When James Baldwin took the stage to debate William F. Buckley at Cambridge in 1965, it was to have “a debate we shouldn’t need,” writes Gabrielle Bellot at Literary Hub, and yet it’s one that is still “as important as ever.” The proposition before the two men—famed prophetic novelist of the black experience in America and the conservative founder of the National Review—was this: “The American Dream is at the Expense of the America Negro.”
The statement should not need defending, Baldwin argued, because it is so obviously true. The wealth created by hundreds of years of slavery has passed down through generations of families. So too has the poverty. These divisions have been strenuously maintained by Jim Crow, redlining, and racist policing. “Profits from slavery,” write Stephen Smith and Kate Ellis at APM Reports, “helped fund some of the most prestigious schools in the Northeast, including Harvard, Columbia, Princeton and Yale,” which happened to be Buckley’s alma mater and was founded by an actual slave trader.
Slave labor funded, built, and maintained nearly every part of the formative university system in the early U.S., and built the wealth of many other powerful institutions. Baldwin says it is “awkward” to have to point out these facts. Rather than recite them, he personalizes, speaking, he says, as “a kind of Jeremiah” in naming crimes gone unredressed for too long: “I am stating very seriously, and this is not an overstatement. I picked the cotton, I carried it to the market, and I built the railroads under someone else’s whip for nothing. For nothing…. The American soil is full of the corpses of my ancestors. Why is my freedom or my citizenship, or my right to live there, how is it conceivably a question now?”
Buckley’s response drips with condescension and contempt. He begins with a standard conservative line: deploring the acts of a few “individual American citizens” who “perpetuate discrimination," but denying that historic, systemic racism still exists. He then cites “the failure of the Negro community itself to make certain exertions, which were made by other minority groups during the American experience.” He damns an entire group of people with platitudes about hard work while also declaring loudly that race has nothing to do with it.
This contradiction—engaging in racist scapegoating while claiming not to see race—was part of the strategy of “colorblind” conservatism the National Review adopted after the passage the Civil Rights Act. Prior to the early sixties, however, Buckley had been a strident segregationist who publicly defended institutionalized white supremacy rather than claiming it had disappeared. In 1957, he wrote an editorial titled “Why the South Must Prevail” and argued that white southern politicians must “take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally” over black citizens.
Buckley had not fundamentally changed in 1965, though he positioned himself as a moderate middle ground between liberals and segregationists like Strom Thurmond, whom he considered crude. His position amounts to little more than a defense of domination, couched in what historian Joshua Tait calls the “racial innocence of intellectual conservatism” that deliberately ignores or distorts historical truths and present realities. “Bristling at Baldwin’s claim that the American economy was built by the unremunerated labour of Black people,” writes Joss Harrison, “Buckley cries: ‘My great grandparents worked too!’”
The debate “now stands as one of the archetypal articulations of the dividing line between US progressives and conservatives on questions of race, justice and history,” writes Aeon, who bring us the full version above with restored audio by Adam D’Arpino. Buckley responds to Baldwin’s powerful rhetoric with insults, out of context “facts and figures – as well as an ad hominem shot at Baldwin’s speaking voice.” He proposes that one road to equality lies in disenfranchising poor Southern whites as well as black citizens.
Buckley displays a “complete ignorance of the problems faced by black Americans in society,” writes Harrison. Such ignorance, "allied with power," Baldwin said elsewhere, constitutes "the most ferocious enemy justice can have." For Baldwin, Buckley's attitude simply confirmed the “great shock," that he movingly describes in his debate statement, "around the age of five, or six, or seven, to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you.”