White Conservatives and Black Lives

Gregory Mengel
9 min readSep 12, 2017


Why White Conservatives Don’t Get Black Lives Matter and How to Shift the Conversation

I was about to post this article on the day that Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of all charges in the killing of Philando Castille. That felt like the absolutely wrong moment to share a piece about how to talk across the ideological divide that separates Black Lives Matter from its detractors. It was a moment for the unrestrained expression of grief and rage. Since then, of course, we’ve seen the white supremacist alt-right assert itself more publicly and violently than it had in recent times, so I also want to emphasize that, when I refer to conservatives in this piece, I mean the traditional sort, not the alt-right, though I am under no illusions about the very real connections between the putrid ideology of the latter and the everyday ways white supremacy is implicit in both liberal and conservative politics.

With that said, here is the original piece:

Black Lives Matter is probably the most successful U.S. based civil and human rights movement in a generation. Its simple and elegant message has gone around the world and spawned many imitators. Yet one sector of the U.S. populace has remained largely unmoved by BLM’s message — white conservatives. Indeed, they have fulminated against it from the beginning. It is, of course, commonplace to attribute this communication breakdown to simple racism. And that’s certainly legit. But it’s ultimately not that useful.

I want to clarify at the outset that this should, in no way, be construed as a critique of Black Lives Matter, the movement by Black folks to assert their right to exist with freedom and dignity. I am not here to white-mansplain how they should improve their message. The movement’s success speaks for itself. However, there is no denying it has its limits, as any communication strategy does. The limitation I want to discuss concerns what often happens when white liberals try to talk to our conservative-leaning friends and family.

Moral Foundations Theory

For a good long while, I was genuinely bewildered by the reaction of conservatives to BLM. And it’s not just right-wingers, either. This includes many folks who might identify as independent but have a more traditional outlook on social matters. I was thoroughly perplexed, for example, by the rejoinder, “all lives matter.” How is it possible to not understand that “black lives matter” means black lives matter, too, not black lives matter more or only?

There had to be more going on than lack of comprehension. If that were all it was, a simple clarification would do the job. In reality, when white liberals try to convince conservatives there is often anger and digging in of heels. And the person trying to defend BLM ends up regarding their conservative counterpart as an uncaring, irredeemable racist. This experience is frustrating, of course, but it is also secretly satisfying to know with certainty that you’re on the right side of the issue.

I recently came across research on Moral Foundations Theory (MFT), that kind of blew my mind. The ideas, which are explained in the book, The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt offer some powerful insight into the communication fail that happens between liberals and conservatives. Let me start with a brief primer on the theory. MFT was developed by a group of social and cultural psychologists trying to understand the confounding moral diversity found across various cultures. The theory proposes that the wide variety of moral systems governing human societies are based on a common set of moral foundations shared by all humans. This is not to say that nature rather than culture determines human morality. Rather, according to MFT, specific beliefs about right and wrong arise through the complex interaction between nature and culture. It might be helpful to think of these moral foundations as differently colored threads out of which a moral community weaves a unique moral tapestry.

MFT postulates six moral foundations:

· The first foundation is care/harm. It is the basis for admiring those in need and repudiating cruelty.

· The second is liberty/oppression. This foundation informs the conviction that it is wrong to impinge on an individual’s inherent right to freedom from unjust domination.

· The third foundation is fairness/cheating. It informs the principle that people should get what they deserve, but no more. People who work hard are entitled to recompense and people who commit misdeeds deserve appropriate punishment.

· The fourth foundation is sanctity/degradation, which concerns the importance of preserving the sacred. Religious strictures regarding the handling of holy objects and the performance of ceremonies rest on this foundation.

· The fifth foundation is loyalty/betrayal, which is about commitment to an ingroup. It may be expressed as team spirit or patriotism or even racial solidarity.

· The sixth foundation is authority/subversion. The moral duty to honor and respect one’s social superiors, such as parents, teachers, and other authority figures, stands on this foundation.

Countless intersecting historical, cultural, and contingent factors shape the way moral communities draw on these foundations to weave a functioning moral system. White liberals and white conservatives in the United States have constructed distinct moral communities with alternative moral systems (I’ll drop the modifiers “white” and “in the US”, but they are implied). Liberalism tends to emphasize the care/harm and liberty/oppression foundations, almost exclusively. For liberals, empathy for those who are suffering and the willingness to help them is the highest moral good. The actions seen as most immoral, meanwhile, are those that entail intentional harm or the domination of the weak by the strong.

Generally speaking, liberals see the notion of moral duties based on sanctity/degradation and loyalty/betrayal as backward (though environmentalists may see “nature” as sacred). The morality of loyalty is suspect for liberals because they tend to understand moral obligations as universal, meaning that ingroup and outgroup members are due the same moral consideration. Moreover, many liberals are contemptuous of the authority/subversion foundation and reject the notion that we have any moral obligation to obey or show deference to authority. On the contrary, liberals celebrate underdogs who defy the powerful (George Washington, Martin Luther King, etc.). A decent synopsis of the liberal morality might be: take care of the vulnerable and stand up for the oppressed.

That morality of care and liberation may seem like common sense if you’re a liberal, but then that’s precisely what makes you a liberal. Conservatives, by contrast, tend to give all six moral foundations roughly equal weight. Thus, while they value care and compassion, they value respect for authority and ingroup loyalty just as much. And protecting the sacred from debasement is at least as important as opposing oppression, especially if the oppressed are members of an outgroup. If the conservative moral matrix could be summed up in a single injunction, it would be: uphold the social institutions and sacred traditions responsible for preserving the social order. The heroes of this morality tend to be law enforcement officers and military veterans.

Let that sink in for a minute.

Back to Black Lives Matter

From the conservative perspective, society has an unwritten compact whereby the police protect us from crime and social breakdown, and, in exchange, we agree to grant them our trust and even a certain amount of reverence. Yet BLM activists are saying that police abuse their authority by brutalizing and killing innocent people, and that the institution itself is basically corrupt. Since, for conservatives, the compact with the police is sacred and indispensable to an orderly society, this message must be false, and to suggest otherwise is dangerously subversive. After all, the police routinely risk their lives in maintaining the thin blue line between social order and chaos.

In addition to considering it wrong to criticize the police because of their vital social role, conservatives also tend to feel a sense of ingroup loyalty toward law enforcement personnel. Outgroups, of course, may include the liberal elite, the mainstream media, and “social justice warriors.” The ultimate outgroup member, however, not only for many conservatives but for a vast swath of white America, is the young Black male from an inner-city neighborhood with sagging pants and a (presumed) gang affiliation. This figure is seen (implicitly, if not explicitly) as a grave threat to the social order, which is precisely why he is so often abused or killed by police, sometimes for the “crime” of talking back or running away. This stereotype is where the racism of the All Lives Matter crowd is most manifest. It is precisely because of this ingroup/outgroup mentality that many white folks are unable to hear the implicit but obvious “too.”

I should emphasize, parenthetically, that these racist stereotypes are by no means limited to conservatives. It is true, for the reasons I mentioned, that conservatives are more likely to believe that someone shot by police probably had it coming. But liberals, despite their professed care for victims of violence, tend to obsess over the victim’s guiltlessness, often losing interest when a victim turns out to have a criminal record or a gang affiliation.

It should be obvious that the standard liberal strategy of appealing to sympathy for victims of police violence is never going to be effective with those who feel strong loyalty to the police and a reflexive suspicion of their victims.

The Example of Colin Kaepernick

(Photo: Kelley L Cox, USA TODAY Sports)

Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest, in which he sat refused to stand during the national anthem before his NFL football games, represents a near perfect example of this clash of moral foundations. While his protest was extremely powerful on a symbolic level, many saw it as a denigration of our society’s sacred symbols. From their perspective, he was being disloyal, not only to the police, but to the military, and to all those who have sacrificed to make our country what it is.

In addition, conservatives (as well as many liberals) are wedded to a racial progress narrative. This story assures us that our racist past is passed, and nowadays anyone in America can be successful. The wealth and celebrity status of athletes such as Kaepernick is seen as proof that the American dream is fully accessible to Black people. By publicly rejecting that narrative, Kaepernick was exhibiting not only disloyalty and disrespect, but ingratitude. Not surprisingly the backlash was swift and intense, and continues to negatively impact Kaepernick’s athletic career.

Allow me to re-emphasize that it is not the responsibility of Black folks to deal with the anger and resentment engendered by their requests for dignity and human rights. Kaepernick’s actions were an authentic and, in many ways, highly effective expression of his valid disappointment that his country is not living up to its promise of liberty and justice for all. He doesn’t need to change anything. It is on us white folks, those of us who are moved by the movement and want to take the message further, to consider why the message has failed to move our conservative friends and family. And we can begin by understanding how their moral worldview is organized. Simply assuming that our moral concerns are self-evidently right and calling anyone who doesn’t share them “hateful” may offer us a sense of moral superiority, but it isn’t going to reduce police violence.

Some Thoughts on Strategy

The situation may sound hopeless, but I don’t think it is. We may have to be willing to reign in our smug moral certainty, but there are possibilities for finding common ground on the goal of reducing police violence. Inroads are already appearing. For example, an article on The Federalist website argues that police accountability and transparency are essential to protect the integrity of policing. And this post on The American Conservative rejects the oft-heard rhetoric about a few bad apples being responsible for police brutality, and argues that the problem is systemic.

We may be entirely right that “the police have always been at the root of a system for managing and producing inequality.” It may also be true that out of control hooligans with badges routinely get away with murdering people of color because police culture protects them, and the larger society doesn’t care enough to ensure the system holds them accountable. But our righteousness about these things is unhelpful when we’re talking to people who do not share our moral foundations.

If we want to find common ground with conservatives, we (white folks) need to set aside our righteousness and focus on what will move them. We might, for example, emphasize the need to keep bad police from sullying the otherwise honorable profession. We could talk about the cost to taxpayers of settling lawsuits due to police misconduct. I know this one is deeply problematic, but perhaps we should be making a more of a commotion when white people are killed by the police, rather than when they are treated with kid gloves.

These approaches may feel unsatisfying because they don’t address the deepest roots of the problem. That’s to be expected. But the point is not to satisfy our moral intuitions or score moral points; it is to convince conservatives to join us in demanding greater scrutiny of the police. While it is vital that we stay connected to our own moral values, it is equally vital that we recognize the moral values of those we wish to persuade.