Gene Expression

William F. Buckely was a racist

Many are quoting this from an editorial by William F. Buckley Jr.:

“The central question that emerges…is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas where it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes–the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.”

–William F. Buckley, National Review, August 24, 1957

I do want to put on the record that he recanted:

Buckley said he had a few regrets, most notably his magazine’s opposition to civil rights legislation in the 1960s. “I think that the impact of that bill should have been welcomed by us,” he said.

That doesn’t excuse or negate the past. National Review was a journal of some impact then, and Buckley was a public figure. But I’m a temporal moral relativist, you can’t judge the people of the past by the same standards you judge those of the present. A substantial number of Americans alive today were alive during the 1950s and 1960s; and a substantial number of those Americans were opponents of the civil rights movement. One assumes that the majority of these have changed their minds as well. There is even a former Ku Klux Klan member, Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, serving in the Senate. Byrd also filibustered the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which he now regrets. The follies of youth are often the follies of one’s age in the more general sense. Perhaps we who are a bit younger will also have cause to feel some shame in our old age when we reflect back, and realize that we too were simply fellow travelers in the spirit of the times.

Note: Speaking of things that might surprise you, Charlton Heston was a civil rights activist. Heston is proud of this obviously because it looks good now; but there was a time when this would have been controversial for a public figure who wanted to maximize his market appeal. To paraphrase Michael Jordan, segregationists bought movie tickets too!

Update: Go here for a more detailed explanation of William F. Buckley Jr’s stances on civil rights, then and relatively recently. As I noted in the comments apologia for segregation was not that abnormal in the 1960s. I pointed out below that J. William Fulbright was also part of the filibuster in 1964 against the Civil Rights Act. But later due to his opposition to Vietnam he became something of an icon, and in the 1970s Fulbright changed his mind (or blacks were enfranchised and so he changed his politics) on the race issues.

Comments

  1. #1 Crikey
    February 28, 2008

    Their expressions of regret are not sincere. Somebody who loves being racist never gives it up. They may quiet down publicly, even make a public pretense of recanting, but when they are among their own kind and feel safe, they gleefully hate together.

    Buckley wasn’t born racist, he grew into one, and he died one.

  2. #2 Matt
    February 28, 2008

    I know nothing about Mr Buckley but to assert that people never change their views is just absurd. I also wonder how you know that someone who publicy recanted an earlier position didn’t mean it, did he tell you himself, were you at one of these gatherings of ‘their own kind’ or do you have some kind of telepathic ability?

  3. #3 Danny
    February 28, 2008

    whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas where it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes

    think that the impact of that bill should have been welcomed by us

    I don’t see a contradiction between the two statements. The fact is that nowhere in the south do whites not predominate numerically. Mississippi & South Carolina used to be black-majority states, but that was when blacks weren’t counted. The civil rights movement didn’t stop the whites from continuing to dominate the south politically. Despite blacks making up a big chunk of the population, there hasn’t been any black senators of governors coming from the south. The only places that have blacks have gained power is in cities, and the dynamic of white flight, or of white democrats supporting republicans (Giuliani, frex) is well known. The price that white southerners had to pay for granting blacks civil rights was very small, certainly compared to their fears, or compared to what South African or Rhodesian whites paid or are paying. Imagine had this happened at state-level – i.e. blacks taking control of that a political entity that really matters – I think the US could have ended up with violent insurrection and/or partition.

    The Civil Rights movement (inadvertedly) gave birth to the Southern Strategy, which gave birth to Modern Conservatism. Buckley thinks he should have welcomed the impact of the bill – like duh!

  4. #4 Caledonian
    February 28, 2008

    I also wonder how you know that someone who publicy recanted an earlier position didn’t mean it,

    Obviously someone who is racially bigoted is both subhuman and thus unworthy of consideration or even the benefit of the doubt, and pure evil.

    C’mon, you know what those types are like. Always plotting against us and trying to steal our women…

  5. #5 John J Emerson
    February 28, 2008

    There were a lot of racists in the Democratic party before the civil rights act; around 1920 or so the Democrats were the primary racist party (Woodrow Wilson was one of the worst.).

    Around 1948 the coalition between northern liberal New Dealers and southern segregationist New Dealers started to disintegrate, with Pres. Truman and Hubert Humphrey representing the liberals. Strom Thurmond led a Dixiecrat rebellion during the Presidential election, but Truman won anyway. (Sen Trent Lott recently got into hot water for praising Thurmond’s candidacy, and was very slightly demoted within the Republican leadership partly for that reason).

    During the 60s the conflict within the Democratic Party came to a head with the Civil Rights Act, etc. The racists had to choose whether to stay or to go. Thurmond and Helms left, and Byrd stayed. Since then the South has been increasingly Republican.

    West Virginia was a Union state and has never been dominated by racial politics the way the South has. Presumably that’s why Byrd was able to stay in the Democratic Party and renounce his KKK membership.

    I say all this because Byrd is used over and over again as evidence that the Democrats are racist too. That argument is pretty much worthless except historically (before 1948, or maybe even before 1968). It’s basically the innoculation strategy: accuse the other side of what you’re guilty of, so that voters decide that it all evens out in the end and there’s no real difference.

    “You’re no better than I am” is a weak argument even when it’s true, but when it’s not true it’s dishonest.

  6. #6 Brad Goodever
    February 28, 2008

    “Heston is proud of this obviously because it looks good now;” He’s probably primarily proud of it because it was the right thing to do, regardless of how it “looks”…

  7. #7 razib
    February 28, 2008

    “You’re no better than I am” is a weak argument even when it’s true, but when it’s not true it’s dishonest.

    no it isn’t, it’s an argument that it isn’t a black and white dichotomy. and it wasn’t just byrd, a lot of the conservative democrats who opposed civil rights lasted into the 80s and 90s. fritz hollings and and william fulbright would be two more examples. elizabeth cady stanton said some pretty racist things later in life when she was bitter that black men had gotten the vote but white women had not. does that mean that she shouldn’t be respected for her overall stances and human rights and secularism? FDR didn’t do much in the are of civil rights despite pleas from those in his circle further to the left, but we obviously don’t judge this weak point as determinative of his whole legacy. in contrast to FDR, truman did do a fair amount, but if you look at his personal sentiments he was a pretty typical racist border-state person for his time, using the n-word without hesitation.

    my point isn’t to play dem or republican politics. i don’t really care about that. my point is that people should be judged in the context of their times, and if someone is 82 years old many will have probably expressed opinions at some point that will seem retrograde and out of place today. first, they might have changed their minds. second, it isn’t like human psychology has changed, and no doubt we will look back years from now and wonder what the hell we were thinking too, so perhaps we should cut previous generations just a touch of slack.

  8. #8 Josh Rosenau
    February 28, 2008

    It isn’t clear that the second quotation actually recants the racist aspects of the first. It’s one thing to say “we shouldn’t have opposed civil rights legislation,” and another to say, “our opposition to civil rights legislation was rooted in racism, and that was wrong.” The former is almost what Buckley said (his actual quotation is about a single bill, and focuses only on its impacts), the latter is a recantation of racism. For all we know, Buckley just thinks that openly racist arguments were politically harmful, but not wrong.

  9. #9 razib
    February 28, 2008

    For all we know, Buckley just thinks that openly racist arguments were politically harmful, but not wrong.

    buckley had politically liberal close friends, such as john k. galbraith. do you think these relationships would have persisted if he remained an unrepentant racist? in any case, the conservative movement’s alignment with the segregationists helped win the south for the republican party, so i don’t think one can argue that it was a bad move in terms of politics on the balance. that being said, most conservatives will admit that it was a morally shameful bargain.

  10. #10 natural cynic
    February 28, 2008

    Barry Goldwater was another conservative that recanted his stand against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, mostly on the grounds that, at the time, it went too far in asserting federal rights over the states. He won quite a few Dixiecrats for his election bid the same year, but it certainly didn’t help him with the rest of the country.

  11. #11 MPW
    February 28, 2008

    “do you think these relationships would have persisted if he remained an unrepentant racist?”

    Holy crap, Razib, I know you’re smarter than that.

    Bill Buckley might have genuinely regretted and repudiated his openly racist past stances, but you’ve provided nothing here to convince any (justifiably) skeptical people (like me) of that claim. John and Josh’s objections above stand.

  12. #12 razib
    February 28, 2008

    Bill Buckley might have genuinely regretted and repudiated his openly racist past stances, but you’ve provided nothing here to convince any (justifiably) skeptical people (like me) of that claim. John and Josh’s objections above stand.

    not really. i think we have different a priori assumptions. i assume that if someone was a racist in the 1950s they probably aren’t a racist in the 2000s. racism was normal in much of america in the 1950s. it isn’t in the 2000s. most people don’t do the right thing, they do the normal thing. here’s more on buckley and race if you care:
    http://sanseverything.wordpress.com/2008/02/27/william-f-buckley-the-gift-of-friendship/

  13. #14 Brian
    February 29, 2008

    It’s not difficult to think of biases in our current generation that need to go, and popular prejudice that would, in all likelihood, be gone in a half-century. There is a tremendous xenophobia in this country, same-sex marriage is still “controversial,” and people are caught up with the mere notion of a non-white/male president (hopefully in the future, this situation will be more common).

    I always get a kick out of people who blame old folks for bigotry. You’re all bigots, too, only you don’t know it yet :)

  14. #15 outeast
    February 29, 2008

    Razib, without committing to an opinion on Buckley’s ‘renunciation’ of racism (I don’t know enough) I don’t think those new sources you’ve added contribute to this discussion. One simply claims that Buckley ‘change[d] and renounce[d] racism by the mid-1960s’, without citing sources, and the other refers explicitly to exactly the same quotation as you (which is indeed open to the qualification advanced by Danny above).

    Obviously people do genuinely change their minds, and your generalizations hold; if you really want to assert that they apply in the specific case of Buckley you’ll need to do better – though if you only want to urge ‘reasonable doubt’, your case is enough.

  15. #16 LongMa
    March 1, 2008

    “I don’t see a contradiction between the two statements. The fact is that nowhere in the south do whites not predominate numerically. Mississippi & South Carolina used to be black-majority states, but that was when blacks weren’t counted. The civil rights movement didn’t stop the whites from continuing to dominate the south politically. Despite blacks making up a big chunk of the population, there hasn’t been any black senators of governors coming from the south. The only places that have blacks have gained power is in cities, and the dynamic of white flight, or of white democrats supporting republicans (Giuliani, frex) is well known.”

    Danny:

    Somewhat true but those majority black states did elect black governors, U.S. Senators, etc until Jim Crow was installed after the 1st President Johnson (a sympathetic Southern) stopped Reconstruction.

    Many blacks, not happy being serfs to Southern whites, as it was just a step up from slavery moved North and West in search of work or just to get away from Jim Crow. Although there was racism in these places to it was not codified.

  16. #17 TGGP
    March 2, 2008

    outeast, Tanenhaus says that Buckley debated Wallace in the late 60s. I get the impression Wallace was an extremist, so taking the less-racist side against him may not say much.

    LongMa, interestingly enough the North got significantly more racist after the “Great Migration”. It had previously had communities of better-educated free blacks from before the Civil War (many of whom were descended from slave-holders) that were more accepted but the influx of “black rednecks” changed things. Similarly, many cities got more anti-semitic when jews from eastern-europe arrived, though the previous german jewish immigrants had become fairly assimilated. Thomas Sowell has written about these things.

  17. #18 razib
    March 2, 2008

    re: northern racism, see “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism: James W. Loewen.” shorter: in the north whites ethnically cleansed blacks, in the south they enforced jim crow.

  18. #19 gq
    March 2, 2008

    “Everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/07/16/specials/buckley-aids.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

    Has he ever repudiated THAT? I hope so. Verges on Nazi-ism.

  19. #20 cc
    March 3, 2008

    There’s a difference between J. William Fulbright, Fritz Hollings and Buckley. The former two are Southerners; Buckley was a New Englander.

    If a Southerner was a segregationalist, that’s one thing because institutionalized racism was so ingrained. Not that I excuse it. There were bold independent Southerners who were staunch anti-racists.

    I do excuse Southerners who are uneducated and poverty-stricken. The powers that be often used racism as a means to put the economically deprived at odds against each other so that they wouldn’t join forces in order to fight the entrenched Establishment.

    But Buckley was born into wealth, was educated at the finest prep schools and graduated from Yale. There is no excuse for him to

    But Buckley was a prep-school eduacted Yale graduate born into wealth. There was no excuse for such a person to write such racist viewpoints. No, not even in 1957.

  20. #21 TGGP
    March 4, 2008

    Buckley was a southerner by descent. I point out how he got his distinctive manner of speaking here at the end, and the southern drawl part of it is noted here.

  21. #22 Rick
    April 8, 2008

    Despite blacks making up a big chunk of the population, there hasn’t been any black … governors coming from the south.

    Virginia.
    Douglas Wilder.
    1990 to 1994.