Sundiata Cha-Jua/Real Talk | Stating my position to conservatives

Sundiata Cha-Jua/Real Talk | Stating my position to conservatives

After my last column, I received a thoughtful email from a white conservative. This is not unusual. As well as subliterate rants, I occasionally receive respectful, intelligent emails from white conservatives. I normally respond to each email, but given the importance of the questions raised, I think it best to publicly state my position.

In addition to chiding me for a particular argument, the writers' desire to impress upon me that not all conservatives are racists. Usually unspoken but implicit in their argument is the contention that "true" conservatives oppose Trump. More importantly, they argue that conservative principles — belief in the rights of property, small and limited government and free markets — are best for everyone, including the racially oppressed and the poor.

Conservatives' precious property rights mean very little to a descendant of people who were held in chains and maimed and murdered for centuries because of those same "rights."

The history of "the rights of property" is fraught with racism.

In the Civil Rights Cases (1883), SCOTUS voided the 1875 Civil Rights Act, upholding capitalists engaged in public accommodation enterprises' "right" to discriminate. The court's majority ruled the federal government could not interfere with business owners "private rights to property." This decision foreshadowed Plessey v. Ferguson (1896).

The African-American experience has turned on the relationship of four factors: the particular form an evolving capitalist political economy took; federalism, specifically the ratio of federal to state power; the representation of black folk in popular and intellectual culture; and African-American self-activity or blacks' actions in their own interest.

History clearly demonstrates that black people have benefited from a large and active federal government. Spurred by African-American self-activity, in those moments when the federal government was growing and pursuing progressive policies, it challenged racial oppression, thereby opening even more political space to black activists.

The Civil War is the first case in point. The defeat of the slaveholders is perhaps the seminal event in African-American history. It is also the major event in the growth of the federal government. Black fugitives' flight from the plantations precipitated the Civil War. Their actions forced Northern whites to repudiate the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and spurred the slaveholders to secede. Lincoln and the radical Republicans necessarily expanded the federal government and its powers to smash the slaveholders. African-Americans' freedom, acquisition of citizenship and civil rights is inextricable from the expansion of federal power.

In African-American history, the 1940s are known as "the watershed." It's called this because it was during that decade that the quality of African-American life began to greatly improve. As a consequence of the New Deal's expansion of governmental action and African-Americans' insistence, the federal government began to challenge the dialectic of white domination and black subordination.

Under pressure from A. Phillip Randolph, leader of the March on Washington Movement, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued executive orders 8802 and 9346 in 1941 and 1943. These executive actions created the Fair Employment Practices Committee and outlawed discrimination in the defense industry and the federal government. These executive actions opened up millions of jobs from which African-Americans were previously excluded by the actions of private white capitalists and unions.

President Harry Truman also pursued progressive legislation, but due to conservative opposition, he was often forced to resort to executive orders. Again, pressured by Randolph, in 1948, Truman issued Executive Order 8891. It desegregated the military and required equal treatment and opportunity in its ranks. A year later, he issued 9808, establishing the President's Commission on Civil Rights.

President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society represents another expansion of federal power. Central to Johnson's agenda were the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (constructed largely on the grave of the 1875 Civil Rights Act), the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1968 Fair Housing Act.

To be clear, African-Americans have benefited greatly from big government. The three eras in which the federal government expanded the most not only coincide with the moments in which black people made their greatest advances, but are integral to those advances.

Since the coming of freedom, it has been African-Americans and our allies and a largely reluctant federal government that have stood in a shaky alliance against the worst predations of private white citizens and the states. Conservatives, especially Republicans, have in the main since 1936 lined up on the other side supporting state's rights and the rights of property.

Both political parties primarily serve the interests of capital, different sectors, and both are riven with white supremacy. However, though both the Democratic and the Republican trains are going in the same direction, neoliberalism, the Democratic train is moving slower. Moreover, its conductors acknowledge the need for a social safety net and are more open to a diverse clientele.

To concretize my position, I find nothing in conservative ideals, policies or practices appealing. It is a politics grounded in the individualism central to the capitalist ethos. Conservatives have historically defended and supported slavery, apartheid, lynching, police brutality and any number of crimes against humanity.

A reasonable reading of African-American history suggests that since 1968, the Democrats have done little to aid African-Americans (and other dark people and the working class across race and nationality), but the Republicans have been actively trying to destroy us.

Sundiata Cha-Jua is a professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois and is a member of the North End Breakfast Club. His email is

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