How Conservatives Can Appeal to Black America

Conservative African American commentator and Turning Point USA spokesperson Candace Owens once again stirred up controversy in her recent appearance before a congressional hearing on hate crimes. Among other things, she denied that the Republican Party ever adopted a “Southern Strategy” to lure white Southern voters away from the Democratic Party in the 1960s by pandering to racial prejudice. Historians, political scientists, and other analysts have already extensively debunked Owens’s completely false claim (“utter nonsense,” in the words of Princeton historian Kevin Kruse). But the incident provides a useful opportunity to revisit the decades-old question of how the GOP and the larger conservative movement could improve their tortured relationship with the vast majority of African Americans. There actually is a brand of pro-black conservatism that could appeal to a meaningful portion of the black electorate—but the main obstacle preventing that development is the attitudes of most white Republicans themselves.

Owens is arguably best known for her attachment to “Blexit,” a cleverly titled campaign to encourage black voters to desert the Democratic Party. Of course, she’s far from the first African American conservative public figure to sound that call—but the black electorate will continue to be monolithically Democratic as long as black conservatives take Owens’s approach. The reason is well laid out in sociologist Corey D. Fields’s 2016 book Black Elephants in the Room: The Unexpected Politics of African-American Republicans. After spending years closely studying the activities, views, and motives of black members of the GOP, Fields concludes: “The image of black Republicans that the G.O.P. disseminates may actually dampen enthusiasm for the party—not only among the black electorate in general, but also among black Republicans themselves.”

Fields classifies the African American Republicans he surveyed into two main groups: the “race-blind” and the “race-conscious.” The former tend to echo the mainstream conservative stance on racial issues; they “acknowledge that being black is part of their life experience, but reject the idea that racial identity should orient their political decision making.” The latter “were committed to conservative politics as a tool for the uplift of the black community. While they supported most Republican policy positions, their motivations were grounded in their black identity.”

For example, race-conscious black Republicans champion school-voucher programs as a means of empowering African American parents and limiting government control of black communities. Fields’s book quotes one black Republican activist thus: “You know why I love school vouchers? Because they give black parents control over their kids’ schools. It puts black parents in charge of black kids. Not some white person from the school board who doesn’t have any idea of what black children in black communities need.”

Jeffrey, another race-conscious black Republican whom Fields interviewed, justified his support for Republican low-tax policies this way: “When taxes are lower, there is more money to invest back into the black community. How can you support black businesses if you’re losing half your paycheck to taxes?” Still another interview subject, Steven, put it this way: “Black folks think high taxes are good for social programs, but we’re really shooting ourselves in the foot because it doesn’t encourage black businesses.”

Fields summarizes the attitudes of these black Republicans in a way that particularly resonates with me:

Race-conscious African-American Republicans resolve the perceived inconsistency between blackness and Republican partisanship by constructing a narrative within which being Republican is in the interest of black people. They articulate a very pro-black form of political conservatism that draws on Black Nationalist thought and has deep roots within the black community, even if that conservatism rarely translates into contemporary Republican partisanship.

Fields’s finding strikes a chord with me because of the evolution of my own political views in early adulthood. I left the left and began to gravitate toward the libertarian movement in college for a number of reasons. Yet I only fully embraced the quest for limited government after reading a series of old National Review articles from the late 1960s while taking a course in conservative political thought during my senior year. Writers like Jeffrey Hart and Ernest van den Haag actually sympathized with some of the views espoused by members of the “Black Power” movement of that era, particularly the calls for black economic development and solidarity—supporting black-owned businesses and community institutions and building up a durable black commercial and professional class. I finally became comfortable calling myself a libertarian when I learned that I could be both pro-black and pro-liberty at the same time.

It is that kind of insight that conservatives of all backgrounds need to keep in mind if they ever want to appeal to any meaningful portion of Black America. Yet the Republican Party and the wider conservative movement—including glib pundits like Candace Owens—seem determined to support only the brand of conservatism espoused by those in the first aforementioned category of black Republicans. The African American conservatives who have risen to public prominence and been fêted by the GOP leadership—South Carolina senator Tim Scott, former Utah congresswoman Mia Love, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, et. al.—have generally been “color-blind” Republicans. This reality is an unfortunate one, because most of the black Americans who have found the Republican Party appealing so far don’t appear to share that worldview. Mr. Fields points to data from the 2012 American National Election Survey indicating that more than half of African Americans who call themselves Republicans believe that their fate is inextricable from that of the larger black community. The black Republicans who have become household names seem to be out of touch with the views of the average grassroots black Republican.

This coming summer, Black America will turn four centuries old, at the four hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the first shipment of enslaved Africans at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. In the quarter of a millennium of race-based chattel slavery and the subsequent century of segregation and subjugation that ensued, African Americans developed a culture and an identity of their own—one that both helped define America as a whole and set African Americans apart from it. Most black Americans also developed an instinct to be constantly on guard and on the lookout for any manifestations of prejudice against them. The Republican Party’s predominant posture on race relations flies in the face of this reality. Calls for members of the black community to embrace “color-blind” politics are hopelessly naive in a country that has gone out of its way to persecute its black population for the lion’s share of its history.

As I’ve argued in the past, the black electorate’s monolithic support for the Democratic Party is a crying shame. Its principal result has been—as even Jesse Jackson once remarked—to give Democrats an incentive to take African Americans for granted and to give Republicans an incentive to write blacks off. But the GOP itself is primarily responsible for this political tragedy. White Republicans have spent the past half century or so alternating between playing footsie with outright bigots and, as Fields puts it, “promoting black Republicans who espouse a colorblind message that primarily appeals to white voters.” Or, as former GOP congressman and Tea Party activist Dick Armey put it in the Republican National Committee’s 2012 election postmortem, “You can’t call someone ugly and expect them to go to the prom with you.”

One of the black Republican activists interviewed by Mr. Fields described his embrace of the GOP and its policies as a means of achieving “Black Power through conservative principles.” This unapologetically pro-black stance is the only kind of politics that stands any chance of appealing to a meaningful portion of African American voters. Like it or not, most American blacks attach substantial importance to their ethnocultural identity, as well as to what they perceive to be their community’s political, social, and economic interests. Black America never was dissolved in the proverbial melting pot, and I, for one, doubt it ever will be. Thanks to centuries of explicit oppression and decades of tacit marginalization, the Africans in America constitute a nation within a nation—and likely always will. A politics that asks them to pretend otherwise is doomed to failure.

Fields concludes: “The message from the current crop of successful black Republicans is that conservative politics is at odds with black identity. The G.O.P. presents a party where you have to choose: Be black or be a Republican. Given that race is an omnipresent reality for a vast majority of African-Americans, that is a lot to ask.” As long as the Republican Party and the conservative movement continue to insist that their black members attach little or no importance to their community and its interests, their efforts to reach out to Black America will go nowhere—and Candace Owens’s ballyhooed “Blexit” will never materialize.

Akil Alleyne is a freelance video journalist and commentator in Montreal, Canada and a graduate of Princeton University and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. He formerly advocated for free speech and other civil liberties in American academia at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Image by Sowemimo Bamidele via Unsplash.

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