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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.

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