I believe that freedom of the individual — as opposed to good works or “social justice” — is by far the highest goal any society can strive for. I became a conservative precisely to deal with my fate as a black American born into a segregated society. Racism had deprived me of individual freedom as I grew up in segregated America. But then, as segregation faded, there followed a flood of good works intended to make up for the past: school busing; welfare that asked nothing of its beneficiaries; racial preferences at universities that did not discriminate; and amorphous, do-good concepts like “diversity” that are merely a license to shallow social engineering — to arranging an optics of race and gender harmony.
The problem with all these liberal good works is that they associate blackness with permanent inferiority. They don’t really believe in the fundamental human equality of the people they claim to help. They want to be valued for their good intentions, never for their effectiveness in uplift. I grew to hate these programs and policies because they not only believed in my inferiority more than my capacity for excellence but also encouraged me to use black weakness — the inferiority imposed by four centuries of brutal oppression — as leverage and entitlement in the larger society.
Modern liberalism seduces blacks with an idea of justice into an investment in our own historically imposed inferiority, as though it were a kind of talent. Only conservatism gave me a shot at true human equality. Possibly the greatest irony in American political culture is that conservatism — even today — is stigmatized as oppressive to minorities when, in fact, it is literally our only road ahead. We already have equality under the law. Only contemporary conservatism — which simply wants fairness by individuals rather than by groups — offers us the chance for true dignity, for freedom from both bigotry and paternalism.
And let there be no confusion: history has escalated the terms of equality from civil rights to merit. Today an equality of merit is expected to match the equality of rights. You are competitive by merit with others or you are not. Today the great weapon of equality is the pursuit of excellence.
I became conservative when I realized that the era of protest was over. We blacks won everything we could win through protest — but it was an idea of what others must do for us, of how others must be moral and tolerant. Conservatism is the road ahead because it is an idea of what we can do for ourselves.
Steele is a Robert J. and Marion E. Oster Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. The views expressed are solely his own.
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