Still Lonely on the Right

Angela D. Dillard

Black Elephants in the Room:
The Unexpected Politics of African American Republicans
By Corey D. Fields
University of California Press, 2016, 296 pages, paper or ebook $29.95

Black Republicans and the Transformation of the GOP
By Joshua D. Farrington
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016, 328 pages, hardback $45

The Loneliness of the Black Republican
By Leah Wright Rigueur
Princeton University Press, 2014, 432 pages, paper $24.95

IT BEGAN WITH “Blacks for Trump” signs at rallies during the presidential campaign. More recently it was Kanye West’s bizarre October 2018 performance in the Oval Office. This was followed, a couple of weeks later, by what was billed as the largest gathering of young Black conservatives ever assembled at the White House.

African Americans who align themselves with the Republican Party and the broader conservative movement are back in the news like gale force winds responding to changes in atmospheric, and political, pressure. While some commentators expressed surprise or even shock in the face of these media storms, for some of us, this feels like deja vu all over again.

Every so often, the nation has the opportunity to rediscover Black conservatives. The Obama White House never witnessed a gathering of the kind and scale of the conservative student organization Turning Points USA’s Young Black Leadership Summit, which attracted 350-400 attendees. But TPUSA’s communications’ director Candace Owens exaggerates its “revolutionary” significance.

The 29-year old social media phenom is the new darling of the Right for her willingness to mock the demands of Black Lives Matter, denounce feminism, and defend powerful men. She seems to relish her new-found role as mediator and translator of “heretical” ideas for young Black millennials and others who are, in her words, “conservative curious.”

But Owens is only the latest in a long line of spokespeople to use their “unique” status as Black and conservative to propel their political careers and to prove their value to the Republican Party and the broader movement. They are called upon to continually denounce the majority of African Americans who are supposedly “shackled” to the Democratic Party — a rhetorical move that transforms the staunch and persistent unpopularity of the GOP for Black voters into a virtue to be celebrated, as opposed to a problem to be addressed and overcome.

The Contemporary Black Right

In Owens’ clever hashtags like #Blexit predicting and urging a Black exodus from the Democratic Party, one can hear a much brasher and far less conflicted version of Clarence Thomas’ well-known 1987 Heritage Foundation speech. Therein he bemoaned the lack of “room in the inn” of the political establishments on both the Left or the Right, and bewailed the concomitant loneliness of Black conservatives.(1)

“The Left exacted a high price for any black who ventured from the fold,” Thomas said. He also characterized the “general attitude” of conservatives toward Black conservatives as “indifference,” with only minor exceptions, and explains that it was made clear that, “since blacks did not vote right, they were owed nothing.” This was exacerbated, he continued, by “a certain exclusivity” of membership in the conservative ranks, which he expresses in the phrase “if you were not with us in 1976, do not bother to apply.”

For African-American conservatives the litmus test was fairly clear, according to Thomas: “You must be against affirmative action and against welfare. And your opposition had to be adamant and constant or you would be suspected of being a closet liberal. Again, this must be viewed in the context that the presumption was that no black could be a conservative.” (Quoted by Fields, 76)

But is this really still the case? Are Black conservatives still lonely? After all, there have been dozens of African American Republicans elected to political office, including Mia Love (the first Black woman Republican elected to Congress), who recently lost her seat; appointed to political positions (Clarence Thomas and Ben Carson among them); and promoted through media outlets, including Paris Dennard, the Black Trump translator required to perform herculean tasks during and after the 2016 election.

Moreover, for nearly the entire first decade of the 21st century — years when the Secretary of State was first Colin Powell (2001-2005) and then Condoleezza Rice (2005-2009) — Black Republicans were the face of American power in the world.

True, only 8% of African Americans voted for Donald Trump in 2016, which is more than Romney in 2012 (6%), but much less than the 11% garnered by George W. Bush in 2004. Go back even further in time and the percentage goes up, especially B.R. (Before Reagan); in 1972 as high as 18%.

These numbers are only for presidential contests; state and local elections are even more politically heterogeneous. Which is to say: Black Republicans are not exactly political unicorns. They have histories.

Three recent books on African Amer­icans and the GOP help us to better understand the terrain of Black Republicans in the United States and to look beyond the (social) media glitz and glare. Two treat the question historically, and one surveys the contemporary landscape.

Drawing on a range of first-person accounts and interviews, Black Elephants in the Room explores what Corey D. Fields, author and professor of Sociology at Georgetown, characterizes as the “Unexpected Politics of African American Republicans.” “Unexpected” strikes me as a more generous and more accurate word than “oxymoronic,” yet still connotes that we have a hard time simply taking their existence at face value.

This book provides a fascinating look at the contemporary Black Right from a multifaceted and polyvocal perspective. It also offers a much needed focus on “non-elite” African-American Republican activists “across multiple political contexts.” (202)

Fields argues that we ought to give the precinct captain and the head of the local Republican club equal time with nationally prominent figures like Candace Owens and Clarence Thomas. This approach produces a nicely textured analysis of a wider cast of characters.

Color-blind vs. Race Consciousness

While tracing important differences among Black Republicans — primarily the tensions between those who adopt a “color-blind” politics versus those who are “race-conscious” — Fields is primarily concerned with the work that they do to link their understandings of Black identity to conservative political behavior.

Both groups, he argues, are inexorably bound to race and “The Race” with each taking different routes to what they believe is in the best interest of Black people.

Fields finds those African-American Republican activists who adopt the view that race does not and should not matter to be the most committed to the GOP “party line” on policy issues, especially affirmative action, welfare and other forms of “governmental dependency.”

They tend to construe Blacks in general as suffering from a host of social pathologies and to hold them at arm’s length, stressing instead the importance of individualism and individual initiative.

It’s not that they reject being African American, but they do not see their racial identity as absolutely central to how they define themselves. They also want to move beyond the “victimhood” status associated with group identity politics, and insist that de-emphasizing race (and racial discrimination) is essential to understanding the causes of and seeking solutions to issues that disadvantage African Americans.

In contrast to this color-blind approach, Black Republicans who adopt a race-conscious framework are much more comfortable, Fields finds, with “racializing seeming race-neutral social policies by asserting their appeal in terms of how they will put black people on the path to middle-class success.”

Their goal is always middle-class success, never structural transformation. “Policies are perceived as ‘good,’” he continues, “when they work toward improving the lot of blacks and uplifting the race.” (130)

Often drawing on older traditions of Black nationalism and uplift, members of this camp have a closer and more positive sense of identification with Black communities. And while they pursue policies and initiatives that are invariably conservative and aligned with the GOP, race-conscious activists can easily find themselves at odds with both their color-blind counterparts and the Republican Party at large.

Fields is less attuned to differences based on ideologies, such as libertarians versus religious and cultural conservatives, or to differences based on gender and social class. Instead, he uses the study of Black Republicans to explore sociological claims about African American attachment to racial identity and to “illustrate how racial identity animates the political behavior and experiences of African Americans within the Republican Party.” (9)

Indeed the book is as much about race as an identity and a “cultural object” as it is about political belonging. And for African-American Republicans as a group, political belonging is dramatically shaped by uneasy, contentious relationships with African Americans who are not conservative and with Republicans who are not Black.

Echoing Thomas’s 1987 speech, Fields provides a nuanced depiction of the ways in which white Republicans and the party apparatus select for success (and access) among African-Americans activists “who have a particular way of talking about black people and their problems — specifically, one that fits with what white Republican power brokers want to see in office and on stage.” (201)

Because his book is about race and racial identity and not about politics, Fields is scrupulously agnostic when it comes to any particular policy debate and takes great pains to avoid judgement on the efficacy of being Black and conservative. But at times one can detect a critical tone about the degree to which white Republicans demand that “their Blacks” speak in the language of the pathologies of Black people and to stress an individual, race-neutral politics that would not require the party to change.

Color-blind African-American Repub­licans are more at home with this part of the party line, and seem to delight in attacking their liberal and Democratic counterparts for remaining on the “plantation” of the Democratic Party. For race-conscious Black Republicans who adopt what Fields describes as “Black Power through conservative principles,” the unwillingness of the GOP to adjust its views and to do targeted outreach to Black communities is the major barrier to increasing the numbers of African-American Republicans.

After reading Black Elephants, it’s hard not to think that if Black Republicans remain lonely, then much of the blame ought to be laid at the doorstep of the GOP and the Republican National Committee (RNC).

The GOP in Historical Perspective

Instead of asking why there are so few Black Republicans, a better set of questions might be why the Republican Party, from the 1970s onward, has had such a hard time courting larger numbers of African American voters. To answer this question sociology needs to concede the ground to history.

Black Elephants provides a good historical overview of the relationship between African Americans and the GOP from its early days as the Party of Lincoln, tracing the shifting patterns before, during and after the realignment in the 1930s as Black voters began to turn in significant numbers to the Democrats. Fields writes:

“The African American Republican activists I spoke with were quick to remind me that the current state of relations between blacks and the Republican Party represents a stark departure from the GOP’s historical origins. For those outside of the party who question their policies, they present Republican history as proof that Republican politics can be compatible with black identity. For those within the party, history is used by today’s black Republicans to make claims on material and symbolic resources by recalling a time when blacks were a key constituency and the party was committed to having blacks as full-fledged participants in charting the direction of the GOP.” (34)

If it’s hard to be a minority within a minority, being a (Black) minority within a predominantly white party is no bed of roses, especially when that party refuses to take its own history seriously. This probably has something to do with why better histories are being written by those who do not share the GOP’s ideological predisposition.

These better histories, I’d argue, demonstrate the degree to which the “loneliness” of Black Republicans is a historically contingent phenomenon, created in large part by fights within the GOP itself. The works by historians Joshua Farrington (Black Republicans and the Transformation of the GOP) and Leah Wright Rigueur (The Loneliness of the Black Republican) bring these experiences into historical perspective.

Both books cover the period from roughly 1936 to 1980, or from FDR to Reagan. Farrington extends the story of Black Republicans a bit further back in time with a richer history of interracial “Black-and-Tan” organizations in the U.S. South and a closer explication of Black Republicans throughout the Eisenhower years of the 1950s.

Both see three major waves of thought and action. The first coincides with the New Deal and the growing realignment of Black voters away from the GOP and toward the Democrats, starting in 1936 and continuing through the early 1960s. As late as 1962, Rigueur reminds us, nearly a third of Blacks voted Republican in the presidential and midterm elections.

The second wave coincides with the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, on the one hand, and with the GOP’s decision to nominate Barry Goldwater, on the other. This was also a period, as Rigueur details with the power and precision of years of archival research, that many Black Republicans turned to state and local politics hoping to duplicate the electoral success of Edward Brooke of Massachusetts.

In 1966 Brooke became the first African American popularly elected to the U.S. Senate and by so doing “reinvigorated the idea of pragmatic politics for black Republicans.” (Rigeuer, 10) Brooke deserves to be better remembered; both authors, but especially Rigueur, do yeoman service in bringing him to life on the page.

The third wave coincides with the transformation of the civil rights movement and the growing popularity of Black Power in Black communities and fear of the same in white ones. It also embodies what Rigueur characterizes as the “confusion of the 1970s.”

During this period Black Republicans were increasingly shunned by the White House and turned instead to the Republican National Committee (RNC) as a vehicle to push the party toward reforms and away from the death grip of radical conservatism. They enjoyed relatively few successes and suffered a series “colossal failures.”

With the election of Reagan in 1980, where both books bring their histories to a close, we witness the eclipse of Black Republicans and the ascendancy of Black Conservatives. “Their failure to permanently reshape the GOP is not just their own,” Farrington argues, “it is the story of moderate Republicanism in postwar America.” (234)

These books take a wide-angle view of Black Republican activism operating simultaneously on the national, state and local levels. Both Rigueur and Farrington write about their contributions to both the Republican Party and to the civil rights movement, noting that waves two and three coincide with the passage of major pieces of civil rights legislation. Taken together, these histories serve up scores of stories of partisan fluidity and the struggle to inculcate a two-party political strategy in African-American political culture.

Farrington is much more insistent on the distinction between Black Republicans and Black conservatives. He writes, “Paying particular attention to the voices and actions of black Republicans — most of whom openly objected to the ideals and strategies of the post-World War II conservative movement — this book treats them as savvy political operators who used their partisan political affiliation to advance the goals of the civil rights movement.” (5) His insistence on this point contributes to the clean and crisp analytical framework he deploys to narrate this crowded and complex history.

The need to drain away some of the complexity of this topic might help to explain why the authors do not confront the question of evangelical Christianity, though for Farrington and Rigueur this is also a product of their decision to bring their histories to a close in the late 1970s and to focus on Republicans as opposed to conservatives. Since the Black Christian Right assumes a much bigger role in the 1980s as part of the conservative network operating in and around the GOP, this makes sense. This absence is more surprising in Field’s book, however.

Traditional Republicans versus Conservatives

Rigeuer and Farmington both also help us to understand how anomalous is our own political moment in which the African-American vote has become nearly monolithic precisely because one party in a two-party system came to offer so little of value to Black voters.

Both equate this situation with the (far from inevitable) domination of white conservatives within the GOP after the mid-to-late 1960s. But if Farrington is stronger on the earlier period and the rise of Black Republicans, then Rigueur is slightly ahead on the story of their failure, in the latter period, to maintain their position within the GOP. It is a poignant story and Rigueur deftly captures the hint of pathos.

By 1976, as Clarence Thomas suggests, the die was cast and the ascendancy of Reagan four years later ushered in a new era of Black conservatism. Thereafter, it became strikingly difficult for more traditional Black Republicans to find meaningful purchase within the party. American politics has been impoverished by this increasingly stark reality.

The problem is not that African Americans vote Democratic in such solidly large numbers, but that the other party in our two-party system has struggled mightily (or not) to offer a viable alternative. Oddly enough, it was the Reverend Jesse Jackson who made one of the most compelling pleas to the party leadership to reverse its course and restore the lost prominence of Black Republicans in GOP leadership positions.

In 1978 Jackson addressed a special meeting of the Republican National Committee. “Black people need the Republican Party to compete for us so that we have real alternatives for meeting our needs,” he told the assembly.

He called for an increase in Black Republican leadership, and chided them for not putting Ed Brooke on the ticket for vice-president in 1976. And he argued that an “all-white Republican national, state and county leadership apparatus designing a strategy to win black voters will not work.” (Quoted in Rigueur, 261)

Blacks stayed within the Democratic Party despite its rampant racism in the 1930s and 1940s, and moved the party in a more progressive direction, one that responded to the needs of African Americans and other minorities as well as women and workers. Could contemporary Black Republicans do the same with more future success than in the past?

Where to Go?

Time and again the GOP has at least recognized that the demographic handwriting is on the wall and heralded the need to become a more diverse party — most recently in the 2013 “Republican Autopsy” produced after the stunning defeats in the 2012 election cycle. The RNC has not been fully able to extend a hand without shooting itself in the foot, however. And while one can admire Candace Owens’ pluck, berating Black voters will not do the trick.
 
There is no reason to equate the ideologies and strategies associated of the Black Right with free and independent thinking as opposed to the majority of African Americans.

To judge a viewpoint as superior simply because a minority ascribes to it is not logical. The members of the Flat Earth Society are not to be heralded as visionaries — unless and until they are able to demonstrate the viability of their perspective. #Blexit will have to wait until the Grand Old Party of Lincoln does better than “what do you have to lose?” as a strategy to bring African American voters into its fold.

In the meantime there is plenty of space, open and waiting, to the left of the Democratic Party. African-American voters, always loyal to the promise of racial democracy in America, deserve to partake of a full, rich, diverse political spectrum.

Notes

  1. Thomas, “No Room at the Inn: The Loneliness of the Black Conservative,” reprinted in Policy Review, Fall 1991.
    back to text

January-February 2019, ATC 198