News & Politics

The Racism-Conservatism Link: 'National Review' Firestorm Over Racism Calls Up William F. Buckley's Troubling Legacy

Did Buckley ever really renounce his defense of white supremacy in the South?

The National Review's dropping of two writers -- one for publishing a racist article in another publication, the other for giving a racist talk -- has renewed discussion of that magazine's early positions regarding race and the legacy of its founder and guiding spirit William F. Buckley, Jr. Since Buckley's magazine was critical to the success of the postwar right, mainstream conservatism's supposed renunciation of racism has depended in part on a prevailing, little-examined notion that having defended white supremacy in the South in the 1950s, Buckley later apologized for that position.

His fans, both conservative and liberal, cite the apology. It's become part and parcel of a contention that racism and conservatism are not ineluctably connected.

But the aged Buckley was renouncing a position entirely different from the one he'd actually advanced in the 1950s.

Writing in 1957 in defense of jury nullification of federal voting laws, Buckley insisted that whites in the South were "entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, where they do not prevail numerically," because the white race was "for the time being, the advanced race." In 2004, asked whether he'd ever taken a position he now regretted, he said: "Yes. I once believed we could evolve our way up from Jim Crow. I was wrong: federal intervention was necessary."

Nicely done. Where in '57 he'd asserted a right even of a minority of whites to impose racial segregation by literally any means necessary, including breaking federal law, in '04 Buckley expressed regret for supposedly having believed only that segregation would wither away without federal intervention.

Stupid the man was not. He gets credited today with honesty about his past and with having, in his own way, "evolved up." Modern conservatives, more importantly, get to ignore the realities of their movement's origins.

Buckley did evolve, just not in the way his fans like to imagine. His effort to construct working-class white Southern racists as an advanced race was brief. (Given Buckley's ideas of what advanced races like to do -- sail, listen to Bach, defend high culture against barbarity -- it's not surprising if they disappointed him.) By 1965, at a famous Oxford Union debate with James Baldwin, Buckley was fighting what had already become a rearguard action on civil-rights legislation, and he was taking a new position. Claiming now that everybody already agreed that race prejudice is evil, he accused the civil-rights movement of no longer seeking equality but the actual regression of the white race. He announced that if it ever came to race war, he was prepared to fight it on the beaches, in the hills, in the mountains.

And he joked that what he really objected to was any uneducated Southerner, black or white, being allowed to vote. That's less a turnabout on equal rights for blacks than a retreat to a more logically consistent snobbism, and the joke was serious: that same year, James J. Kilpatrick put forth in the National Review an argument mixing states-rights populism with ruling-class prerogative, warning that federalism would be destroyed unless states were free to impose voting qualifications, and that such qualifications must discriminate equally, not racially.

Race nevertheless long remained a defining conservative issue for the National Review. In a 1969 column, Buckley hymned the research of Arthur Jensen on race and IQ, which showed blacks testing lower than whites on abstract reasoning skills, a finding from which Buckley deduced a racial imperviousness to improvement by education. In the 1970s the magazine persistently defended apartheid South Africa on the same basis that it had once defended Jim Crow.

The problem isn't that old Bill Buckley gets a pass. If conservatives today really mean to mark out an American conservative ethos with no remaining ties to racism, wouldn't they need to reckon, far more seriously and realistically than they seem prepared to do, with the painful legacy of the postwar right when it comes to what was then called racial integration? With the Cold War, integration was the hot issue of the day -- and that was the day when the right wing was taking over the Republican Party. Nelson Rockefeller was a fire-and-brimstone Cold Warrior but hyperliberal on race; he was just the type the Buckleyites were knocking out. Ties between conservatism and straight-up, hardcore, undisguised disgust at the presence of African Americans in any position other than servile were once so tight that for some of us with long enough memories it's somewhat bizarre even to have to review them.

And the deeper one digs into the history of race and the right wing, the trickier things get. There's another remark of Buckley's that gets him routinely credited with acknowledging, in old age, postwar conservatives' error on race and personally recanting it: a comment he made during an interview with Judy Woodruff in 2006 regarding his opposition to the 1962 Civil Rights Act. "The effect of that bill should have been welcomed by us," Buckley told Woodruff. He framed his old objection to the act in terms of William Rehnquist's supposedly having persuaded him and Barry Goldwater, when developing positions for the Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign, to view opposition to the act as an inescapable conclusion of the supposed strict constitutionalism on which Goldwater was running, a position that Buckley told Woodruff he'd since come to regret for its "constitutional formalism."

Buckley's 2006 frame is a false one. Advancing states-rights and anti-judicial-review arguments against civil-rights laws was nothing new to Buckley in '63-'64, and his arguments certainly didn't depend on any "formalist" urging from Rehnquist. By the time of the Goldwater campaign, nearly 10 years of unrelenting objection to every form of civil-rights legislation had appeared in the National Review, weirdly blending the (supposedly race-neutral) "strict-constitutional" argument with Buckleyite claims for the right of cultures deemed superior by Buckleyites to violate the Constitution.

So if Buckley was really telling Woodruff in 2006 the only thing his admirers can mean when they call his remarks an apology or a recanting -- that he'd been persuaded in the '60s by a well-regarded legal scholar to go along with a strict constitutional position that, while intellectually sound, had some regrettable real-world ramifications for black people, which Buckley only later came to understand and thus to regret -- he was being preposterous.

But there's a more intriguing possibility. In 1952, Rehnquist wrote a now-famous memo on Brown vs. Board of Education. The Times recently revived a discussion of it, and of Rehnquist's denial that it reflected his own opinion. That memo put forth an idea related in interesting ways to Buckley's '57 "advanced race" essay.

In the memo, Rehnquist deemed the Supreme Court a poor place for ruling on individual rights, suggesting that the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment can't be enforced by judicial review in communities where those rights are opposed by a majority. That is, they can't be enforced. "In the long run," Rehnquist wrote, "majorities will decide what the constitutional rights of minorities are." And that's at first what Buckley seemed to mean, too, when he said in the '57 essay that the question of the white right to prevail could not be "answered by merely consulting a catalogue of the rights of American citizens, born equal."

But Buckley's '57 essay turns that already startling idea upside down. It says that even a minority of whites has a right -- nay, a duty! -- to take measures necessary to prevail against a majority of blacks. That kind of romantic, questing elitism did not fit the new Rehnquist-Goldwater populism, which appealed to majority and states rights in resisting federal enforcement of racial integration. Really, Buckley's view revealed too much of what "states rights" was so often code for: white supremacy.

Is it possible, then, that what Rehnquist actually advised Buckley during the '64 platform discussions amounted to a request to tone down the eccentric flights of derring-do, to get with the program of pushing the rights of majorities in local communities over those of the federal judiciary and legislature -- i.e., get with the right-wing party line regarding segregation, which Rehnquist was even then transforming from the fatalistic mood of his '52 memo into a positive program for Goldwater's speeches?

And when Buckley said he regretted going along with Rehnquist, might he really have meant he regretted relinquishing youthful, romantic militancy about the rights of superior civilizations, and adopting instead a dry, constitutional argument promoting mere white majorities (often irritatingly low-class majorities at that)?

If so, Buckley's remark to Woodruff would at least make sense. And Buckley often made sense.

Buckley's most quoted remark from the Woodruff interview is cryptic, relying uncharacteristically on the passive voice: "The effect of that bill should have been welcomed by us." How can "the effect" he's talking about really be legislating equality for blacks (something Buckley continued to object to, as I've pointed out)? That would be weird. More likely the cagey old bastard meant conservatives should have welcomed the effect of the Civil Rights Act on white voters in the South. They of course did respond to its passage by flocking to the Republican Party, an effect explicitly "welcomed" at the time by Buckley, and by others who would soon be leveraging that effect for the election.

In any event, it would be interesting to see conservative intellectuals, not liberal ones, digging into this history.

 

William Hogeland is the author of The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America's Newfound Sovereignty.