During the Reagan administration, Republican strategists were known to have chewed on the rear ends of their pens trying to work out how in spite of the sizable community of cultural conservatives among African-Americans, Blacks leaned disproportionately towards the liberal Democratic Party.
It was an academic and political question which in fairness, had been asked long before 1981. In 1939, the Republican Party consulted Ralph Bunche, a famed Black political scientist and diplomat, on the issue.
The writer of The Loneliness of The Black Republican, Leah Wright Rigueur, notes that Bunche’s recommendations to the Republican Party had been simple: Roosevelt’s progressive New Deal had not gone far enough for Black people thus, the Republicans had to design demography-specific economic opportunities in order to do one better than the Democrats. But although these recommendations were initially praised, Republicans did not publish Bunche’s report in full, electing to tactically publicize the sections that slammed the Democrats.
However, Bunche would not have his work sacrificed on the altar of partisanship, and rejected the Republican attempt. The report has for the last 70 years remained an esoteric fascination among political scientists with interest in such matters.
Obviously, the deficiency in Republican fortune among the Black electorate cannot be attributed entirely to the party reneging on Bunche’s recommendations. This, in and of itself, begs a meta-critique, probably to ascertain if race or economics played a part in the party’s refusal to go all the way with the Bunche report.
And then, there is the dramatic realignment of camps that began in the 1950s as Democrats became more open to the idea and struggle of civil rights for Black people. By the end of the 1960s, the Republican “Spirit of Lincoln”, a pithy reminder of who freed the slaves, had begun to fall into a slumber so deep it may never wake up in our lifetime.
The supposition that Republicans are necessarily anti-Black has subsequently been concretized over time by who Republicans have appealed to. When Ronald Reagan decided to announce his intention to run for president at the Neshoba County Fair in 1980, he stood in a spot not far from where three civil rights campaigners were killed and buried by the Klu Klux Klan in 1964 and he made the case for “states rights”, the same phrase which connotes the racist bypass Dixiecrats had sought since the days of Reconstruction.
Writing after the death of Reagan, William Raspberry described the conditions of that announcement as “bitter symbolism for black Americans”.
According to the Pew Research Center, today, about one in four African-Americans identify as culturally and morally “conservative” while more than 40% say they hold “moderate” views. This should not come as a surprise as there are more Black people to be found in the Bible Belt states than anywhere else in the country.
Meanwhile, the identifiers “liberal” and “progressive” are usually taken on by white people, a stratification that gives birth to the TV and cinematic caricature of the latte-drinking, beanie-wearing and environmentally-conscious young white person. On the other hand, Black cultural liberalism, not to be confused with the economic leftism of W.E.B. DuBois et al., is a phenomenon that has seen a boost only in the last few decades with the slight growth of the Black middle-class.
Yet, the conservative Republican voter base among African-Americans has not been better than one in ten people in the last four decades. Furthermore, what has appeared an unwinnable task of expanding this constituency has further been significantly endangered with the coming of President Donald Trump.
But more critically, we are reminded that this unwinnable task is also set in this defining moment in the American experiment; this moment that has been compared to the politics which threatened to separate the Union in the 1860s. It is the moment when the most vocal and the most visible efforts have been made by no less a movement like Black Lives Matter in pursuit of the American promise of justice and fairness for all.
The BLM movement is essentially rehashing the talking points of the Civil Rights Era and demanding a renegotiation of the social contract upon which American democracy has claimed moral legitimacy since Reconstruction. But what is different is that the attitude of the movement also foreshadows what James Baldwin would call The Fire Next Time.
Forcing the conversation on what black lives mean in America incidentally places the spotlight not only on white people but also on the small section of African-Americans who may not show or do not see what irks the majority. Compounded by the Trump factor, Black Republicans have suddenly become a subject of discussions that tend to weigh their moral worth and racial kinship.
But what dilemma does the activism of Black Lives Matter confer on the very few Black people who have decided to ride through this storm with the Republicans and Donald Trump? Also, how is a defiant Black supporter of the president supposed to be perceived in these times?
Those who put Trump-supporting Black people on the spot allege a lack of ethics on the part of the accused. This is as a result of the likes of Candace Owens and Senator Tim Scott coming to the conversation as individuals set against the tradition of linked fate that has kept Black people united behind the party perceived as most amenable to the dignity of Black persons.
Owens and Scott are seen as traitors in the sense that their opinions put them apart from the group consciousness that has built Black cohesion over half a century. The logic of political loyalty thereof is that if you are not for us, you are for those who aim to harm us.
But what Owens, Scott and others face is not unique in the African-American political experience. The venerated Booker T. Washington was, in the middle of the 20th century, accused of everything from naivety to finding room for white supremacy to fester.
What may be different is that post-Great Depression, there has been no president quite like the one currently in office. And as easily as Trump has shown himself to be the most antipathic to concerns of Black America, the BLM crowd has been left with nothing but one conclusion to draw: “You cannot be with that man”.
In understanding the nature of the dilemma of today’s Black Republicans, one can also not overlook the way in which the technology of social media excites negative responses to the views of those individuals with whom we may not see eye to eye on issues. Black conservative Republicans are sometimes never given the time of the day to make their points, and that truth must be noted.
Criticisms of how the Democratic Party has taken for granted its core Black base are legitimate. Unfortunately, some have moved to silence such reservations by fallaciously exaggerating how bad an alternative to the Democrats would be.
Of course, the question then becomes: “Why would a Black American support Donald Trump?” It is not within this piece’s ability to fathom the myriad of reasons for such support apart from pointing out that free choice and multiplicity in opinions are the bedrock of democratic culture.
Senator Scott for one, has sidestepped the issue of Trump’s clear moral frailties and argued that the most important things are what the president does for America’s Black people. Condoleezza Rice is also on the Trump train for a similar reason.
However, we may not skip what has been a favorite go-to response of Black Republicans when asked why they do not share the same team with nearly 90% of other Black people. In this vein, the concept of identity politics has found generous usage among talking heads on TV and even among laypeople.
Depending on who is using the term, identity politics becomes either an explanatory model or an insult, quite simply. Owens, for instance, has called identity politics “a Marxist lie” meant to keep Black people tied to the Democratic Party plantation.
Marc Lamont Hill, a public scholar and pro-BLM activist, has a much different notion of what identity politics is. However, the focus here should not be the philosophical validity of their claims but rather the instrumentalization of whatever language is deemed capable of capturing the political sentiments for or against Trump.
A former Secretary of State under former President George Bush Jr, Colin Powell, and a former chairman of the Republican National Convention (RNC), Michael Steele, are two of the most prominent Black Republicans who say they will not vote for Trump. But their reasons for going against their party’s candidate resemble nothing you will see on a BLM platform.
It may therefore appear that the idea of a Black Republican dilemma vis-a-vis BLM occurs when one portrays BLM as if it is the central articulation of what it means to be anti-Trump and pro-Black. Even the NAACP enjoys far more prestigious reception than Black Lives Matter.
Trump has spoken of Black people like a group of people who need to be grateful for what he believes he has achieved on their behalf. He has also shamelessly appealed to white fright and entitlement out of spite.
Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of Black people who want him out needs to be careful of putting across support for Trump as testament of the moral bankruptcy of other Black people.