Accordingly, conservatives would be wise to reassess their current response to this pain. Instead of trying to invalidate or dismiss the subjective experiences of black people in America, conservatives should strive for a more comprehensive understanding of why so many people of color remain skeptical of the American Dream.

Such an empathetic ear will yield two worthwhile outcomes.

First, conservatives will be more attuned to modern societal norms that are remnants of America’s past sins. An increased awareness will inevitably encourage patience over impetuousness, as well as illuminate alternative, superior pathways to achieve goals amenable to conservative values. A judge, for example, will reinforce equality under the law by taking additional measures to ensure a sentence given to a black defendant matches sentences given for the same crime when committed by white defendants; a police officer will better observe Fourth Amendment rights by confirming whether his or her suspicion is in fact reasonable and articulable, or simply the result of an unfair personal prejudice.

Second, black Americans will be more inclined to understand conservativism as the ideology most suited for human flourishing. Although conservatives often have admirable intentions in stressing the need for “color-blindness”—or the total disregard for skin color in all social interactions—the constraints of reality serve as a reminder that human advancement is not confined to a vacuum. Once conservatives demonstrate an appreciation for the role of history in modern race relations, black people will more easily distinguish true conservatism—small government, a strong national defense, and free enterprise—from the absurd caricature oftpainted by guileful members of the media and the far left.

Critically, of course, such empathy cannot be achieved through the force of law. The act of embracing empathy must be voluntary; anything less breeds resentment, deprives the ignorant of the opportunity to learn from moral discourse, and transforms a basic problem of trust into a needless fight over the role of government. For this reason, conservatives are right to oppose short-sighted ideas such as race-based preferences in admissions, reparations, and other forms of state-sponsored racial discrimination (never mind that enshrining racial bias in law is patently unwise, as nebulous compensation for past harms easily lends itself to unjust retribution; it is also, in the American context, tragically ironic).

III. Conclusion

The challenge for conservatives is not intellectual or academic in nature; the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are not, nor have they ever been, pro-slavery documents. To say otherwise is to accuse Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King, Jr. of unabashed fraud. Instead, conservatives’ task is an exercise in cultural empathy—specifically, achieving a sentient understanding that many black Americans are still struggling to overcome the damages both tangible and intangible of transgenerational cruelty. Conservatives must look past the riots and media-fueled hysteria and see the tremendous pain borne by our American brothers and sisters. To do so is not “appeasement”—we are not at war. Nor is it a betrayal of conservatism. It is, rather, a historic opportunity to bridge the divide between white and black America and finally eradicate the careworn ancestral distrust between two fundamentally good peoples.


Thomas Wheatley is a weekly contributor to the Washington Post and a student at the Antonin Scalia Law School in Arlington, Virginia. As a conservative writer, his work has appeared in outlets such as Fox News, The Hill, the Washington Times, the Daily Caller, and American Thinker. Follow him on Twitter @TNWheatley.

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