An interview with writer Chidike Okeem on black conservatism—its heroes, principles, and misrepresentations.
How to Make Conservatism Compelling to Black Americans
Conservatives generally seem to be losing side the culture war, and yet the growth of organizations and publications like Lone Conservative, TPUSA, YAF, PragerU, and YAL reveal the resiliency of the conservative movement in our current political climate. As figures such as Ben Shapiro, Allie Beth Stuckey, Dennis Prager, Michael Knowles, Dana Loesch, Charlie Kirk, Candace Owens, Kassy Dillon, and Christina Hoff Sommers continue to make the rounds on college campuses and speaking tours, more and more students are shifting allegiances, or at least considering the viability of doing so.
But ask young black Americans what they think of conservatives or conservatism and the answer will most likely include one or more of the following words: racist, homophobic, misogynistic, close-minded . . . and we can probably throw in religious nut for good measure.
Despite the growth the conservative movement has seen among millennials and younger, there is still an overall lack of ethnic/racial diversity in their numbers. In my opinion, conservatives have done a poor job of marketing their ideology and platform to minority voters, especially African Americans. The emergence of young black conservatives such as Candace Owens, CJ Pearson, and Makada Duncanson has been to the good, but the often feral and antagonistic way in which they engage their opposition does a disservice to the cause. If the goal is to grow the movement, to engage, inform, and ultimately persuade the other side, their approach must shift from its current form to one that appeals to a market of black voters that has long remained loyal to the Democratic Party.
I’d like to suggest three ways conservatives can reach out to black Americans.
While conservatives have shown an ability to look objectively at issues and situations that anger and distress black voters, they all too often dismiss the nuance and history behind other, equally compelling issues. Despite a platform predicated on minimal government involvement and intervention, conservatives are often all too willing to side with the state (and yes that includes police). While there is room for disagreement on the extent of racism in the country and its impact on the daily lives of minorities, to try and minimize the issue as an afterthought trivializes the lived experiences of many African Americans and other minorities. Thanks to social media, we’ve seen numerous examples of the criminalization of black citizens engaged in everyday activities.
From BBQing while black, to a little girl selling water, to false accusations of sexual harassment, to blocking us from entering our own apartments, or just plain malicious hatred, such horror stories are all too familiar to many African Americans all around the country. Does this mean that Americans are racist and hostile as a whole? No. But neither does it mean that there aren’t real and pressing racial issues.
Conservatives have a real opportunity to make inroads into a demographic that—despite the strong Democratic Party voting pattern—is incredibly diverse. Though black voters typically strike the ballot blue, only 59 percent of black voters actually identify as Democrats, and even within that group the majority do not identify as liberal, with 44 percent identifying as moderates and 27 percent as conservatives. While the media would have us believe that black Americans look at the world through the same lens, having the same experiences and struggles, that is just not the case. Not all black Americans are Marc Lamont Hill, but neither are they Larry Elder.
The majority of black Americans fall somewhere in the middle, and within this bloc is where conservatives can make their appeal. First, there has to be a noted effort to acknowledge the concerns of black Americans, especially young black Americans, over issues such as the militarization of police departments across the country, the war on drugs, prison and criminal justice reform, states’ rights as pertains to voter discrimination, and the factions hostile toward minorities currently embedded within the Republican Party. From Roy Moore to Corey Stewart, Russel Walker to John Fitzgerald, and others like Paul Nehlen, if men like these continue to infect the Republican Party, the conservative movement has no hope of attracting black Americans en masse, nor of making a ripple in the pool of black Democrat voters.
Compassion is such a simple thing, and yet in the “facts don’t care about your feelings” meme that has swept through the conservative movement, care and tact have given way to owning and destroying. During his campaign against Beto O’Rourke, Ted Cruz attempted to use a clip of Mr. O’ Rourke denouncing the murder of Botham Shem Jean in his home by a police officer, as evidence of O’Rourke’s anti-police bias. The fact that Cruz felt this characterization of O’ Rourke would appeal to his base (and indeed it does) is telling. Yet, it was refreshing to see conservative figures condemn and decry Cruz’s overt attempt to placate the most mean-spirited within the party’s voting bloc. If conservatives hope to expand their movement, they’ll need to be far more vocal in denouncing such tactics in the future.
There are serious issues that face black Americans that many conservatives would be happy to address sympathetically, but all too often these issues are cloaked in the tribal rhetoric that has come to define our public discourse. Neither side can see past the stereotypes they attribute to their opponents, and even when we do debate, the language used so derails the facts and substance of the issues that the middle ground and commonalities we share are lost in the muddied waters of our vitriol and personal attacks.
Conservatives believe in small government. By logic they should be against police militarization, and for added oversight and training to ensure that our law enforcement officials do not exceed the bounds of their authority or abuse their power. Conservatives should be against the outdated and ineffective war on drugs, the seizure of private property from citizens without due process or compensation—they should champion the fight against harsh sentencing laws and a penal code that often creates as many career criminals as it catches.
Despite their sometimes cult-like devotion to a “facts-first” approach, conservatives are uniquely positioned to pick off moderates and independents who have become dissidents within the Democratic Party and its embrace of fringe groups and radical elements. Especially in our current climate of false information and misinformation, facts and hard evidence are crucial to policy decisions and discussions over the issues our nation faces. We can’t (and shouldn’t) change the numbers. But neither can we allow the conversation to begin and end with facts and figures. When it comes to discourse, the left relies too heavily on emotion, while the right too much on stats.
Emotions play a very real part in the political decisions people make. If conservatives wish to expand their base, they must find a way to blend empathy with evidence. Social issues such as school choice, taxation, and abortion are where many African Americans more closely align with conservatives than with progressives/liberals—yet because we cannot get past the racial hurdle, conservatives do not capitalize on the opportunity to articulate their positions in an empathetic way or even begin to engage on these mutual fronts.
Conservatives’ ability to leverage the implosion of the left rests in their willingness to challenge the old tropes and stereotypes currently embedded in the minds of their opponents—specifically young African Americans.
Does the right have the will to change? If it does, it may see a growth in membership diversity that will make those stereotypes nearly impossible to make credible in the future.
Tosin Akintola graduated from UMBC in 2017 with a B.A. in political science. He currently works in higher education.
Image by Shalom Mwenesi via Unsplash.
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