Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Now?: Multicultural Conservatism in America

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In Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Now? Angela Dillard offers the first comparative analysis of a conservatism which today cuts across the boundaries of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.

To be an African-American and a conservative, or a Latino who is also a conservative and a homosexual, is to occupy an awkward and contested political position. Dillard explores the philosophies, politics, and motivation of minority conservatives such as Ward Connerly, Glenn Loury, Linda Chavez, Clarence Thomas, and Bruce Bawer, as well as their tepid reception by both the Left and Right. Welcomed cautiously by the conservative movement, they have also frequently been excoriated by those African Americans, Latinos, women, and homosexuals who view their conservatism as betrayal.

Dillard's comprehensive study, among the first to take the history and political implications of multicultural conservatism seriously, is a vital source for understanding contemporary American conservatism in all its forms.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Smart and thoughtful . . . Perceptive”

-The Women's Review of Books,

“One does not associate scholars with perfect timing, news-wise, but Angela D. Dillard's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Now? could not be more of the moment.”

-New York Times Book Review,

“...An excellent overview of this new movement.”

-The New Republic,

“If you, like many, marveled that George W. Bush not only did but could put together a cabinet and staff that was racially diverse as well as fiscally and morally conservative, here's a book you'll want to read.”

-Ms. Magazine,

"Places the dynamic concepts of diversity and multiculturalism in a broader and deeper network than the often left-of-center milieu into which both critics and supporters assign them."
Womens Review of Books
Smart and thoughtful....Perceptive.
Scott L. Malcomson
One does not associate scholars with perfect timing, news-wise, but Angela D. Dillard's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Now? could not be more of the moment...Dillard economically traces the roles of racial activism, feminism and gay liberation as foils and inspirations for neoconservatism, the New Right, the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition. She meanwhile keeps an eye on the relations between these fired-up groups and the Republican party, which they have sought to make their mainstream vehicle...Angela D. Dillard has contributed greatly to examining the true histories of American conservatism. It is a particularly necessary effort now, because while the Republican Party may think it has broken with the past, I expect the American past is not yet done with the Republican Party, or with any of us.
New York Times Book Review
New Republic excellent overview of this new movement…
Lambda Book Report
Why are groups that traditionally include more liberal and Democratic voters tuning to the party and beliefs traditionally held by straight white men? Read this book and decide for yourself whether this is a good thing or a frightening development.
Ms. Magazine
If you, like many, marveled that George W. Bush not only did but could put together a cabinet and staff that was racially diverse as well as fiscally and morally conservative, here's a book you'll want to read.
Describes and analyzes the phenomenon of multicultural political conservatism in the US. Arguing that conservative politics are no longer the exclusive domain of white, wealthy males, but instead a collection of people from all races, ethnicities, gender and sexualities, Dillard (history, politics, New York U.) explores what this new influx of ideas means for the conservative movement, its members and the country as a whole. Particular attention is paid to the marginalization of minority conservatives, who are welcomed only with hesitation by the conservative movement, and shunned, without hesitation, as "sell-outs" by their own ethnic, racial or sexual groups. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814719398
  • Publisher: New York University Press
  • Publication date: 2/1/2001
  • Pages: 266
  • Product dimensions: 6.25 (w) x 9.17 (h) x 0.84 (d)

Meet the Author

Angela D. Dillard is Assistant Professor of History and Politics at the Gallatin School at New York University.

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Read an Excerpt

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Now?

Multicultural Conservatism in America
By Angela D. Dillard

New York University Press

Copyright © 2002 Angela D. Dillard
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0814719406

Chapter One

Malcolm X's Words in Clarence Thomas's Mouth

Black Conservatives and the Making of
an Intellectual Tradition

I want to begin with a sustained exploration of black conservative thought, primarily because black conservatives have played such a central role in the development of a multicultural conservative style. While distinctive in many respects, the black conservative critique of liberalism and the federal government is not extraordinarily new or innovative, particularly in its appeal to tradition and to Americanism. Emergent social and political movements often seek to legitimate themselves and their ideologies by appealing to historical precedents and forerunners. Throughout U.S. history, a diverse array of groups (women, workers, immigrants, African Americans, homosexuals) have pushed for their rights by inserting themselves into national narratives and by depicting themselves as good sons and daughters of the founders. Given the persuasive power of this rhetorical style, it is not surprising, for instance, that, when early women's rights crusaders gathered at Seneca Falls in 1848, theydevised a political manifesto and call to arms that mirrored the Declaration of Independence in both form and philosophical content. "We hold these truths to be self-evident," the Seneca resolution states, "that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights."

This endeavor to press for inclusion by citing the sacred texts of the nation on the one hand and the unfinished business of American democracy on the other has been an enormously successful strategy for reform; it has helped to transform the country while strengthening America's "civil religion." This strategy derives its moniker--the American jeremiad--from seventeenth-century New England Puritan sermons that depicted America as a wilderness or harsh testing ground bestowed upon God's chosen people, who had a special destiny to erect a City upon a Hill to serve as a beacon of hope to the world. If America is to succeed, then it must live up to its initial promise; America must muster the will to continuously reform itself when it falls into sin and transgression. Thus, the jeremiad is best thought of as a form of prophecy, warning of the consequences of God's vengeance if repentance is not forthcoming. Generations of reformers have defined the sins of the nation in secular terms, including slavery, various forms of discrimination and exclusion, and policies and practices that circumscribe individual liberty and equal opportunity. For those populations defined as outside or marginal to the national community, the jeremiad was and remains a fruitful way to demonstrate loyalty and to secure rights.

African Americans have been exceptionally adept at crawling inside the jeremiad form and appropriating its twin appeals to the judgement of God and to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In the late eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century, slavery was interpreted as the seminal sin: an offense in the eyes of God, an abuse of natural liberty, and, perhaps most significant, contrary to the meaning of American democracy. In the hands of Frederick Douglass the jeremiad was elevated to political art form. Speaking before an antislavery audience on the Fourth of July, 1852, Douglass railed against the present generation for falling away from the course laid out by the founding fathers, who "loved their country better than their own private interest."

Your fathers have lived, died, and done their work, and have done much of it well. You must live and die, you must do your own work. You have no right to enjoy a child's share in the labor of your fathers, unless you do your work. You have no right to wear out and waste the hard-earned fame of your fathers to cover your indolence.

Douglass begins his address using pronouns--you, your--emphasizing the distance between himself, an ex-slave, and his audience, but he subtly closes the gap by invoking the right to call himself a "fellow citizen" and to use the collective "we."

In the course of his speech, Douglass cites the Declaration of Independence, the Bible, and the Constitution (which does not, he argues, support or condone slavery) to expose the hypocrisy of a free, yet slave-holding nation. "At a time like this," Douglass expounds, "scorching irony, not convincing argument is needed."

O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation's ear, I would today pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke.... We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

As the social theorist Michael Walzer points out, the jeremiad "begins with revulsion but ends with affirmation." The aim of prophecy, accordingly, is to arouse remembrance, recognition, indignation, and repentance. "Return, O faithless sons," Jeremiah wails at his audience. The prophet distances himself from his stiff-necked people but in the end reaffirms his bonds with his community: "I will heal your faithlessness." Douglass's text follows this paradigm perfectly. For, while he charges the sons and daughters with slandering the memory of the founders, he nonetheless closes on a note of hope.

"I do not despair of this country," Douglass concludes. "I, therefore leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains and the genius of American institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age." Douglass expresses no doubt that redemption (abolition) is possible. Nor does he question that America will reform itself and act in accordance with its millennial obligation to bring the light of freedom to the world, including Africa. At the very end of the speech Douglass couples American exceptionalism with African messianism: "Africa must rise and put on her yet unwoven garment. Ethiopia shall stretch out her hand unto God." It's a nice twist, a rhetorical flourish that contains a blatantly racial, internationalist perspective that in no way detracts from the uniquely American quality of the speech.

Black conservatives have struggled to reinvent this jeremiad form, appealing not only to God and country but also to heroic figures from America's and Afro-America's past. Like Douglass, they too strive to speak as prophets to the nation and urge a return to America's hallowed principles before we are destroyed. Again like Douglass, they have devised a style that speaks simultaneously to their dual heritage as African Americans. Uniting Douglass with Abraham Lincoln, "the Great Emancipator" and the consummate Republican, black conservatives position themselves as rightful heirs of two deeply intertwined traditions. They have a pronounced tendency to claim Lincoln as their own--the premiere black conservative think tank, the Lincoln Institute, bears his name; the Republican Party is often referred to as the Party of Lincoln--yet they have been equally willing to access African American traditions. Herein lies the rub.

Efforts by black conservatives to create an intellectual tradition from within the African American canon have been far more controversial. Clarence Thomas was on far safer ground when he asserted his affinity to Lincoln than he was when he did the same with Malcolm X. His statement challenging the right of "civil rights people today" to claim Malcolm X as "one of their own" brought forth ringing denunciations from black leftists and liberals. Equating Thomas's stance with a stylized marketing ploy, the Columbia law professor and Nation columnist Patricia J. Williams wrote that "Clarence Thomas is to Malcolm X what 'Unforgettable. The perfume. By Revlon' is to Nat King Cole," thereby suggesting that Thomas is little more than an insubstantive simulacrum of the Real Thing.

In this, Williams was hardly alone, as she and others continuously emphasized the political stakes of Thomas's (mis)appropriation of African American political culture. Linking Thomas with other black conservatives, Amiri Baraka has chastised "The Sowells, Walter Williams, Crouches, Playtoy Beenyesmen, Glenn Lourys, Roy Innises, Melvin Williams, Juan Williams, and Thomas Ass Clarences" as "racists," and as "pods growing in the cellars of our politics." Although not all opinions were as extreme (at least in print), the general climate of opinion among leftist African American intellectuals appears to be that Thomas and other "neoaccomodationist-conservative black spokespersons," to borrow a phrase from Manning Marable, represent a crisis of contemporary black political culture.

Marable, along with other black leftists such as Adolph Reed, has been especially vigilant in denouncing the efforts of black conservatives to seek legitimation in the past. They claim, overall, that black conservatives have no organic relationship to the African American past and no real political, cultural, or emotional ties to African Americans in the present. Instead, Marable and Reed claim, black conservatives have simply inserted themselves into a predominately white discourse on race, a move for which they have been duly compensated by various forms of patronage; they are nothing more than the black face of the white Right. The larger question of what it means to misappropriate the past as well as how one adjudicates a proper from an improper solicitation has been subtly relegated to the background of this debate. What is much less remarked upon, and what Baraka's assessment of Thomas and others only alludes to, is that this "crisis" is also part of an ongoing confrontation over the meaning of African American liberation, and indeed the meaning of race, especially since the 1960s.

Thomas's attempt to wrap himself in the mantle of Malcolm X is but one small indication of black conservative canon building. Responding to the charge that they have no philosophy, no authenticity, and no relevance to African American political culture, black conservatives have sought to substantiate their ideas (and their very existence) by enlisting prominent figures, including not only Malcolm X but also Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, Marcus Garvey, Zora Neale Hurston, and Martin Luther King, Jr. As Elizabeth Wright, editor of the black conservative newsletter Issues and Views, has put it, "making claim to historic figures in order to promote a position or cause is an age-old practice." It is also a practice that makes a good deal of strategic sense as they struggle to legitimate their views. For the would-be prophet is always bound by tradition and counts on the immediacy of a shared history in the minds of her listener.

Where African American leftists see misappropriation and crisis, black conservatives see opportunity. Striving to turn the tables on the "black liberal establishment," Alan Keyes writes:

Ironically, in the efforts to damn Thomas as an ingrate biting the hand that feeds him, the [African American] leadership revealed the posture they think most appropriate for black Americans: on our knees thanking 'massah gubmit' for benefits and favors.... His [Thomas's] main offense was simply that he never promoted the agenda of the union bureaucrats and left-liberal Democrats who seem to control the elite voices that are supposed to speak for black Americans.

Such pronouncements, which incorporate the quasi-populist rhetoric of a "silent majority" as well as the rhetoric of "Uncle Tomism," are exceedingly common in the efforts of black conservatives to discredit their adversaries. Indeed, no single figure has been as maligned as Uncle Tom, whose very name has come to symbolize race traitors, sellouts, and those who pursue their own self-interest over the collective interest of the "race." That liberals and leftists as well as conservatives all appeal to this rhetorical tradition is odd but understandable, since no other figure has been as politically serviceable in the realm of ad hominem attack. Further, "Uncle Toming" one's opponent has played a role in the various intraracial debates that have structured black political thought and activism since Uncle Tom was first created in the pages of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel.

Ultimately, this struggle among contending African American intellectual and political forces extends far beyond the debates about the Thomas-Malcolm X connection and draws in some of Afro-America's most noted nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinkers and activists. Although no African American version of The Portable Conservative Reader exists, we can certainly begin to chart and evaluate the efforts of some black conservative thinkers to define what amounts to a distinctively accented, and for them politically useful, canon. African American conservatism is still a relatively small tendency, as opposed to a cohesive movement, and there is a good deal of ideological difference among self-identified conservatives. In fact, the variations within black conservatism are as complex as those within the mainstream conservative movement, incorporating libertarianism, anticommunism, and economic nationalism, as well as social and religious strains, among others. Such variations do, however, coalesce into a broadly shared style of thought.

Black conservatives are knitted together first and foremost by racial identity, even when that identity is paradoxically rejected in the name of an extreme individualism or in the name of achieving the goal of a colorblind society. Libertarians and conservative integrationists, for example, tend to view racial consciousness and racial practices as barriers to assimilation for African American individuals. This version of black conservatism privileges a universal (and "American") vision over a more parochial and particular one. In perhaps the most strident formulation of this idea, black libertarian Anne Wortham, a frequent contributor to the Lincoln Review, has argued that racial consciousness is damaging to individuals, to the very concept of individualism, and to society. In her study of the "new ethnicity," she maintains that the "tragedy of the most recent phase of intergroup relations in American history is that ethnic and racial minorities--particularly Blacks who have known the worst sort of oppression and exploitation by the state--chose to institutionalize the primacy of group rights over individual rights." In fact, Wortham launched her academic career denouncing the dangers of "ethnoracial consciousness." For her, this form of group consciousness, inspired by the social fiction of race, is both racist and profoundly hostile to individual self-consciousness. "What links consciousness and ethnocentricity," she writes, "is the basic attitude that one's ethnic and/or racial group is the center of everything, and all others scaled with reference to it." In sum, ethnoracial consciousness is a flight from the reality of one's own being, a form of escape motivated by a deep-seated fear of individual freedom.

Into this "integrationist" category one could also insert a fairly wide range of authors and critics, including Stanley Crouch, Orlando Patterson, Randall Kennedy, and Shelby Steele. With the exception of Steele, they have been generally hesitant to identify with conservative political causes or with the New Right. Their various critiques of racial consciousness, however, have strengthened the conservative discourse around the necessity of color blindness. Here, too, one finds an occasional appeal to African American canonical figures, especially Ralph Ellison and Frederick Douglass, even though these fellow travelers have been less engaged in conservative canon building as a political project. While Wortham offers us a philosophical exploration of the pitfalls of group consciousness, Crouch displays more of a cultural one. In his nod to tradition, he has placed Ellison at the very center of his perspective about race and identity. In his 1994 eulogy of Ellison, he says:

Ralph Ellison, alone of the world famous Afro-American novelists, never denied his birthright, his complex responsibilities as a participant in the analyzing of American meaning, which is the job of the intellectual, and the remaking of American life in the hopefully immortal rhythms and tunes of art, which is the job of our aesthetically creative. Ellison had no interest in the overpaid chitlin circuit of professional alienation and guilt-mongering. He knew that all distinct ethnic roots have been transmuted by the tragedy of American collision and the intricate--sometimes romantic--cultural blues of collusion.

Using the hybridity of American culture, symbolized by the blues, jazz, and Ellison's musings, as a metaphor for the rich mixtures that constitute a fully American identity, racism and racial chauvinism become for Crouch the dissonant chords in the life of the nation.

In contradistinction stand those black conservatives who are unwilling to reject group-based racial identities to this degree. Indeed, the summary judgment that all black conservatives strictly adhere to the goal of a colorblind society dramatically overstates the case. Authors such as Glenn Loury walk a fine line between the wholesale embrace and the wholesale rejection of a group-based racial identity. As Loury said at a conference on rethinking race, "We are all racialists now ... we do well to remember that no one in America can afford to be truly color-blind. The very fact that I stand here before you, defined as a black neoconservative, being praised and honored for the courage to 'do the right (wing) thing,' even as I am branded a traitor by many blacks, reveals the power of race in our political lives." More than any other conservative figure, Loury has objected to the duplicitous use of color-blindness; that is, the use of the doctrine as a way to ignore racial inequalities and to subvert reasonable policies to address them. Rejecting the notion that race is everything, he has been equally critical of the notion that race is nothing.

Loury's position is as distinct from those of the libertarians and of the color-blind integrationists as it is from that of the conservative black nationalists. Proclaiming that "black conservatives are the real nationalists," Elizabeth Wright, along with Walter Williams and other frequent contributors to Issues and Views, has been waging a battle to wrestle the mantle of black nationalism from Louis Farrakhan and assorted afrocentrists--even though there are obvious similarities between them. Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam are religious fundamentalists and economic nationalists. The Nation's economic philosophy, like that advocated by Issues and Views, is a version of black entrepreneurial capitalism; its social philosophy stresses the patriarchal family, supports the death penalty, and deems homosexuality to be sick and unnatural. But there the comparison stops.

The problem with Farrakhan and the Nation for Wright and other black nationalist conservatives are the qualities that render him, in their eyes, a black fascist: his continued support of the separate black state ideal, his denunciation of interracial sex as an offense to the value of racial purity, his anti-Semitism and his antiwhite rhetoric. Wright, in particular, is often hostile to immediate integration preferring, instead long-range social and economic strategies within black communities. Yet, she is unwilling to bestow any inherent or transcendental characteristics to race. Nor does she see any necessity for an adversarial relationship between black and white Americans. Echoing Richard Nixon's redefinition of black nationalism as black capitalism, this perspective values race and a cohesive racial identity merely as a pragmatic necessity. Race is, in effect, reduced to a historically resonant and useful category for organizing collective self-help initiatives. Hence, racial essentialism and most forms of afrocentrism, like the Nation of Islam's, are rejected in a manner that holds out the possibility of transcending race at some point in the future. In this conscious (if uneasy) blending of black nationalism and Americanism, race is substantially depoliticized in the public sphere. It should have little or no bearing on public policy and federal legislation. Where race matters most, the nationalist-conservatives insist, is in the private sphere of black community life, simply as a means to an end.

When viewed through the lens of the embrace of an American identity, the distinction between nationalist-conservatives and integrationist-conservatives is not at all stark. Both variants position themselves squarely against the ideologies that emerged during and after the Black Power movement, particularly those that embraced a confrontational style and that asserted race as the foundation of interest-group politics. Both tendencies also coalesce around dismissing racism as the primary cause of contemporary racial inequality. "It's not racism," proclaims the Reverend Walter J. Bowie, a conservative Baptist minister, "it's just us." He continues:

Time and time again we have heard that America is a racist country, and that the greatest problem we face as Black people is racism. This has been repeated so many times that many have come to accept it as 'gospel.' I want to raise a dissenting voice and challenge this assumption that some have accepted uncritically.

This rejection of the primacy of racism does not mean most black conservatives would hold that racial discrimination is no longer a factor in American society. What it does mean, by and large, is "racism is not a sufficient cause for ghetto poverty and other social problems experienced by the black poor." Instead of racism, black conservatives of various stripes have pointed to other practices and institutions, including the federal government's antipoverty and affirmative action programs, and to "liberal racism," as well as to the "culture of poverty," as more reasonable explanations for conditions that affect the African American poor.

In this way, black conservatives have sought to issue their jeremiads to the nation. Consider, for example, the founding statement of the Lincoln Institute, duly printed on every cover of the Lincoln Review. The Institute was founded "to study public policy issues that impact on the lives of black middle America, and to make its findings available to elected officials and the public." It continues:

The Institute aims to re-evaluate those theories and programs of the last decades which were highly touted when introduced, but have failed to fulfill the claims represented by their sponsors--and in many cases, have been harmful to the long-range interests of blacks. The Institute is dedicated to seeking ways to improve the standards of living, the quality of life and freedoms of all Americans.

The target is not racism but once highly touted federal programs that delimit the freedoms of African Americans and indeed all Americans. In studiously avoiding the language of racism, members of the Institute and editors of the Review have inserted themselves into a broad narrative about America and the possibility for individual upward mobility and assimilation by anyone.

Focusing explicitly on the lives of "black middle Americans" and implicitly appealing to older patterns of ethnic assimilation and progress, black conservatives seek to replicate the successes of other ethnic groups that have become more fully integrated into the public life of the nation. Such progress, many black conservatives suggest, was possible only at the expense of group identity and ethnic cohesion. As Thomas Sowell has maintained, "Ethnic identity has sometimes been thought to be a potent--if not paramount--factor in group progress. But groups with much identity ... have not generally done better than groups with less concern over such things." He concludes, "It is by no means clear that either cultural persistence or group advancement has been promoted by making cultural distinctiveness a controversial issue." Moreover, asserting cultural distinctiveness forestalls the ability of a group to lay claim to Americanism, with its spirit of optimism and individualism. "It's high time we stopped acting like a victimized minority," chides Emmanuel McLittle, editor of Destiny, one of the newer and smaller black conservative magazines, "and started making inroads into the mainstream of American life."

In this updated version of racial uplift, an older ideology that also sought to "civilize" black Americans, the focus is less on structural barriers to advancement and more on the glories of self-help, personal responsibility, moral fiber, and, of course, good old-fashioned hard work. As a doctrine rooted in the oppressive realities of the post-Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, racial uplift, however, has always been a problematic concept. On the one hand, it has certainly been deployed to buttress racial solidarity, a positive vision of black identity and collective self-help within communities. On the other hand, middle-class advocates of uplift have all too often failed to appreciate fully, and thus have reproduced, the racial (and potentially racist) assumptions of white cultural superiority, the masculinist assumptions of patriarchal authority, and the elitist assumptions that progress for the "talented tenth" would automatically signal progress for the race as a whole. Racial uplift, past and present, also has a pronounced tendency toward pathologizing the poor.

Contemporary black conservatives have been quick to acknowledge their debt to a highly individualistic reading of the doctrine of uplift as they continue to carve out an intellectual tradition of their own. In formulating arguments about race, class, politics, and policy, a variety of black conservatives have looked to the past for guidance, sustenance, and legitimacy. Despite their diversity, the processes by which they have attempted to carve out a tradition of their own raises a number of provocative questions, especially about the political and philosophical "litmus test" for inclusion. In what follows, I present an overview of the current state of an emerging black conservative canon, with particular emphasis on how and why some figures are included while others are excluded. By surveying the ways in which black conservatives and their nonblack allies have mined the African American tradition from Booker T. Washington to Martin L. King, Jr., my goal is to present a more detailed analysis of the black conservative jeremiad and, in the end, to begin to assess its weaknesses and strengths.


Excerpted from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Now? by Angela D. Dillard Copyright © 2002 by Angela D. Dillard. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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