Like any group that has endured much, African Americans have created a strong and mutually reinforcing sense of group identity. That's not a bad thing in and of itself. Once the exhilaration of emancipation had worn off after the Civil War and the reality of being free but black in America had sunk in, that group identity comforted, protected, and encouraged us as a people to move forward in spite of the barriers put before our progress. That group identity gave us new strength and courage during the civil rights movement of the 1960s that ended the reign of Jim Crow and began a new era of black educational and economic upward mobility.
Sometimes, though, this group identity can limit us more than it protects us. Just as the Irish, the Italians, and the Jews still take pride in their roots, African Americans today should be proud of their heritage and never forget the difficult path our people have been forced to walk. But when the group identity becomes more important than the individual, it can blind us to valuable viewpoints, options, and opportunities. I embrace my blackness, just as I do my conservatism and my Christianity, but I don't want to be defined or pigeonholed by any one of the many elements that make up my character.
That refusal to be stereotyped and cast into certain beliefs and behaviors is what gets people of color who take another path, particularly a conservative path, into a heap of trouble. It doesn't matter whether it is Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice, Shelby Steele, Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, or yours truly — we have all been labeled expedients, Uncle Toms, oreos, sell-outs, traitors to our race, and other equally uncomplimentary characterizations.
Most of all, however, critics of black conservatives say we've forgotten where we came from. I may forget a federal budget number or, God forbid, to set the alarm clock for my weekly 6 a.m. flight to Washington, but I know exactly where I came from. I know because every decision I make every day is based on the values and lessons I learned growing up on the poor side of the tracks in a dusty little Oklahoma town that most people have never heard of and nobody can spell right the first time.
I like to call the ethos I grew up with "Oklahoma values." But you'd be just as accurate if you said "American values." Except for our lack of a seacoast, Oklahoma has a little bit of just about everything that's American. We call the southeastern corner "Little Dixie" because it touches Arkansas and almost reaches Louisiana. The northern part of the state has a shared border with Missouri and Kansas. The northwestern section is a gateway to Colorado and New Mexico. And, of course, our entire southern boundary defines the northern edge of Texas. We're southern, and we're western, and Great Plains, too. Every weekend when I fly home from Washington, I never get tired of seeing the beauty and bounty of my home state.
From What Color Is a Conservative? Copyright © 2002 by J.C. Watts, Jr. All rights reserved. HarperCollins Publishers. Used by permission.