By Wilfred Reilly Quillette
The line between moral and empirical claims is a tricky one for debaters. In his thoughtful Quillette essay, “The Limitations of Black Conservative Thought,” Aaron Hanna—like me, a professor of Political Science—critiques some of the more sweeping theoretical claims of America’s intellectual tradition of black conservatism. However, he does not rebut (or necessarily attempt to rebut) many more empirical points made recently by scholars like Thomas Sowell, Glenn Loury, and indeed myself.
To a large extent, Hanna’s essay is a critical analysis of imperfect visions. He notes that the US black conservative tradition is often defined by two primary paradigms: Shelby Steele’s idea that an attraction to the idea of “victimhood” is thwarting black progress and Sowell’s idea that there are problems in “black culture” that limit competitiveness. Both men advocate personal responsibility and choice as the most reliable path to black advancement. In contrast to these visions, Hanna accurately notes, the dominant paradigm on the progressive Left is that oppression, or “systemic racism,” limits African American performance.
Hanna’s essay identifies several flaws in all three paradigms. He points out that what Steele calls the individual’s “margin of choice” is extremely limited. People do enjoy a degree of what might be loosely termed “free will,” but one cannot simply choose to have a loving father at home. However, Hanna downplays empirical arguments made by contemporary black conservatives about the effect of cultural variables and perceptions of risk on outcomes, as well as the important role of black conservatism in empirically rebutting claims of systemic racism.