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‘The Loudest Silence Ever Heard’: Black Conservatives in the Media

By Lionel McPherson, the Friar, August–September 1992

I often felt that the media assumed that, to be black, one had to espouse leftist ideas and Democratic politics. Any black who deviated from the ideological litany of requisites was an oddity and was to be cut from the herd and attacked.... There was, indeed, in my view, a complicity and penchant on the part of the media to disseminate indiscriminately whatever negative news there was about black conservatives and ignore or bury the positive news... They could smirk at us black conservatives because they felt we had no real political or economic support.

-Clarence Thomas, from a 1987 speech to the Heritage Foundation, "No Room at the Inn: The Loneliness of the Black Conservative" (Policy Review, Fall/91)

The contemporary interest in black conservatives began in 1980 with the lection of Ronald Reagan, and continued, 12 years later, through George Bush's administration. With the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, the subject reached heights unmatched since the rise of Booker T. Washington early this century.

In 26 features about individual black conservatives and 25 overview articles found in a Nexis database search of major papers and magazines (1/1/84-7/20/92), the themes of silence and exclusion frequently arose.

Politically, no doubt, black conservatives are few. In 1991, three of 436 black state legislators were Republican ( Newsweek, 7/15/91). Gary Franks,the only Republican among 26 black members of Congress and the first elected to the House since 1934, represents a Connecticut district with fewer than 5 percent black voters.

However, it is difficult to reconcile the visibility of black academics in the press with the claims of some black conservatives that the national media are biased against them. Our review found that black conservatives have received news media exposure, usually positive, that greatly over-represents their presence and influence among African Americans.

Media Exposure

To compare the coverage of conservative and progressive African-American scholars, individuals who were similarly situated and credentialed were selected -- all have Ph.D.s and hold university or university-affiliated positions in the arts and social sciences. This group was selected because such academics are often used by the media as "experts." (Experts in professional fields like law and medicine were excluded, along with career politicians and activists.)

In the category surveyed, the most media-exposed black conservatives found were Thomas Sowell (economics, Hoover Institution, Stanford University), Shelby Steele (English, San Jose State University), and Glenn Loury (political economy, Boston University). Representing progressives were Cornel West (religion and Afro-American studies, Princeton University), Manning Marable (political science, University of Colorado/Boulder), and Adolph Reed, Jr. (political science, Northwestern University).

No matter what scholars one might include, the fact remains that conservatives' visibility outweighed progressives' by a considerable margin. Sowell, for example, has received over 400 major paper and magazine citations -- in addition to contributing frequently to Forbes, the Chicago Tribune, Newsday and the Washington Times, while also writing a column for Creators Syndicate. Cornel West, the most cited progressive black academic, had one-sixth as many mentions. (Edward Herman discovered similar lopsided ratios comparing treatment of Sowell, Steele, and Walter Williams with Marable, West and bell hooks in three leading papers.

As one observer of black conservatives noted, "If this is silence, it's the loudest silence ever heard."

Dissident Outsiders?

Despite the platform given their views by the mainstream media, black conservatives are portrayed as dissident outsiders, stifled by African-American political culture: "Intraracial pressure toward political correctness...may have led to a kind of self-censorship," reported U.S. News & World Report (12/24/90). "The tragic -- and ironic -- legacy of centuries of discrimination is that it may have decreased, rather than increased, the tolerance of black leaders toward dissent."

Sometimes black conservatives' access to the media is acknowledged, even while they are treated as victims: "Through the 1980s, the black conservatives wrote opinion-page articles, appeared on TV talk shows and traveled the lecture circuit," wrote the Los Angeles Times (7/15/91). "Yet they remained on the fringe of public debate and got relatively little attention from the general public." Assuming that the news media provide access to the widest public debates, how could black conservatives be both so visible and so ignored?

Reflecting on the readiness of black conservatives to cry censorship, Adolph Reed wrote (The Nation, 3/4/91), "A black person seizes the public stage by ratifying the social prejudices of the wealthy and powerful, all the while complaining of censure and persecution and receiving praise for courageously taking an unpopular stand."

Intellectual Power?

A repeated theme was that the increasing influence of black conservatives is due to the strength and originality of their ideas. According to E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post (7/4/91), "In some cases, their rise has been fostered by sheer intellectual power and persistence -- academics like Thomas Sowell, Glenn Loury and Walter Williams, for example, are now standard reference points in the social policy discussion." But specific examples of their intellectual power are rarely cited.

Ironically, John L. Wilks, a black Republican who served in the Nixon and Ford administrations,dismisses the idea that black conservative gains derive principally from merit: "They merely say they're conservative, say they're opposed to affirmative action and are immediately picked up by a right-wing white sponsor," he was quoted in the New York Times (12/22/91). In the mainstream media, a similar pattern seems to hold.

"The Civil Rights Establishment"

Coverage of black conservatives often evidenced bias against civil rights groups. While some reporters avoided loaded terms, others adopted the rhetoric employed by conservatives like Steele, who told the New York Times (7/13/91), "If you don't identify with the civil rights orthodoxy, by definition, you're a conservative." The paper picked up his language in the same article, referring to black conservatives "at odds with the civil rights orthodoxy which included policies like busing."

Reporters sometimes make it clear where labels are coming from, as when the Washington Post's Dionne (7/4/91) wrote about "alternative views among African Americans to those of what the conservatives call 'the civil rights establishment.'" But others referred nonchalantly to the black right facing "the antipathy of the black civil rights establishment" (New Republic, 9/30/91) or "establishment black leaders" (Los Angeles Times, 7/15/91). Time echoed (11/11/85) Loury's dubious claim that a black conservative "philosophical ferment has exposed deep differences in a formerly unified black intelligentsia" -- as if black intellectuals were once monolithic.

Journalists frequently failed to challenge black conservatives' caricatures of their opponents' views. Thus the Los Angeles Times (7/15/91) cited a conservative who "points to the growing black middle class as proof that racism is not an insurmountable barrier"; another article (3/8/86) referred to "the tendency to blame racism for all of blacks' social ills." According to Newsweek (10/21/85), black intellectuals had "adopted a code of silence, in which such things as black crime and inferior black academic performance were either peremptorily blamed on white racism or not mentioned at all."

Conservative or Not?

This survey revealed another interesting phenomenon: Steele appears in a majority (15) of the 25 overviews of black conservatives, yet asserts that he does not consider himself a conservative. "Oh, no.... It's the bane of my life," he told the New York Times (7/13/91), even while Fred Barnes of The New Republic (9/30/91) wrote, "And he's not squeamish about being labeled a conservative, though he calls himself 'a classical Jeffersonian liberal.'"

Despite Steele's disclaimers, his views seem to fall within a conventionally understood conservative framework. "I believe there was much that Reagan had to offer blacks," he was quoted in The Nation (3/4/91). "His emphasis on traditional American values -- individual initiative, self-sufficiency, strong families -- offered what I think is the most enduring solution to the demoralization and poverty that continue to widen the gap between blacks and whites in America."

Interestingly, the New York Times reported (12/22/91) -- citing a Business Week/Lou Harris poll -- that "most blacks who say they are conservative take the counter view politically, supporting affirmative action, civil rights groups, Mr. [Jesse] Jackson and strong government involvement."

Print Media Visibility of Conservative and Progressive Black Academics

(In major papers and magazines on the Nexis database, Jan. 1, 1984 to July 20, 1992.)

 Citations:Features On:
Thomas Sowell4174
Shelby Steele 345 12
Glenn Loury 130 10
Cornel West 63 1
Manning Marable 32 0
Adolph Reed, Jr 27 0