The Forgotten History of Black Republicans
The black Republican in modern politics is most often depicted either as a traitor to be scorned or misguided. As a new book from Princeton University Press argues, those sweeping generalizations miss an incredibly complex, and historic story.
There is a fascinating Saturday Night Live sketch from 1980, a piece almost entirely forgotten by most viewers of the NBC comedy show. The sketch survives in the pop culture arena only because it features the SNL debut of comedian Eddie Murphy. Airing about a month after the country elected an ex-actor to the presidency (ousting a former Georgia peanut farmer in the process), the skit is a spoof of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, that unconventional animal wildlife series sponsored by an insurance company. In the SNL piece, a Jim Fowler–type zoologist braves the “savage” landscape of a tony Manhattan cocktail party in search of an elusive subject: the Negro Republican. Tracking the “migratory patterns” of African Americans “fleeing the liberal lake wastelands” for the “fertile promised land of the GOP,” the scientist stumbles badly—a hilarious case of mistaken identity—when he assumes that a black funeral parlor director must be a member of the GOP. Undeterred, he spots another black man nearby—a thorough examination of speech patterns, clothing, musi- cal tastes, and economic interests confirms that the subject is indeed the evasive Negro Republican. With great care, the zoologist sedates the “ex- otic creature,” attaching a blinking transmitter disguised as an American flag pin to the man’s lapel. As the disoriented man awakens, the scientist quickly hides, emerging to take notes on his subject from afar once the Negro Republican has wandered back into the “wild.”
“In Search of the Negro Republican” is a riveting political satire, interesting not for the writing or the cast’s performance but for the ideas conveyed by the sketch—ideas about popular perceptions of African American members of the GOP. A black Republican, it would seem, was a rare fellow in 1980—a political opportunist and an economic conservative who, seduced by the promise of a Reagan Revolution, had disavowed his longtime home in the Democratic Party. By that same token, a black Re- publican was a racial turncoat—a Benedict Arnold in blackface who had appropriated clichéd notions of middle-class whiteness: a stuffy voice, a preference for the Carpenters over the Isley Brothers, the choice of a drab, unsophisticated suit, and a degree of comfort with the quintessential symbol of American patriotism, Old Glory. A black Republican was a curiosity—a creature to be observed, sedated, and studied.
The SNL sketch, as with any satire, is a primer in exaggeration, entertaining precisely because it taps into stereotypes of black Republicans—caricatures that we know logically are absurd, yet nevertheless still make some kind of intuitive sense. The uneasy racialized undertones of the sketch are rendered practically invisible because something about the parody resonates. Stripped of nuance, the stereotype works because it exposes the fundamental question that so many of us ask: Why would an African American join the Republican Party? The question is an old one, an ubiquitous inquiry that many people, Democrats and Republicans alike, have posed consistently since the 1930s—the decade when black voters first began to flee the Republican Party, then known as the “Party of Lincoln,” an ideological home so very different from what “Republican” means today. Since then, the link between blacks and Democrats has become a knee-jerk one, a relationship that is taken for granted by all sides. Over the decades, the concept of a “black Republican” has come to seem a contradiction in terms, invested with an odd kind of alienness. “Since President Franklin and the New Deal,” wrote the editors at the Chicago De- fender in 1976, “being black and Republican was about as compatible as being black and aspiring to leadership in the Ku Klux Klan.”
Beneath the stereotypes and the made-for-TV satire, our notions of black Republicans rest on two basic truths. First, without question, blacks are the most partisan of any racial group in the United States. Since 1948, a substantial majority of African Americans has identified as Democrat; since 1964, that lopsided figure has only increased, as more than 80 percent of black voters have cast their ballots for the Democratic Party nominee in every presidential election. By 1980, more than 90 per- cent of the nation’s five thousand black elected officials were Democrats, including all of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus. And in 2012, African Americans played a vital role in helping reelect Barack Obama to the White House, offering the president 94 percent of their votes. This partisanship, as Michael Dawson, Nancy Weiss, and others have suggested, “was never blind or random but was based on a realistic assessment of which party would best further black political and economic interests.” And as the extensive histories of civil rights and black politics make clear, African Americans made critical and significant advances for racial equality and social justice by way of the New Deal and the Great Society programs, thereby “anchoring” African Americans in Democratic liberalism.
Second, the GOP of today bears little resemblance to the “Party of Lincoln” to which black voters had been fiercely loyal since the era of Reconstruction. Instead, the modern Republican Party is indelibly associated with Herbert Hoover’s “lily-white” movement, “Operation Dixie” of the 1950s, and Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy.” It is a party whose 1964 presidential candidate voted against the landmark Civil Rights Act passed in that year, and whose 1980 nominee launched his official presidential campaign with a now-infamous “states’ rights” speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi—the town in which three civil rights workers were murdered sixteen years earlier. As politicians shaped the GOP from the “top down,” ordinary white city dwellers and suburbanites from all backgrounds and income levels along with an “army” of conservative activists, influenced the direction of the GOP from the grass roots, reacting to changing social and cultural norms, the liberalism of the civil rights movement and the radicalism of Black Power. In short, the GOP is a party whose conservatism, to quote Robert Smith and Hanes Walton, seems to make it “virtually impossible for blacks, given their history and condition,” to accept.
These two strands of thought are mutually reinforcing, confirmed through our everyday experiences: individual encounters, media reports, fictional depictions in television and film, and scholarly studies all work in concert to produce a pervasive vision of the past century that leaves little room for the coexistence of African Americans, conservatism, and the Republican Party. All of our instincts, scholarly and otherwise, tell us that African Americans should not be Republicans, nor should they be conservatives. Yet black Republicans do exist—and their inevitable existence, of course, complicates our assumptions. Some black families never left the Republican fold, while other individuals have found their way back to the GOP. The past three decades alone have witnessed the rise of a number of prominent African American members of the Republican Party: Samuel Pierce, Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell, J. C. Watts, Condoleezza Rice, Michael Steele, Constance Berry Newman, Alan Keyes, Robert A. George, Herman Cain, Michael Powell, Lynn Swann, Allen West, and Tim Scott, to name a few. But rather than erasing public curiosity, the appearance of black Republicans merely intensifies it, often infusing a new urgency into the original underlying question of why.
That curiosity is often suffused with a measure of frustration: the question of why quickly becomes a more loaded inquiry: How could they? For some, anger with black Republicans is an implicit rejection of a larger accommodationist tradition. To their critics, black Republicans are Booker T. Washington’s successors, racial apologists whose affiliations and beliefs mark them as traitorous individuals, complicit in an age-old crusade to “delegitimize the black quest for racial and social justice.” A black Republican, the Pittsburgh Courier spat in 1992, “is a kind of bogeyman dressed in a Black tailored suit or immaculate silk dress, to cajole Blacks into believing the Republican Party and its brand of conservatism is a trumpet-tongued angel playing the jazz of economic salvation and racial harmony.” Such music, the black newspaper criticized, “is nothing more than bubbles of gas emanating from the butt of reptiles.” However, as we shall see, the “songs” of black Republicans are far more complicated and multivocal.
In contrast, white Republicans often heap gratuitous public praise on African American members of the GOP, applauding them for having the gumption to leave the “plantation politics of the Democratic Party,” as Pat Buchanan did on CNN in 2011, while defending Herman Cain. This line of thinking stems from the flawed and simplistic belief that African Americans have been brainwashed into voting for the Democratic Party and, as a result, ignore the benefits of belonging to the GOP. The trope of the Democratic Party as a slave plantation has been a recurring feature of GOP rhetoric since at least 1968, when Richard Nixon mentioned it in an interview with Jet magazine; predating even this, black Republicans have used the phrase regularly since 1964. Such thinking is problematic—often condescending and occasionally even bigoted, insinuating that Democrats have “bought” the black vote with “government handouts,” and that African Americans are therefore unable to make their own rational political choices, thereby sidestepping the GOP’s role in repelling black voters.
More broadly, however, both of these perspectives, like much of our understanding of black Republicans, are deeply unsatisfying. They tell us little about who black Republicans are, why they join the GOP, and what they really believe and why. Our assumptions about blacks in the Republican Party are teleological and ahistorical, informed by the Republican Party as it exists in the present; thus our views are often flat, lacking historical depth. Surely this understanding denies us the messiness that is at the heart of our beliefs and at the core of our personal politics: the ongoing debate that each one of us has with ourselves and with others about which politicians and policies we should support and about what ideologies we should embrace.
Our implicit views of black Republicans—either as strange alien creatures or as noble exceptions among their duped Democratic brethren—reject the notion of political choice; too often we assume that blacks in America are Democrats by default; though not intentional, that assumption denies agency to an entire group of citizens. In this scenario, black Republicans are simultaneously invisible and hypervisible: isolated political misfits who provoke extreme reactions. These views, whether voiced by liberals or conservatives, of any race, are troublesome, muting reality and history and ignoring the complex ways that race and politics inter- sect in the United States. Simply put: our views obscure the fascinating diversity that exists within this “strange” group known as black Republicans, obscuring their historical significance over the past three-quarters of a century; this, in turn, conceals a richer understanding not only of black politics but of American politics more generally.
Exploring black politics over nearly half a century, disrupts many of our perceptions about African Americans who support the GOP; at times we find not a peculiar group of blacks, desperate for white acceptance or out of touch with American realities but rather a movement of African Americans working for an alternative economic and civil rights movement. At other moments, we see a cadre of figures who make cynical concessions in order to maintain a modicum of power.
Most of these black party members joined the Republican Party (or never left it) out of a belief in what they called “traditional” conservatism: anticommunism, free market enterprise and capitalism, self-help and personal responsibility, limited government intervention, and a respect for authority, history, and precedent, along with Western institutions and traditions. In this sense, their beliefs were aligned with those of their white counterparts; and like their white counterparts, black Republicans’ traditional conservatism also reflected their dissatisfaction with the Democratic liberalism of the New Deal and the Great Society. Reflecting the political diversity of the Republican Party more generally, there were three broad wings of black Republican thought, a great ideological gamut that encompassed liberal, moderate, and conservative factions. Equally important—and especially baffling to critics—most black Republicans, regardless of their ideological differences, believed that racial egalitarianism was in keeping with the Republican Party’s principles. Indeed, the majority believed that in times of crisis, the government had a right to intervene on behalf of the nation’s citizens; consequently, African American party members’ traditional conservatism often included a belief in federal intervention in specific matters of civil rights and racial equality.
The boundaries between these manifestations of black conservatism are messy at best and at times fragile. First, black Republicans’ brand of conservatism was an ideology rooted in nineteenth-century middle-class mores of respectability, built upon a faith in the Protestant work ethic and the lodestones of self-help, personal responsibility, morality, and political involvement. This was a model propagated by the black elite, as many scholars have convincingly argued, and was an imperfect challenge to white supremacy in an era of second-class citizenship; it was reflected in the economic and business ethos embodied by Booker T. Washington and the class privilege inherent in W.E.B. Du Bois’s theory of a talented tenth uplifting the “best” of the race.
Moreover, in spite of conservatism’s association with the right wing of the modern GOP, black Republicans have long seen the ideology as a legitimate solution, one that should be considered seriously in the struggle for racial equality. Thus, African Americans attempted to influence the direction of conservatism—not to destroy it but rather to expand the boundaries of the ideology in order to include black needs and interests. This interpretation of conservatism has been flexible, by both definition and necessity, since issues of race, representation, and power guided black Republicans’ actions. Perhaps even more remarkable, in the half century between 1936 and 1980 this pragmatic definition of conservatism was broad and elastic enough to encompass black citizens from across the political spectrum, including African American leaders outside of the Republican Party. As civil rights leader Jesse Jackson argued in 1978, African Americans “must pursue a strategy that prohibits one party from taking us for granted and another party from writing us off. The only protection we have against political genocide is to remain necessary.” And as we shall see, even President Barack Obama, the scourge of Republicans everywhere, has sounded a lot like the black Republicans of the 1960s and 1970s since taking office in 2008.
There were three different waves of national black Republican thought and activity, a period that begins in 1936—significant not only for the major political realignment of African American voters but also for the remarkable voting fluidity of the black electorate (see tables 1–3 in the appendix); in fact, through 1962, nearly a third of black voters pulled the lever for Republican candidates in midterm and presidential elections. The decision to nominate Barry Goldwater as the GOP presidential nominee in 1964 marks the beginning of the next wave of black party activity, as the Arizona senator’s right-wing agenda sent shock- waves through black Republicans’ ranks, motivating them to organize on a national scale in pursuit of intraparty reform. Many began to look to state and local politics, hoping to duplicate the electoral success of Massachusetts’s Edward W. Brooke; and, as we will see, the black senator reinvigorated the idea of pragmatic politics for black Republicans, or, rather, the pursuit of power through party hierarchies in a way that could reconcile conservatism with African American needs. Likewise, they also looked to the Republican-led White House in the late 1960s, where a small band of black appointees was able to introduce an economic civil rights agenda.
The third and final wave reflects the confusion and chaos of the 1970s, a period in which black Republicans, ousted from the White House, turned to the Republican National Committee (RNC) to push party reform, still invested in a pragmatic approach to achieving power. Though their solidarity movement found moments of success, black Republicans also experienced colossal failures. Just as significant, the second and third wave of activity coincided with the passage of the major federal civil rights laws of the 1960s and a society-wide shift from explicit forms of racism to implicit and institutional forms of discrimination. The enactment and the enforcement of this legislation gave black Republicans a kind of freedom, or the leeway, to become more conservative, and adhere to mainstream party ideas about racial equality, if they so chose. This distinct outlook enabled black party members to concurrently embrace new types of nonpartisan strategies for wooing black voters and partisan techniques for nullifying the black vote. Our story ends in 1980, with black Republicans placing their hopes in the ascent of Ronald Reagan—a man many of them had once rejected.
In no uncertain terms, black Republicans offer a dilemma of sorts; they were far more conservative than their Democratic counterparts but far less conservative than white reactionary Republicans. They identified with a traditional conservative ideology, to be sure, but they also identified with the various wings of the Republican Party. Above all else, most held fast to a pragmatic ideology that was informed by their day-to-day racial experience rather than by an abstract, dogmatic interpretation of American politics.
Excerpted from The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power by Leah Wright Rigueur. Copyright © 2015 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.