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Christopher Alan Bracey. Saviors or Sellouts: The Promise and Peril of Black Conservatism from Booker T. Washington to Condoleezza Rice.

Christopher Alan Bracey. Saviors or Sellouts: The Promise and Peril of Black Conservatism from Booker T. Washington to Condoleezza Rice. Boston: Beacon, 2008. 264 pp. $24.95.

The intent of Saviors or Sellouts, writes Christopher Bracey, professor of law and African and African American studies, is to "promote a much needed public conversation among conservatives and liberals regarding the rising tide of black conservatism" as it relates to "long-standing efforts by liberals to secure racial empowerment for African Americans" (x). As a catalyst, the author poses questions about the sources and influences of the conservative tradition in black freedom struggles. Before answering them, however, Bracey articulates basic precepts of conservatism, an intellectual, social, and/or political movement, while emphasizing the sources inside or outside the black community.

Early conservatives pursued economic stability and group empowerment in black communities before seeking social and political equality. By contrast, modern black conservatives receive outside support and prefer limited government and individualism to group empowerment.

An attribute of the ten-chapter study is its attention to the conservative legacy and details about selected contributors. The conservatism of Jupiter Hammon, Richard Allen, and James Forten developed well before Booker T. Washington emerged as black conservatism's leading exponent. Furthermore, newspaper editor R B. Young, business executive C. C. Spaulding, and educator Robert Russa Moton continued the legacy. In fact, W. E. B. Du Bois found currency in Moton's conservatism and claims it influenced his 1934 decision to sever ties with the N.A.A.C.P.

Black conservatism is never far from the surface in the Harlem Renaissance. Even so, ideological discussions about women writers are thin. Nella Larsen's Quicksand is mentioned as a "powerful psychological examination of an African American woman's loss of identity" (44). That she builds up conservative institutions and leaders, seemingly only to criticize them, does not receive attention. Similarly, Jody's penchant for economic stability in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, a conservative precept, evades analysis.

However, George Samuel Schuyler's body of work over time is examined fully. While his conservatism was less to the liking of blacks than to ultraconservative whites, it was Edward W. Brooke who represented the most important moderating voice of black conservatism. Yet his reasoned challenges to ultraconservatives, including Barry Goldwater, won few blacks in the 1960s and 1970s when civil rights leaders garnered support for liberal agendas.

Despite the rhetoric, readers may find it ironic that the civil rights and black power movements and the Nation of Islam are characterized as conservative due to emphases on self-determination and self-reliance. Clearly, black conservatism is complex and may appear contradictory. Instead, writes Bracey, it is "emblematic of the vitality of the intellectual movement and the ongoing cultural significance of the conservatism in black politics" (117).

After the 1960s, most African Americans supported the Democratic Party, and the Republicans began identifying blacks to participate in reordering social policies and rethinking governmental authority and responsibility. The 1980 Black Alternative Conference featuring an anti-government intervention theme proved "the start of something really important," according to President Reagan's legal counsel, Edwin Meese III. Leading African American conservatives Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, and Clarence Thomas were among the conference attendees. The chapter, "The Rising Tide of Black Neoconservative Intellectualism," includes insightful biographies of Shelby Steele and Glenn Loury for greater understanding of the ideology.

In the final chapter of Saviors or Sellouts, Bracey answers the question why blacks choose conservatism. It has less to do, writes Bracey, with organized party platforms than with the "lived experiences" of blacks and their desires for meaningful self-directed lives in lieu of being "special favorites of the law and white liberals via affirmative action and race-based set-asides" (189). Such "conservative" ideas hold great promise, but a perilous threat to fulfilling that promise would be the absence of "liberal" laws, amendments, and court decisions against discrimination.

It is unlikely that many readers will quarrel with the author's intent to remedy a blind spot in political history or the longitudinal discussions of the conservative legacy. They may, however, regret the paucity of notes if they are interested in the bases for specific interpretations or conclusions. Also, a firmer editorial hand may have eliminated a questionable interpretation surrounding the nine Scottsboro Boys. Bracey writes, "The International Labor Defense, which served as the legal arm of the Communist party came to their defense, ultimately securing their release" (72). To be sure, the ILD was involved, but it cannot take that credit. On balance, Saviors or Sellouts is likely to generate conversations about black conservatives in keeping with its objectives.

Finally, "whatever one might think about the virtues and merits of the black neoconservative position," writes Christopher Bracey, "it is clear that black conservatism is an important part of black politics today and will likely remain so for years to come" (149). His discussions of "The Icon," "The Soldier," and "The Enigma," or Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice confirm the importance of conservatism in politics today.

Reviewed by

Wilma King

University of Missouri-Columbia
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Author:King, Wilma
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2009
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