The Alcove

Conservative Multiculturalism’s Southern Heritage

Nation essay ponders how white conservatives developed a distinctive twist on multiculturalism after Jim Crow’s end.

By Nathan Pippenger

Tagged conservatismRacismThe South

Even though right-wing commentators rail against multiculturalism, it’s not unusual to encounter conservative arguments that seem to be influenced by its premises. Whether the issue is targeted religious exemptions from otherwise-applicable laws or broader claims about the need to preserve valued ways of life from the assimilationist pressures of a culturally alien majority, some right-wing voices are couching their arguments in terms that, they might contend, liberals have already accepted.

Against the tempting thought that this is a recent development, Robert Greene offers a useful historical corrective. In a Nation review of Anders Walker’s new book The Burning House, Greene shows that this conservative deployment of quasi-multicultural arguments has been going on for decades. Some of those arguments emerged from debates about the late twentieth-century South—a time and place that served, somewhat surprisingly, “as the arena for an ongoing debate over multiculturalism,” since both white and black thinkers have had to determine how they would relate to the region’s culture in a post-Jim Crow era. History would show that these somewhat abstract concerns had real political stakes: As Greene writes, “the multicultural arguments made by intellectuals who wanted to sustain the South’s cultural heterogeneity had their own unintended consequences.”

Among other things, white conservatives who were uneasy about integration tried to justify their misgivings by arguing that many black thinkers felt the same way. You can’t blame us for wanting preserve our culture, the argument went: After all, so do they, and nobody blames them for it. As Greene summarizes, “white Southerners who wanted to see Southern white culture preserved had found few allies within the civil-rights movement”—but when they encountered black thinkers who voiced some skepticism about integration, they felt empowered to claim that “black Americans were making a similar argument,” even if the black thinkers with whom they claimed such an affinity resisted the association. The resistance of those black thinkers was, of course, justified: Only a superficial resemblance linked their concerns about assimilatory pressure to the desire of white majorities to maintain segregated spaces that had enabled racial oppression. But that superficial resemblance was enough to supply conservatives with a useful vocabulary for maintaining existing structures of racial hierarchy and civic domination—the very things that racial egalitarians wanted to dismantle.

That conservative argument has proven useful to anti-integration jurisprudence. Greene writes that it was deployed by Justice Lewis Powell (a Virginian) in Keyes v. School District No. 1 (1973), in which Powell’s concurring opinion denied the federal government’s authority to integrate local school districts out of a concern for “damaging the cultural autonomy of local communities.” The force of Powell’s objection depends partly on the idea that local communities were formed by voluntary and free processes, and that artificial state interference entered the picture only when an intrusive federal government stepped in to reengineer ways of life that local communities had chosen for themselves. But as an overwhelming body of scholarship has demonstrated, the racial composition of American neighborhoods was very much constructed and maintained by state power. Failure to acknowledge that history leads to the mistaken view that after the worst of de jure segregation has ended, everybody more or less lives where they please—meaning that government has no business stepping in to reshape what private citizens have freely chosen. This is the clear line that runs from Powell to Justice Clarence Thomas to Chief Justice Roberts and his glib conclusion that, in the wake of the end of legal segregation, “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

Of course, we have no reason to follow Powell, Thomas, and Roberts down this line of argument, just as we have no reason to assume that multiculturalism necessarily commits us to policies that would endanger the ability of cultural, racial, ethnic, religious, or other minorities to participate in democratic society on free and equal terms. Much of the conservative use of multicultural arguments is blind to power, too quick to assume that some parts of our identity are automatically more real or fundamental than others, or simply unconcerned with how the project of accommodating cultural identity might coexist with (or, indeed, be inseparable from) the project of building a broader democratic culture, in which citizens from many groups collectively govern their shared life. The point of the question “who are we?” isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, to find static answers that reinforce existing boundaries between alienated citizens. It should be to propose answers that get us closer to the goal of building a diverse and democratic society.

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Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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