An Interview with Carol Swain

Carol Swain, a voice shouting in the wilderness.

Carol Swain, a voice shouting in the wilderness.

Editor’s Note: Carol Swain is a nationally renowned conservative political scientist, former television host, and professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University. Before joining the Vanderbilt faculty in 1999, she was an associate professor of politics and public policy at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. She is the author and editor of several award-winning books, and her scholarly work has been cited by two Supreme Court Justices. Her academic interests include immigration reform, religious liberty, campaigns and elections, and racial politics. Her views on race and the Black Lives Matter Movement and Islam have attracted national attention in the media. Recently, The Dartmouth Review had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Swain about her life as an academic and conservative political activist. Here is what she had to say.

The Dartmouth Review (TDR):  You a have a very unique life story. Could you tell us a bit about how you became not only an accomplished academic but also a conservative activist?

Carol Swain (CS): Well, it was a gradual process. I’ve always seen the world differently from the people around me—I was born differently. I’ve just been questioning things for more of my life, but the turn to conservatism started after I had a Christian conversion experience in the late 1990s.

Before that, I had already started to question race-based affirmative action. In fact, my first undergraduate paper in college was about affirmative action. At that time, I raised questions about it because I felt like it was set up in a way that actually worked to the disadvantage of the people that it purported to help. I’ve always believed that if you were going to have assistance for people that it needed to be means-tested. And that always set me apart even during the early years of my life even before I became a Republican.

TDR: Are you working on any academic research projects right now? 

CS: I am, but I want to tell you a little bit more about my position on affirmative action and some of the things that I saw. This was in the 1980s, and I was older than the other students in college by a few years. The first thing that I noticed was that because you were black you would have all these advantages. For me as a female, as well as being black, I always wanted to demonstrate that I could meet the same standards as everyone else even though I started from a much lower place and was in college with people that had gone to the best schools. I worked really hard to be an honors student because I wanted to demonstrate that I could meet the same standards.

I encountered along the way many African-Americans who came from affluent families, and their attitude was totally different from mine because their attitude was that “they owe this to me, and they owe this to us.” I heard students who had GPAs that were much lower than mine, and these were people that were almost on academic probation, say “[You’re] going to law school or medical school, so they have to let us in.” I don’t believe that any of those people got into schools, and they believed that they didn’t have to be as good, and so that troubled me. I also encountered students who felt that because we were black, we couldn’t make it without affirmative action. And one thing I know from looking at historical data is that schools in the Northeast and New England that didn’t discriminate against blacks have had black alumni since the 1800s. A number of schools, if you look at their alumni, were admitting blacks and blacks were meeting their standards.

[Even] in the 1950s, when blacks started the civil rights movement, which was not about racial preferences, but instead about ending discrimination, blacks were strongly in favor of civil service tests because they understood how it worked: the person who had the highest score got the government job. When it came to college applications, the blacks wanted to see photographs taken off the applications. There have always been blacks that have been able to meet the standards, but that was not generally known. I felt that all of the information at some point was not fitting the narrative of people that wanted racial preferences, so that information is just not part of the dialogue when you talk about race-based affirmative action.

And so those are just some of things that caused me to question affirmative action. I’ve always been in situations in college where I sometimes felt that there were poor whites that I thought needed affirmative action or needed more help, and minorities that were very privileged were being promoted based on their pedigree. That’s part of why I was conservative about affirmative action even while I was a Democrat, and I thought that it should be based on social class rather than race.

TDR: What is it like being a conservative African-American woman in academia, given how progressive your colleagues likely are?

CS: It’s changed a lot over the years. At one point I felt that I was tolerated because toleration was a virtue that a lot of colleges at least made a commitment to. Nowadays, the climate has changed in a way that I would describe as more hostile and less tolerant. And so it is challenging to be a conservative Christian in an environment that is moving in the direction that our nation is moving in. As far as my treatment at my university, I would say that in the last year after I wrote an opinion piece criticizing radical Islam I felt that if I did ever get any benefit from the university as far as I’m black, I’m a woman, and I’ve overcome something—it was erased. I joke with people that they treat me like a white male, and I’ve heard at least one faculty member argue that I should not be counted for affirmative action purposes because of my political views.

TDR: Do you ever feel that your academic freedom or your freedom of speech—especially in this current climate—being restricted?

CS: No more than anyone else that fits my profile. I realize that I have a unique background, so my profile is not that common, but I don’t have any value to the black faculty on campus because I’m not necessarily involved in what they’re doing or the female faculty because I’m not part of the women’s studies program. To be a minority on campus, your value depends a lot on fitting into the boxes that the university has established. At the current time, there is no place for the Christian conservative box. And I think that I’m discriminated against more because of my faith than because of my color or my gender, certainly, because the university celebrates certain group attributes but certainly not Christianity, and I see the Christianity and the conservative views that I hold probably being the key factors that have made me less valued by the university.

Universities, not just Vanderbilt, have a vision of where they want to go and the ideology that they want to spread among the student body. To have a high profile faculty member that represents something totally contrary to what they have on their agenda, I think that they see [it] as running counter to the mission of the institution and what they’re trying to accomplish. And as to the consequences, three or so times last year, the university issued statements stating that “Carol Swain does not represent Vanderbilt University, but she has a right to free speech.” And I’ve not heard or seen those statements being issued for anyone else. 

TDR: There has been a lot of push especially on the part of student protestors fighting for faculty of color. What are your thoughts on faculty diversity—should this diversity also include ideological and religious categories?

CS: The original purpose of affirmative action, which was lost a long time ago, was to eradicate the effects of past and present discrimination. Then we moved on to the diversity enhancement, and when we got to diversity enhancement, it was disconnected with anything that it had to do with in the past. It was about putting into place different kinds of people. And I’ve found over the years that to the universities it just means people of different races, genders, sexual orientations that share the same views. They may be in different colors and hues, but they essentially have the same viewpoints and perspectives. If you don’t fit into the mold that they have defined for people of your category then you have less value to the institution, and that’s what I’ve observed on campuses.

TDR:  Political correctness is a major issue on college campuses. How do we deal with it?

CS: I think you deal with it by pushing back and rejecting it. I refuse to be censored in the classroom or in my everyday life, and I pretty much stand on the constitutional freedoms—freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of religion. I believe that all Americans, whether liberal or conservative, have a stake in the Constitution and in pushing back against those who would silence you. When it comes to race, on the university campuses, I think that most institutions have it wrong, and I believe that they’re doing a disservice to both white students and black students and students of all races when they throw their power behind false merits.

When it comes to movements like Black Lives Matter, that movement was birthed on a false merit, and many universities have gotten behind it without fully understanding its origin and its agenda. The demands on the college campuses for safe spaces are cancer to the whole purpose of integration. When minority students come to campuses and want to segregate themselves in same-race dorms or same-race rooms and classes, then I strongly believe that it defeats the whole purpose of having a liberal education.

Those students that are so intolerant that they don’t want to share a space with students of different races and ethnicities need to go and find themselves a majority black school or historically black school. There are plenty of them. They are not totally segregated, but it would be an appropriate balance for someone that doesn’t want to be around students of a different race. I don’t feel that universities that are predominately white [that are] caving in to demands of safe spaces are preparing students for what happens after they leave the university.

TDR: You mentioned Black Lives Matter. What do you think Black Lives Matter has done for race relations, and do you believe that it incites violence?

CS: The problem with Black Lives Matter is that it’s based on a false narrative and doesn’t have a central leader. It’s my understanding that it’s a group of loosely connected organizations—various chapters across the country—and whether or not they overtly incite violence depends on the leaders in that particular area. I don’t think that the people that are following Black Lives Matter know that the organizations themselves are very much under an ideology that’s Marxist that has now gone national. It’s not really even about the United States anymore, and I think that the agenda that the larger movement has through its founders is not really about black people.

I think black people are being used in a way that’s detrimental to the extent that it incites violence against police officers, which hurts the people who live in urban communities that have a lot of violence. It’s well documented that when the police are attacked and accused of all kinds of things [such as] shooting black men and women because they’re black, they tend to pull back. You get less policing and more crime, and that’s a consequence of the Black Lives Matter movement. We see crime rates rising in various cities across the nation. That’s not in the interest of blacks, and it’s not in the interests of our country.

TDR: Why do you find that it’s so important to speak out given the amount of backlash that you get from not only Vanderbilt but also the public at large? I know that there’s a petition against you on change.org. 

CS: Oh, that was last year, and I haven’t checked how many signatures it got, but the one in support of my free speech quickly got 13,000 signatures. So it dwarfed the petition started by the students who wanted me suspended until I had undergone sensitivity training. I think that’s hilarious that anyone would believe that a black woman with my background who has taught at universities as long as I have would benefit from sensitivity training. To me it shows how Orwellian the universities have become that they impose sensitivity training on anyone that has an independent thought.

TDR: I think they’re making sensitivity training mandatory at Dartmouth now at orientation. 

CS: I think it possibly does the opposite of what they believe it does, and it probably creates more resentment. It’s not sensitizing people to be more sympathetic to those groups; it’s hardening positions that they had once or already held. I don’t know—maybe for some freshman who comes from high school it might have an impact—but anyone that has any sense of independence of thought is going to resist it. And to the extent that it’s about white privilege it might make white students feel guilty for a while, and it’s not likely to be permanent. I don’t think parents should be paying the kind of money that they pay to send their children to institutions where values that have been inculcated in those students as young people will be totally eradicated in months if they get on board with the university’s agenda.

The university’s agenda is so Marxist. In the 1980s when I was in college we had Marxist professors, and they announced that they were Marxist—we all knew who they were. Today, I find that the university has a Marxist agenda, and they don’t have to define it as such [since] it’s so much a part of the structure. They’ve institutionalized Marxism. They don’t have to call it that, but political correctness, the way multiculturalism has been taught on campuses, the revision of language is all like cultural Marxism. And it’s been integrated into the institution in a way that I think is very dangerous, and it’s anti-religion, it’s anti-conservative, it’s anti-Judeo-Christian values. I believe that if parents really knew what was happening on campuses they would be less willing to write those checks; they would be sending all of their kids to Hillsdale College or to some similar institution.

TDR: Speaking of academic institutions, do you think that African and African-American studies and Women’s studies department have become too ideological? Should we just abolish them?

CS: Well they’ve been there since I’ve been in universities and colleges. I think they’ve gained enormous power in recent years, and the danger I see is that universities are no longer live and let live. I personally wonder about those institutions and what they’re teaching students and whether or not universities are just totally going off-track and are no longer a place of ideas. That seems to be affecting not just the Ivy League but also state colleges and universities. But there, you have the limitations imposed by the Constitution because they have less ability to impose their agendas than private institutions do.

TDR: What are your thoughts on tenure and the tenure process? Do you think the entire institution helps or hinders conservatives trying to be successful in academia?

CS: There are two things going on. One is that if not for tenure, I would not have a job. I may find myself relegated to the common Wal-Mart greeter. It’s protecting me. There are conservatives at various institutions that would be ousted if it were not for tenure, so to that extent, tenure is perfect. But when it comes to getting into the institution, I find it very difficult now to persuade young people who are conservative to go into academia. I really push hard for that because I feel like the only way you change the current situation where something like 95% percent of university professors are liberal is that you get more people in the pipeline because the best conservatives are not going to academia—they’re going to law school, business, and various other occupations.

And I think that if you want to change the university, you have to use their Saul Alinksy tactics—go to institutions, work your way to the top, and then when you get to the top, you hire people like yourself. You hire people like you and eventually you get that critical mass. That’s not going to happen if the best conservatives stay away from academia, and people say, “Well it’s so hostile, I don’t think I could make it.” But I think people can make it because the conservative students have to be better at what they do to survive the university system, and there are conservative students that graduate with honors that have all the attributes that would make for a successful person in academia.

There are many colleges and universities where you don’t have to have all conservative faculty to make it through the system. You just have to have people who are committed to classical liberalism. And there are some secular people who are committed to classical liberal principles, and they are concerned about the direction the university has taken. They take very seriously free speech and academic freedom, and sometimes your strongest ally is not going to be someone that looks like you or even shares your views—it’s just going to be principled people.

TDR: How do you keep a balance between being a professor and public intellectual and being a conservative activist? Does your work as one inform the other?

CS: Well, you know, my career has gone through stages. Early in my career I wanted to prove myself and be successful and accepted as a congressional scholar. It was important to me to be admitted in those ranks. So I got my tenure at Princeton, and after I got tenure, I was a little bit disillusioned since I had put so much into it. That set in motion this spiritual quest of trying to find myself, and I think most people go through that search for meaning at some point in their lives. I went through that, and I came out a converted conservative Christian. Once I became a Christian I became more focused on the bigger picture. I believe that God places all of us on Earth for a particular purpose.

When I look back over my life story I see that one thing that God has done for me is that He removed [my] fear of public speaking. Up until the time I had my Christian conversion experience, I was just terrified of public speaking—even though I was a professor, I was terrified. I turned down an opportunity to be on Good Morning America when my first book, Black Faces, Black Interests: The Representation of African Americans in Congress, was published. I turned down Good Morning America because I was afraid. After I had the Christian conversion experience I felt like God impressed on my mind that He was going to give me a message that was bigger than me and that all that I needed to do was to focus on Him.

That has enabled me to stand and deliver messages that are unpopular because I feel like at the end of the day, God is the only person I have to be accountable to. And so that is what motivates me, and there is a lot of risk to what I do. It’s not just about things that I may say that might be controversial when it relates to Islam or when it relates to race. I’m a traditional Christian conservative, and so on issues that have to do with the family and the LGBT community, I’m conservative, and in today’s world that means you put your life at risk.

TDR: What are your thoughts on the recent surge of athletes refusing to stand for our national anthem?

CS: Well I think in the case of Kaepernick, it’s a reflection of his black privilege. I see this a lot among affluent blacks. This has to do with the fact that they know almost nothing about, say, the inner city black experience, and so they’re groping around trying to find themselves, trying to make a statement. So they see a movement like Black Lives Matter, and immediately they will jump on board without really thinking through the implications. Now, whether they admit it or not, blacks in America are better off than blacks any place else in the world that I know of. This is a country of tremendous opportunity, and [you see grandstanding] from Kaepernick and people like him.

When it comes to the abortion rate in some parts of the country, New York City for example, there are more black babies being aborted than being born. That’s a situation [where] if Republicans were pushing abortions on the black community, we would call it what it is because it’s genocide. The black-on-black crime rate in the black community has always been extensively high, and if you really believed that black lives matter that would be your number one mission. You would be attacking it at all levels. You don’t see any of that; we just see a lot of [grandstanding] coming from the athletes and people that are in power. Again, I think that many of them are coming from black privilege.

TDR: How do you convince African-Americans to vote Republican, and especially to vote for Donald Trump?

CS: I think that when we talk about the leaders of Black Lives Matter and the activists that we see on college campuses, they are in their own world. [Even the] Congressional Black Caucus, they are in a different world than the black rank-and-file people that you talk with on the streets, that many of us go to church with, live with, and encounter in day to day life. I think that many of those people realize that the Democratic Party has not done them any good. Among the people who supported President Obama, many of them will tell you privately that they don’t think that he was a good president.

I think our country is at a point where people are just re-examining things—we all have a stake in national policy. Right now, it’s clear that the Democratic Party’s approach to foreign policy has not gained it any favor in America. The Democratic Party’s approach to helping people that are poor or needy has not improved the poverty rate—African-Americans are worse off today than they have been probably in the past fifty or sixty years when it comes to socioeconomic well-being. I think that if the rank-and-file people can be reached with the truth then many of them would vote for the Republican Party, but I think it’s very difficult to [vote Republican] when you have situations where the black person has to go into a predominantly black precinct alone and ask for that Republican ballot. I had to do that first time I voted Republican. I was living in a predominantly black area, and in the precinct where I voted the poll workers were mostly African-American, so when I asked for the Republican ballot it [was] like everyone turned and looked at me, or at least it felt that way.

After that, I openly told people what we needed was a support network. When you are encouraging black people to vote for the Republican party, the first time they [ask for that] ballot they actually need one or two people to go inside that precinct just to support them because it’s a difficult thing to do the first time. The second time it’s easier, and the third time you don’t think about it anymore. Trump is already attracting black voters. I think if he does even a tiny percentage of what he’s promised to do then he will be able to garner even more support, and this stranglehold that the Democrats have had on the black population will hopefully be loosened forever.

  • Parent ’16

    Great interview! Thanks.

  • Bob

    I consider myself a political moderate but I really appreciate hearing diverse viewpoints and this is an excellent interview. I do not agree with all of Professor Swain’s viewpoints, but I definitely admire her bravery in being true to herself despite political opposition on campus.

  • csfurious

    This lady is a true, American hero.