Kanye West’s Light-Bulb Moment and the Folly of Black Conservatism
After years of Trump cheerleading—and a ring-kissing White House visit—West has apparently come to the realization that he’s been manipulated by the right. He isn’t the only one.
“My eyes are now wide open…”
In what has become a distressingly regular occurrence, Kanye West made waves with a politicized statement on Tuesday evening. After months of vocalizing his support for President Trump, the rapper announced that he was apparently done stumping for politicians.
“[I] now realize I’ve been used to spread messages I don’t believe in,” West tweeted. “I am distancing myself from politics and completely focusing on being creative !!!”
The news comes just days after a Yeezy sneakers’ release failed to sell out for the first time ever, as well as reports of West’s alleged involvement with “Blexit,” a conservative plot encouraging black people to exit from the Democratic Party, founded by West’s far-right consigliere Candace Owens. Owens claimed Kanye designed Blexit T-shirts for this past weekend’s Young Black Leadership Summit held in Washington, D.C.
“Blexit is a renaissance, and I am blessed to say that this logo, these colors, were created by my dear friend and fellow superhero Kanye West,” Owens said during the conference.
But West denies this.
“I introduced Candace to the person who made the logo and they didn’t want their name on it so she used mine,” he shared via Twitter. “I never wanted any association with Blexit. I have nothing to do with it.”
As midterm elections loom, the black conservative movement was front and center in the nation’s capital, seeking to push black voters toward the Republican Party. Organized by the student-activist group Turning Point USA, the Young Black Leaders Summit (YBLS) was a highly touted event in D.C. The four-day conference targeted millennial-aged, conservative black Americans and gave Donald Trump an opportunity to once again play host to the kind of transparent, racially contrived political theater that’s become unnervingly common since 2016.
“You guys have the most guts of anyone in America,” Donald Trump Jr. said as he addressed a crowd of attendees in red Make America Great Again hats gathered in the Hyatt ballroom. “We are grateful to Kanye West,” offered President Trump in his address, to cheers. “He hugged me and he’s wearing the Make America Great Again cap and he said, ‘I feel like Superman.’ But he understands he’s really something very, very special and… interesting.”
Turning Point USA was founded by 25-year old Charlie Kirk, while Candace Owens and Brandon Tatum have become two high-profile and highly controversial mouthpieces for the movement. Owens, Turning Point’s 29-year-old director of communications, got a shout-out from the president himself back in May. And Tatum is director of urban engagement at Turning Point USA. “YBLS is important because it gives an example to this country that black voters are not monoliths and think for ourselves,” Tatum told Fox News.
As the summit began, Owens tweeted, “There is no group in America that has been more lied to, more abused, or more taken advantage of by the Democrats than black people. At long last, we can return the favor by ENDING their stranglehold on our votes. Support the #BLEXIT today, Patriots!”
“Despite all of the lies and propaganda, black Americans are waking up,” Owens told Fox News. “Black Americans are realizing that this person you’ve painted as a monster seems to be bringing results that you’ve promised for decades and never delivered.”
Owens rose to visibility after starting the Red Pill Black YouTube channel, on which she downplayed the racism of the Charlottesville protests and criticized Black Lives Matter. Owens famously describes herself as a former liberal; she once ran a left-wing blog called Degree 180. She switched to the right after she says she experienced pushback from liberals when she attempted to launch her online anti-bullying site Social Autopsy, which targeted adults harassing others online. Now, she’s become one of conservative America’s favorite non-white faces—calling climate change a lie, abortion “extermination,” and gaining over half a million Twitter followers over the past year, alongside millions of YouTube views.
Tatum also became a sensation via YouTube—voicing his disapproval of Colin Kaepernick’s protests and players kneeling during the national anthem at NFL games.
“It’s not about the act of protesting, of believing in something and pursuing. It’s the way you’re doing it,” Tatum began in his most popular video. “Listen, what does the American flag have to do with your perceived oppression? What does the national anthem have to do with these issues that people are bringing up? It’s a separate issue. The flag and the anthem have nothing to do with what you are talking about!”
After attending a heavily protested 2016 Trump rally in Tucson, Arizona, Tatum praised Trump and roundly criticized protesters. “The funny thing is that these people [the protesters] were the most hateful, evil people I’ve ever seen,” he said in a viral Facebook post. “I could not believe what I saw.”
A military veteran and former police officer with the Tucson Police Department, Tatum’s website says he “left law enforcement and followed his passion to speak (The Truth) full time.” The common refrain from Owens, Tatum, proud Republican celebrity mouthpiece Kanye West and others is that they have thrown themselves behind Trump because they are “free thinkers” who won’t be taken advantage of by the left. But while they are vocal in their contempt for “the libs,” their take on this president, his policies, and the culture he stokes is consistently dim.
And it all seems predicated on a dismissive contempt for black people.
The idea that black citizens who vote Democrat only do so out of blind allegiance is condescendingly and fundamentally racist. Black votes swung from Republican to Democrat after the racist fallout from the Great Mississippi Flood and Republican President Calvin Coolidge and then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. Black communities along the riverside were flooded to reduce pressure on the levees and the masses of displaced blacks were forced into work for rations under the armed surveillance of the National Guard and bigoted planters, which lead to waves of violence against those blacks. Then came the civil-rights movement under Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson, and Republican President Richard Nixon’s subsequent “Southern Strategy,” which sought to convert Southern Democrats from blue to red by appealing to racism against blacks—or promoting “states’ rights” and opposing civil rights.
And in the generations since, several black activists, politicos and pundits have been critical of the Democratic Party on both a national and local level. But the Republican Party, meanwhile, enjoys a relationship with the white working class that often looks like pure devotion—born of xenophobic and racist manipulations that have pushed certain Americans to the right. Ever since the civil-rights movement, Democrats have failed to win the white vote.
Pointing out the destructive and exploitative history of the Democratic Party’s failings with Black America isn’t the same as making a convincing argument for why promoting “conservative values” isn’t just the same kind of counterintuitive hysteria that informed the Southern Strategy. By exploiting white Americans’ feelings of misplaced anger and victimization, and by playing on white Americans’ beliefs of what they are most entitled to, conservatives have effectively gotten them to vote against their own interests for generations.
W.E.B. Du Bois theorized that working-class Southern white Americans were ignorantly complicit in their own civil and economic marginalization—forfeiting any true political leverage for perceived societal gains associated with their whiteness. On the failure of white workers to unite with their black counterparts, he wrote that “the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white.”
This generation of black conservatives is deeply invested in buying into that same idea of Americanness that has led disenfranchised white folks to vote red. That they’ve grabbed on to that identity with both hands says so much about how they see Black America; if you can convince some upwardly mobile black people that they are both special and that their community is one that simply “can’t get its act together,” it’s not a stretch to see how they can embrace the ideals of a party that panders to their false sense of exceptionalism while finger-wagging their own people. The American white elitist believes they are entitled to a certain America—and the black neoconservatives want in. They conveniently ignore that this house was never meant to include them in any equitable way.
Kanye West may want to “distance himself” from politics now that Trump is making outrageous promises to remove birthright citizenship and his sneakers experienced a dropoff in sales. Candace Owens may cheer the fortitude of black conservatives as Ferguson activists still grapple with the fallout from 2014. Their allegiances can’t be forgotten and shouldn’t be dismissed. West made his position clear out of his own mouth too many times this year for him to suddenly walk all of it back. Owens and her ilk aren’t going anywhere. There is no iron-clad allegiance to the Democratic Party or anything else that has so obviously been a mixed bag for black Americans, but there is also something perversely ignorant in believing that this administration—with a birther at its head who has supported racist policies on a broad (DACA) and localized (stop-and-frisk) scale—has any vested interest in anything beyond black faces for political leverage and media manipulation.
Disillusionment with Barack Obama is a poor excuse for getting in bed with Donald Trump, and frustration with the left has never meant the right isn’t wrong.