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An Attack on ‘I’m-Alright-Jack Conservatism’

scholar pieceAt the end of the 20th century, there had been a growing conservatism among African-American intellectuals and professionals – two occupational groups that are the focus of a polemical book by Martin Kilson, Frank G. Thomson Professor Emeritus of  Government at Harvard University.

In Transformation of the African American Intelligentsia, 1880-2012, Kilson perceives disturbing changes in the political ideology of the African-American intelligentsia in the latter part of the 20th century – especially since the 1970s.

Although Black conservatism in the 20th century can be traced more precisely to Booker T. Washington’s ideology, many persons will wring their hands in disgust when reading Kilson’s prose and groping with his statistics. Kilson himself, however, does not abandon an optimistic posture when he prophesizes the triumph of what he terms W.E.B. DuBois’ “Black ethnic commitment ethos.” Kilson’s term refers to the “developmental relationships between college-trained Negroes…[and] the Negro masses.”

Kilson juxtaposes DuBois’ concept to the conservative Washington’s “primal individualism ethos” – or to his – stated colloquially, “I’m- alright-Jack conservatism.” For unlike Black conservatives who are “opposed to Black ethnic-group political mobilization,” Kilson questions whether their position is realistic by demonstrating through descriptive statistics that the vast majority of African-Americans (along with considerable majorities of Asian-Americans, Latino-Americans, and Jewish-Americans), and more than a third of the white Americans, voted for President Obama in the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012.  Kilson believes there is room for optimism – especially through the ideology of “Black ethnic-group political mobilization.”

Although I think that Kilson’s views are essentially well thought out, nevertheless, I have reservations about his panacea for the rest of the 21st century. Granted, at university presses, it usually takes at least 14 months from the completion of the manuscript for a book to find its way through to print – in this case, Harvard University Press- and Kilson could not have foreseen the extent and wrath of bitter personal and political revulsion against Obama during his second term.

All of this is to say, the ideology of Black ethnic-group political mobilization must give way to a more inclusive, and pan-minority politic in order to keep its current coalition intact.

Vernon J. Williams, Jr. is Professor Emeritus of African American and African Diasporic Studies at Indiana University Bloomington.


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