At the end of a long hallway, a raucous crowd spilled out of a small conference room. People stood on tiptoes and held camera phones over heads as the conversation heated up.
K. Carl Smith, founder of the Frederick Douglass Republicans, had just finished leading the panel discussion entitled “Trump the Race Card: Are You Sick and Tired of Being Called a Racist and You Know You’re Not One?” during which he insisted that, simply by associating themselves with the slave-turned-Republican politician, white conservatives can trump the race card. While attendees nodded, applauded, and even cheered a little throughout the talk, the question-and-answer session that followed devolved into a bit of a verbal brawl.
It all started when Terry, an audience member from Towson University’s White Student Union, complained that “my people, my demographic are being systematically disenfranchised,” and suggested that instead of following in the footsteps of Frederick Douglass, “Booker T. Washington Republicans” might be a better identity for the GOP—you know, “unified like the hand, but separate like the fingers.” Yes, that was an allusion to segregation, which was received with bug eyes and dropped jaws.
The audience actually held it together while Smith tried to smooth things over. That is, until the student suggested that Douglass was right to ultimately thank his master for providing him with food and shelter.
That sent the audience into a tailspin, and things only got worse when Kim Brown, a radio host with Voice of Russia and a nonconservative black woman, tried to ask a question. Brown took issue with Smith’s argument that the origins of today’s Democrats were rooted in the Ku Klux Klan. She was met with boos and shouts, as a man wearing a Revolutionary War getup yelled, “Let someone else speak!” And another woman called out, “You’re not welcome!”
Meanwhile, outside, Smith’s daughter Christie was peddling her father’s literature, at $20 a pop, as she explained that she was raised in a Democratic household but her whole family now considered themselves Republicans.
They started learning more about the history of the former slaves like Douglass and realized that the values they already had—“pro-life, limited government, individual responsibility, and a respect for the Constitution,” were the values of the Republican Party.
John Batazek made his way out of the crowd just as things were heating up. The sheet-metal worker from Maryland said that, as a white man and a lifelong conservative raised in Maryland’s predominantly black Prince George’s County, he’s often been called a racist because of his political beliefs.
“I tell people about the racist origins of the Democratic Party, that emancipation was the founding principle of the Republican Party, and they look at me like I’m crazy,” he said. “The conservative movement is about making it better so that everyone can do better with their lives. True racists are the people trying to hold others down by giving them handouts or restricting their rights.”
Clearly at this hectic gathering, one of the only events this year that is explicitly focused on the issue of race, did not answer the kinds of questions the Republican National Committee has been asking with its black outreach effort.
In fact, one attendee commented that he thinks Reince Priebus’s minority courting might be a waste of time. Paul Johnson, a black man from Morristown, New Jersey, who said he is reluctant to call himself a conservative despite having mostly voted for Republicans in presidential elections, argued that the GOP is unfairly characterized as racist, insisting that the Democratic Party is just as guilty—if not more—of harboring racism.
His words of wisdom for the GOP’s ambitious effort to lure minority constituents? “Show up, but do it quietly. Don’t push it.”