Acton Institute Powerblog

The end of black conservatism?

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On December 27, 2016, at the age of 86, Thomas Sowell published his last column. After publishing dozens of books and hundreds of columns, Dr. Sowell’s retirement may mark the beginning of the end of an era of black intellectuals who were champions of political and economic liberty. Other black scholars like Walter Williams, W.B. Allen, and Shelby Steele are all in the 70s or 80s and there does not seem to be a cadre of like-minded black scholars in their wake.

While in Atlanta for Christmas, I stumbled upon a June 1994 issue of National Minority Politics magazine at my parent’s home. The magazine began as a newsletter in the 1980s and eventually became a monthly periodical that was renamed Headway before publication ceased in 1999. Willie and Gwen Richardson published Headway to feature leading black and Hispanic conservative voices like Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Raoul Contreas, Roger Hernandez, Linda Chavez, Kay Cole James, Deroy Murdock, and others. The magazine hosted leadership conferences that created conversations between minority conservatives and politicians like William Bennett, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, Phil Gramm, and Gary Franks. Many of Headway’s events were captured on C-SPAN in the mid-1990s.

The political philosophy of Headway included the following:

1) Strong families. The foundation of any stable society is–first and foremost–strong families in every community. We should stress to our youth the importance of marriage and keeping families together.
2) Individual responsibility. Almost every human being is endowed with the necessary means to be successful–a sound mind and the ability to think, reason and make choices. These natural gifts are accompanied with the equal obligation to take responsibility for one’s actions.
3) Free enterprise. Our nation has been the most successful on earth in fostering and promoting a free enterprise system with opportunity for all. Strengthening this system is our best hope for a thriving economy in the future.
4) Less government. The size and influence of government at all levels must be minimized in order to guarantee a free society. Government should play a role in performing certain functions, like maintaining a strong defense, but we should not expect government to solve all our problems.
5) Strong Defense. While it is not America’s role to be the world’s policeman, there are sometimes threats to American lives and interests which we cannot tolerate.
6) Community-based problem solving. Rather than looking to the federal government to solve local problems, such as crime and education, we can and should develop solutions in our local communities.
7) Good taste and common sense in popular culture. The level of violence, promiscuous sex and immoral behavior on television, in movies and in music lyrics should be reduced as it has adverse effects on society, especially our children.
8) Compassionate conservatism. While stressing the importance of free enterprise and less government, we must recognize our responsibility as a society to help those who help themselves, or who are unable to help themselves through no fault of their own.

What’s missing from this list is an issue that became a defining position of the conservative coalition in the mid-1990s: abortion. With the rise of Newt Gingrich as the 50th Speaker of the House of Representatives, and the passing of the Partial-Birth Abortion Act of 1995, abortion became a centerpiece of American conservatism beyond the concerns of economics and public policy. Before that, abortion had not been a centerpiece of black conservatism because many black conservatives were more aligned with classical liberal political philosophy and Austrian economics, like Sowell and Williams, rather than religious right conservatism.

The inclusion of pro-life politics into political and economic conservatism inadvertently took the wind out of the sails of many conservative African American scholars who were more concerned with issues of political and economic liberty. For example, black conservatives like Condolezza Rice, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Shelby Steele, John McWhorter, Kiron Skinner, and the like, have never made abortion a key issue.

Sadly, it seems that with the retirement of Thomas Sowell, and the inevitable retirement of scholars like Walter Williams, Shelby Steele, black scholars, as champions of political and economic liberty, will continue to fade away if abortion remains the litmus test for identifying one’s allegiance to conservatism. This is the end of an era. Black conservatism was its most winsome and popular when it primarily addressed issues other than abortion.

Finally, we’re left with the question of whether or not there ever again be a coalition of black and Hispanic scholars who have the political philosophy like the one outlined at Headway magazine? Or, is the best yet to come?

Anthony Bradley Anthony Bradley, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics in the Public Service Program at The King's College in New York City and serves as a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Dr. Bradley lectures at colleges, universities, business organizations, conferences, and churches throughout the U.S. and abroad. His books include: Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (2010),  Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development (2011),  The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone of the Black Experience (2012), Keep Your Head Up: America's New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation (2012), Aliens in the Promised Land:  Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (forthcoming, 2013). Dr. Bradley's writings on religious and cultural issues have been published in a variety of journals, including: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit News, and World Magazine. Dr. Bradley is called upon by members of the broadcast media for comment on current issues and has appeared C-SPAN, NPR, CNN/Headline News, and Fox News, among others. He studies and writes on issues of race in America, hip hop, youth culture, issues among African Americans, the American family, welfare, education, and modern slavery. From 2005-2009, Dr. Bradley was Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO where he also directed the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute.   Dr. Bradley holds Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from Clemson University, a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Westminster Theological Seminary.  Dr. Bradley also holds an M.A. in Ethics and Society at Fordham University.


  • “The inclusion of pro-life politics into political and economic conservatism inadvertently took the wind out of the sails of many conservative African American scholars who were more concerned with issues of political and economic liberty. ”

    Not only that, but it has been clear to a lot of people that conservatives pay lip service to economic freedom. My biggest gripe with the Republican party since 1980 has been that it is only slightly less socialist than the Democrat party while being willing to bankrupt the nation on military spending.

    But Sowell and Williams weren’t conservatives. They were closer to libertarian. It’s a shame that these two brilliant economists had so little impact on black Americans. The black community should be ashamed for allowing such brilliance to go to waste and instead following the incredible stupidity of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. .

  • Matt Howell

    Why is abortion a dividing line issue with black conservatives? Is it because they were pro-abortion? Is it because, as Roger McKinney indicates, they were more libertarian in their views? Curious about why that became a reason to back away from the conservatives of the religious right.

  • John Guthrie

    When you look at the toll abortion has taken on the African-American community, perhaps its time for a different kind of black conservative, along the lines of Alveda King, niece of MLK Jr.

  • Anthony Bradley

    Great question. Historically, black conservatism, since Reconstruction, was not tied to a political party. It was the GOP who rejected black conservatives because abortion was never a key issue on a black conservative platform. Being pro-life doesn’t mean that one votes only for “pro-life” candidates. Black conservatives were in both the Democratic and Republican parties given the list of issues outline above. For black pro-life conservatives, voting for a pro-choice libertarian candidate is perfectly sensical. The fact that abortion is not on that list of issues for Headway magazine should be instructive.

  • bluescratch

    I consider abortion to be more of a Christian problem than a political. More of a horrible symptom than a problem. Republicans always want to outlaw abortion and that alienates half the population(more or less) and when christian’s jump on the outlaw abortion idea it often gives ammunition to those who stand against us.
    One thing in my many readings of scripture I have yet to find where Jesus said anything about petitioning Caesar, and Paul might’ve dodged prison had he not petitioned Caesar.
    Abortion is a symptom of broken families in most cases, reprehensible vanity and often over board promiscuity. Those are the things Christians should be fighting. If a law banning all abortions ever passed, it will not fix those things, will not stop abortion and cause many people to become lawbreakers.
    Before you consider a stand to outlaw abortion please look at history. There were more people who used alcohol the day after prohibition than the day before. In spite of many stifling laws against it, marijuana became the number 1 cash crop in America all the way back to the ’70’s. I could go on, but basically enforceable laws often do not change behaviors in a positive way, often the change is negative.

    • Concerning Caesar, you raise a great point about Jesus and are probably right about Paul; but footnotes in my Bible clued me in that he may have appealed on purpose just to be able to evangelize larger crowds and other government officials. That is to say, he wasn’t particularly interested in being released at that point. His focus, was on evangelism and not political or legal restitution. Perhaps this is what you are suggesting is the New Testament ethos.

    • Excellent points! Abortions fell below one million for the first time this year even though it’s still legal.

  • Phillip

    The 8 points or platform issues noted above are shared by many African-Americans on the left. We are not for “more” government or “big” government. We want a government that will protect ALL citizens from unfair laws and practices that level disparate impact – intentional or deliberate; state or local – on classes of people…women, racial minorities, veterans, gays, the rich and others. And we are largely pro CHOICE not pro-abortion. There’s a difference.