I am, to say the least, honored to receive your Richard Weaver Award and to be invited to share some thoughts with you tonight. Richard Weaver observed, in Ideas Have Consequences: “There is ground for declaring that modern man has become a moral idiot. . . . For four centuries every man has been not only his own priest but his own professor of ethics, and the consequence is an anarchy which threatens even that minimum of consensus of value necessary to the political state.” Refusing to despair, Dr. Weaver fashioned his book as a weapon in a protracted war for spiritual renewal. Yet, reflecting on the ravages of what he called the “hysterical optimism” of modern man, he added, “Whether man any longer wants to live in society at all or is willing to accept an animal existence is a question that must be raised in all seriousness.” With those words in mind, permit me some reflections on the deepening racial crisis in America and the constructive insights that may be brought to bear by the Southern conservative tradition for which Dr. Weaver spoke.
About 50 percent of black teenagers do not attend school, and the black unemployment rate runs several times higher than that for whites. Plausible analyses project a substantial majority of black males dead, on drugs, or in jail by the age of 25. Blacks may be pardoned for hyperbole in speaking of creeping genocide, for they are getting too close to the truth for comfort. Behind the statistics lie not merely the unemployed and underemployed, but a growing number of unemployables. We may reasonably counter the implicit threat to our society by invoking the harshest of measures to put down riots, uprisings, and frontal assaults on our persons, homes, and political institutions. For self-preservation is the foremost “right” of any people. But we cannot reasonably leave it at that. For in resorting to what may become necessary measures, we shall risk the repudiation of our Judeo-Christian heritage, the defilement of our national soul, and the shredding of the very free political institutions we are trying to preserve.
The “drug culture,” the “crime in the streets,” and the decline of “law and order,” however much invoked as racist code words, gravely threaten all of us, especially the black people who constitute the principal victims. A debate on the left was recently opened by the Reverend Eugene Rivers, the black Pentecostal pastor of the Azusa Christian Community who has been leading the fight to restore civilized community life to the Dorchester ghetto outside Boston. His article in Boston Review, “On the Responsibility of the Intellectuals in the Age of Crack,” has created a storm that is now spreading to other parts of the country. Mr. Rivers, politically a man of the left, has invoked what is generally perceived as a conservative theme and identified the root of the crisis as spiritual—as a catastrophic decline in Judeo-Christian moral values:
As entry into the labor market is increasingly dependent on education and high skills, we will see, perhaps, for the first time in the history of the United States, a generation of economically obsolete Americans.
But remarkably, the tragedy we face is still worse. Unlike many of our ancestors, who came out of slavery and entered this century with strong backs, discipline, a thirst for literacy, deep religious faith, and hope in the face of monumental adversity, we have produced “a generation [that does] not know the ways of the Lord”—a “new jack” generation, ill-equipped to secure gainful employment even as productive slaves.
We should not be surprised to find that Mr. Rivers’ superb essay evokes some of the essential values associated with Richard Weaver and the luminaries of the Southern conservative tradition. For a substantial portion of black America has long adhered to those values, notwithstanding deep disagreements over the ensuing politics. Mr. Rivers believes that America, black and white, must adhere to the moral baseline provided by the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. And he insists that, so far as practicable in a world dominated by a global economy, political power must rest with the people of discrete communities, the historically evolved preferences and prejudices of which must be respected so long as they do not violate that moral baseline.
Thus he has forcefully opposed those who argue that the cultural war has already been lost and that attention should be turned elsewhere. He has replied that if the cultural war is lost, all will be lost. In response to Mr. Rivers’ initiative, Glenn Loury, the “black conservative” economist, made a critical distinction between the market economy, which he supports, and the improper extension of a free-market ideology to society as a whole. And in truth, it is hard to believe that we could expect to live as civilized human beings in a society that makes consumer choice the arbiter of our moral and spiritual life. Thus from across the political spectrum we are hearing calls for a reexamination of the relation of religion to society and long overdue challenges to the monstrous mendacity that interprets the constitutional separation of church and state as justification for the suppression of religion in our schools and our political institutions.
Sadly, the primary obstacle to a critique of the relation of religion to American society arises within the mainstream churches themselves, significant sections of which have virtually repudiated the essentials of historic Christian doctrine and undermine their own institutional autonomy by submission to prevalent political ideology. It is therefore especially heartening that black clergymen are raising their voices against these perversions of doctrine and attendant political opportunism.
But we dare not mince words on the lamentable stance long taken by Southern conservatives on race relations. Tragically, Southern resistance to national consolidation and totalitarian tendencies, combined with a discretely admirable defense of community autonomy, has historically served as a rationale for the defense of slavery, racial segregation, and manifold injustices. Here the intellectuals and community leaders failed miserably. It would have been one thing if Southern conservatives had taken full account of the plainly irrational prejudices and vicious racial practices of their communities and worked calmly and steadily to bring their people to a higher standard of justice. Instead, they either fell silent or actually endorsed those prejudices and injustices.
Good Burkeans should not have to be told that an effective defense of historically evolved community prejudices and policies depends upon a willingness to effect needful reforms, especially in the face of blatant injustice. Those who today do not struggle against the enormity of racism in their own communities might at least spare us their whining when a federal government, with its own questionable and sometimes sinister agenda, imposes anti-discrimination measures from without. It serves no useful purpose to rail that consolidationist measures will, in the long run, do inestimable damage to black people as well as white. Black America is bleeding from every pore and can hardly be faulted if it gambles on a problematic federal intervention in the absence of effective alternatives.
At issue here is not this or that political or economic program, about which honorable men may disagree, but the context in which those battles are being fought out. Regardless of the political specifics, the American people, white as well as black, have poor prospects without that minimal moral consensus which Dr. Weaver insisted must rest on standards derived from the Judeo-Christian tradition and the piety inherent in what he called “the older religiousness of the South.” And it is to that very piety which Mr. Rivers has appealed—as have countless unsung heroes in the ghettos, who selflessly struggle against a subculture of drugs, crime, and hopelessness. /p>
There are, then, excellent prospects for a coalition across racial and inherited ideological lines to combat the moral degeneracy that now runs rampant throughout both white and black America. But the unspeakable misery that plagues black America cannot be cured by the resurrection of demonstrably inadequate integrationist formulas, whether of free-market, liberal, or socialistic varieties. So far, nothing has worked because, for different reasons, liberals, conservatives, and radicals alike obscure the essentials of the black experience in America. They all assimilate that experience to the experience of others—European and Asian immigrants, colonial peoples abroad, or the laboring classes in general. Yet its uniqueness emerges from the history of slavery and segregation, which confronted black people with a raw oppression and exploitation well beyond that experienced by European immigrants.
On this big subject permit me a few broad strokes. Other peoples contributed much to the development of an American national culture, but despite acute discrimination, they were not condemned as an inferior race, and they were able to progress and consolidate their gains through the steady accretion of political power. Not so for Africans and their descendants. Africans arrived with Europeans at the beginning of our history. Everything was done to separate them from their religions, languages, and general culture. Worse, unlike European immigrants, they were repeatedly driven backwards and prevented from consolidating political and economic gains. Yes, they were offered the Christian religion, the English language, and the Anglo-Saxon political tradition, but they were simultaneously barred from full participation as equals and told to accept their place as menials and as, at best, second-class citizens.
In the event, by forging a distinct Afro-American culture, which should not be confused with the manifestations of moral decadence now celebrated by a cynical academia and mass media, blacks survived the ordeal of slavery and segregation spiritually as well as physically. We need to understand the black experience as that of a people at once American and yet a people apart. Historically, it has been an experience that offers rational grounds for both integrationist and black-nationalist ideologies. For black people have constituted a nation-within-a-nation and have emerged as a people with—to borrow an expression from General de Gaulle—a “national personality” of their own.
I am suggesting that black people have good grounds for claiming a measure of autonomy to accommodate their simultaneous existence as Americans and as other. Emphatically, I am not suggesting that any other people can legitimately make such claims. To the contrary, nothing is more appalling than the current demagogy that proclaims the right of various ethnic groups to establish their own people’s republic, with their own language and political principles.
All I ask is that whites of every political and ideological stripe consider the argument for a wide measure of black autonomy on its own merits. I do not much like self-quotation, but I shall ask your indulgence since I explored the political implications of this argument in my contribution to the debate in the left-wing Boston Review and do not wish to risk a shift in tone or content here. Thus I wrote:
A government—any government—that cringes in the face of massive looting, rioting, and defiance of social order does not deserve to survive and probably will not long survive. If the American people are forced to choose between urban terrorism and authoritarian repression, it would be surprising if they did not choose the latter. And they would have every moral as well as political sanction for doing so. For if any “right” is well grounded in human nature, historical experience, and common sense, it is the right of self-preservation.
The imposition of the law and order necessary for the survival of the black community cannot be effected from without. In a racist society such an imposition would take predictable forms with predictable results and would be bitterly and properly resisted. But precisely for this reason, black communities have good reason to demand considerable political autonomy and the power to deal with their antisocials in their own way. Community survival and healthy development require considerable discipline and, necessarily, considerable repression. The essential demand ought to be that these specific communities solve their own version of what is now a general problem for America in accordance with their own experience, traditions, and collective sense of imperatives. Must, for example, black communities, to say nothing of white, exclude the churches from their schools and affairs if they conclude that their inclusion and close cooperation with the polity are essential for the reestablishment of moral order? And if the churches, following scriptural and historical authority, declare homosexuality sinful and a threat to community reproduction, discipline, and good order, are they to be told that their autonomy stops there? On what grounds? What, exactly, is the “self-evident truth” at issue here? To whom is it self-evident?
Let me elaborate on those remarks here tonight, as I expect to do in further discussions in left-wing circles. Any effort by the black community to combat spiritual and social decay must depend upon its ability to impose considerable social discipline and to rein in antisocial elements. As Mr. Rivers has suggested, the struggle to restore a stable family life may well prove sine qua non, and, if so, the necessary measures may not comport well with the endless demands for individual rights and the arrogant pretensions to such newly invented constitutional protections as envisaged, for example, in the program of the gay and lesbian movement. Whites have no business telling black communities how to resolve these problems and would do well to keep their own preferences and prejudices to themselves. But to speak of “community” at all means to recognize as unavoidable the existence of prejudices, whether grounded in religion and historically developed sensibility or in response to an immediate threat to survival. Whites have a responsibility to support the efforts of black communities to solve all such problems in accordance with their own preferences and prejudices, so long as standards of common decency prevail.
When Lani Guinier tried to raise urgent questions about the distribution of political power, she in effect raised the very questions forcefully posed by the political theory of John C. Calhoun and his proslavery peers—most notably, the doctrine of concurrent majority. For in truth, racists or no, the Southern conservatives were the first to raise most of the burning questions in the early days of the Republic, and we have much to learn from their efforts. The question remains: Is it possible to separate the healthy core of that thought from the indefensible framework in which it was originally presented? I have no idea how Ms. Guinier would have responded to this challenge if she had been given her day in court. I do note, as no few others have, that the liberals who control the White House and Congress went to extraordinary lengths to suppress the issues.
We are indeed engaged in a cultural war today. To win that war will require a new and hitherto unimaginable coalition across political and racial lines. Richard Weaver’s contributions to that effort, notwithstanding the political partisanship appropriate to his own day, remain indispensable. No less indispensable are the voices of a rising generation of blacks who have learned from the tragic history of their people the lessons that Southern whites have learned from theirs. The outcome of the cultural war will decide everything else of importance, and that outcome will depend upon our common willingness to overcome ancient hostilities and hear each other’s voices. It would be astonishing if white and black voices rose together, across long-standing ideological divides, to show the way to victory. May we live to be astonished.