Letter to a Young Conservative: Why They Call Us Uncle Toms

Black conservatives like to dismiss criticism from more left-leaning blacks as "they won't let us have our own opinions." But black folks are open to divergent thought -- as long as they know you care about the same things they do.

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All human beings hold convictions in their heads that cancel one another out. We often want lower taxes and more services. Or a thoroughly sensible person might accuse Tyler Perry and rappers of being "modern-day minstrels" but, if asked whether he thinks black people should be America's only people uniquely forbidden to act silly in performances, will answer no.

Or, in the same way, people can treat racism as black America's most urgent topic while swelling with pride to hear of blacks who founded thriving, all-black business districts and who invented things like the modern View-Master (yes!) while Jim Crow was legal.

The black conservative is responsible for making people question an idea that racism must be extinct before black people can overcome. Understanding that our goal is to thrive despite racism rather than fetishizing it is, in fact, the central ideological plank of people deemed "black conservatives." This is a coherent position, but that can be hard to perceive, given the way that race has been discussed in our land over the past 40 years or so.

There are two places to go. Some black conservatives believe that black uplift can happen in the logical sense only with a revolution in black family mores, and that short of this, nothing can or will change. I find that view unduly pessimistic, and yet sound. It is most cogently made, as it happens, by a white law professor, Amy Wax, with step-by-step ratiocination, the basic coherence of which few of any stripe could deny. Her whiteness in no way disqualifies her from logic, and if you choose her "bootstraps"-style argument, you should treat Wax's book as a bible. And watch her in action here.

I prefer arguing that there are societal interventions short of a new civil rights revolution that must be drummed up by blacks and fellow travelers because they have been shown to make a difference in poor black people's lives. These organizations are supported by conservatives and yet have better track records than, say, Head Start.

Most black people will be happy to let you have your conservative opinion if you just show that yours, like theirs, is intended to help people. This is true even of the Wax argument, although you'll have to be prepared to push a little harder to elucidate how charging people with responsibility is a form of helping them. (Having to do so is something that would have shocked black community leaders in 1950, but I digress.)

Oh, yeah: Be prepared for the objection, "I don't think there has to be no racism, but there still has to be less before poor black people can get anywhere." The proper answer here is, "How much less racism does there need to be? And why, exactly?" Almost always, the discussion gets more useful at this point; few have had occasion to think about such a question.

But make no mistake -- you will never reach some. There's the type who are as irritated by a black writer straying from holding racism front and center as by a stray eyelash in their eye. But they are a minority. My impression is that their numbers decrease by the year. What matters is the majority capable of listening.

Black "controversialists" are fond of writing about how their black detractors are professional victims. Yet we fall into the same trap when whimpering about an oversimplification, like people "not letting us have our own opinions." If blacks on the left are responsible for serious listening to truly different opinions, so are blacks on the right.

If you're a young black person feeling rightish and itching to jump in, keep all of this in mind.