Leah Wright Rigueur: Black conservatives do not speak for the black majority

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By Leah Wright Rigueur

Published in association with Aeon Magazine, a Princeton University Press partner.

When black voices rally to validate and defend extremist ideas, political observers should watch with heavy skepticism. In April, the National Diversity Coalition for Donald Trump launched a campaign in support of the controversial presidential candidate. ‘This man is no more racist than Mickey Mouse is on the Moon!’ Bruce LeVell, the coalition’s co-founder and a businessman from Georgia, told The Washington Post. Better yet, what are we to make of the former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson’s puzzling endorsement of Trump?

At a moment when black Americans, of all ideological persuasions, are deeply concerned with a status quo in the United States that allows racial inequality (and discrimination) to fester, black boosters for the party’s right wing have insisted that the ‘race issue’ is a distraction. Some even claim that black America will benefit from a Trump presidency. This kind of posturing might seem mystifying to some degree, but it is not new; there have always been black people willing to endorse the nation’s most extreme figures. The civil rights activist James Meredith worked for the Republican senator Jesse Helms in 1989, after all.

Employing black ‘surrogates’ or spokespeople for extremist candidates has become a way of validating non-traditional ideas as ‘authentic’, while at the same time invalidating accusations of racism. While the Democratic Party also has employed black voices in this manner (much to the distaste of its critics), the Republican Party’s use of conservative black voices is all the more fascinating because black conservatives’ beliefs are generally at odds with mainstream black opinion.

Egregious contemporary and historical examples abound. Consider the National Black Silent Majority Committee (BSMC), a black conservative organisation launched on 4 July 1970. Founded by Clay Claiborne (a former Republican National Committee staffer acquitted of defrauding black voters in the 1964 presidential election), the BSMC professed a faith in free-market enterprise and two-party competition, and adhered to a strict anti-communist, anti-welfare, anti-busing, pro-‘law and order’ agenda. Unlike other black Republican groups of the era, the BSMC articulated neither public nor private complaints about race and the Republican Party. Instead, the organisation exclusively blamed black people for the country’s problems with race. Upon the group’s founding, the civil rights activist Julian Bond called the BSMC a ‘trick’ to ‘subvert black political hopes on the altar of white supremacy and political expediency’.

The BMSC used Richard Nixon’s rhetoric of a forgotten class of Americans, claiming to speak for a majority of silent black Americans, ‘sick and tired of the agitation, shouting, burning and subversion carried out in their name by self-styled militant groups’. The organisation assembled a high-profile group of black men and women willing to endorse conservative values, including the national president of the Negro Elks fraternal order, the founders and publishers of the black newspapers the Atlanta Daily World and the Arizona Tribune (now The Informant), and dozens of black ministers from around the country. Black women also took on prominent roles as BSMC surrogates – an unusual occurrence, as black women were, and still are, the least likely of any demographic to support the Republican Party.

In 1972, for example, Mary Parrish was the star speaker of the BSMC’s 52-city ‘Black Youth Voter Crusade’. Parrish, a black Democrat-turned-Republican (who started her career campaigning for Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm) used her pulpit to claim that liberals had ‘politically enslaved’ black people, especially black women; the Republican Party, she insisted, without providing tangible examples, represented the best hope for the ‘continued advancement of black people’. Parrish’s unusual turn as the ‘face’ of the BSMC is not an isolated event. Today, black women are among the most high-profile of the Trump campaign’s spokespeople.

But such minority endorsements are sporadic, and rarely translate into partisan support. When the BSMC launched in 1970, more than 72 per cent of black Americans held unfavourable views of President Nixon. Currently, about 80 per cent of black people hold unfavourable views of Trump. For both the BSMC and Trump’s black surrogates, this disconnect is consistent with their resolute dismissal of issues related to racial and social inequality, and their harsh criticism of black people who reject the Republican nominee.

Back in the 1970s, the BSMC readily admitted that the vast majority of its supporters were white. As the historian Matt Lassiter has suggested, the Nixon White House ‘orchestrated’ the creation of the BSMC to provide a counter-narrative to black moderate, and militant, voices, which also appealed to ‘white voters who believed that the civil rights and antiwar movements had gone too far’.

My own research shows that the all-white National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) was also a heavy financial backer of the BSMC from the start, providing start-up funds, financing the group’s cross-country ‘Patriotism’ and ‘Anti-Busing’ crusades, regularly highlighting the BSMC’s adventures to the public, and arranging private meetings with influential white officials.

In an unintentionally ironic moment in 1970, the then South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, a vocal cheerleader for the BSMC, declared that the organisation’s existence proved that plenty of black radicals were attempting to ‘speak for groups which they do not actually represent’. Indeed, by the mid-1970s, politicians actively used the BSMC to elicit broader political support for right-wing agendas largely rejected by black audiences, by suggesting that the group spoke for a black majority. The BSMC also provided a buffer against charges of racism, with white politicians arguing that their own policies couldn’t possibly be racist or discriminatory, since the BSMC endorsed them. In this way, the BSMC reassured white conservative voters uncomfortable with the social taboo of racism.

The BSMC is just one example of many organisations (and individuals) to emerge in the past few decades in support of ideas on the fringes of black political thought. As a result, black Republicans critical of their party’s position on race saw their influence within the party dwindle, as groups such as the BSMC saw their stock rise among the Republican Party’s right wing. New quantitative research suggests that little has changed; Republican politicians are more interested in championing right-wing black Republicans whose views on race fall outside mainstream black political thought than those whose race-conscious messages are more closely aligned with the attitudes of black people at large. For most black Republicans within the party, this sends a clear and troubling message – power for the party’s minorities often comes by way of endorsing right-wing extremism.

Thus Trump’s turn to minority (especially black) spokespeople should come as little surprise. But while race lends an air of legitimacy to extremist candidates, it rarely presents an accurate picture of black political opinion. If anything, when the extremists play the ‘race card’, genuine concern for racial issues are likely to be buried.

Leah Wright Rigueur The Loneliness of the Black Republicanis an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is the author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power (2015).

Leah Wright Rigueur on Making Sense of Ben Carson

Leah Wright Rigueur

Photo Credit: Chion Wolf WNPR

Harvard Kennedy School of Government Professor of Public Policy, Leah Wright Rigueur, who was extensively quoted in the Washington Post  this week on Ben Carson, has written the first in a series of posts she’ll be contributing to the PUP blog. Today she explains the surge in Carson’s popularity among Republican voters in a race that has, until recently, been dominated by Donald Trump. Leah’s recent book, The Loneliness of the Black Republican, offers further insight into the seemingly incongruous intersection of civil rights and American conservatism. We’re delighted to have her. –PUP Blog Editor

Making Sense of Ben Carson

A modified version of this post appears at The Monkey Cage blog of the Washington Post

According to recent polls, Ben Carson has surged in popularity among likely Republican voters and now finds himself at the top of the GOP presidential primary pack. A recent poll of Iowa Republicans, for example, found Carson tied with Donald Trump for first place, with each candidate garnering 23 percent support. That an African American with zero political experience is now a front-runner in the Republican primaries is shocking. A political campaign that many dubbed a joke now appears to have political legs, and the public and press are scrambling to make sense of it.

The idea of a black conservative and/or a black Republican often feels a little like an oxymoron. Black people are partisan voters, overwhelmingly affiliating with the Democratic Party since 1948. In 2012, more than 90 percent of black voters cast ballots for Barack Obama. Their partisanship was, and continues to be, strategic – after all, many of the post-World War II advances in racial and social justice have come by way of Democratic liberalism. Coupled this with the modern – as in, post 1960s – GOP’s move to the extreme right and hostility toward racial justice and race-conscious solutions, and it would appear that politically, black voters have nothing in common with the Republican Party or modern conservatism.

But clearly we know that there are exceptions to this rule. According to the Pew Research Center, between five and eleven percent of the black public either identify as Republican or Lean Republican. Carson is not the first black Republican to run for president, and he won’t be the last. He’s also not the first black Republican to be discussed as part of a potential Republican presidential ticket. Speculation has long surrounded moderate Republican Colin Powell, who has declined to run, time and time again. In 1968 Richard Nixon toyed with tapping liberal Republican Edward Brooke as his vice-presidential running mate, while Gerald Ford placed the black senator high on a private list of potential vice-presidential appointees, in 1974.

Carson, Powell and Brooke, of course, all exhibit different forms of black Republicanism, ranging from liberal to the extreme right. But to some degree, their belief in Republicanism is undergirded by a kind of general black conservatism. African Americans are no strangers to conservatism. We see strong strands of it crop up in nineteenth and early twentieth century religious thought, especially among black churches, despite their political radicalism. Despite their beliefs in racial equality and justice, we see conservative thought in the behaviors of even some of the most progressive of civil rights leaders of the 1960s and 1970s. Conservatism also underscores the respectability politics of the black middle and working class, historically and in the present-day. Even today, studies have shown that about a third of black people self identify as conservative, although their conservatism rarely translates into support for the Republican Party.

And this is how we make sense of Ben Carson. He comes from a long conservative tradition, one that is rooted in a belief in religious morality, personal responsibility, self-help, individualism and free-market enterprise, and one that sometimes exists outside the boundaries of partisanship. Some have attributed Carson’s switch from ardent Democrat to conservative Republican as a matter of opportunism. That may very well be true, but one read of Gifted Hands, indicates that Carson has long exhibited the kind of “everyday black conservatism” that defines a portion of black communities.

Carson also comes from a partisan tradition that has given us figures like Clarence Thomas, Mia Love, Tim Scott, and many others. Organizations like the Black Silent Majority Committee in the 1970s, and the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education in the 1980s and 1990s, built on the black conservatism of past, cultivating a harsher kind of partisan Republican activism and rhetoric that Ben Carson currently articulates.

It’s the kind of position that conservative audiences, almost exclusively white, embrace. Carson is unique no doubt in attracting so much popularity. Historically, black Republicans have been unsuccessful at commanding this kind of attention, at this level of politics. And there are many, many reasons why Carson is surging in the polls: his religious roots, his “niceness” especially when contrasted with Donald Trump, his image as a brilliant surgeon, his position as a political outsider at a moment when people universally distrust politicians, his plain-spoken ability to “tell it like it is,” and his willingness to criticize, unapologetically, Barack Obama, and more broadly, black social justice movements like Black Lives Matter (BLM).

For white conservative audiences, Carson is “safe.” His words on racism, for instance, while profoundly critical of racist acts, are striking when compared to criticisms employed by black liberals. For Carson, racism is something to be changed through individual acts rather than something to be eradicated through structural change. In an era when explicit acts of racism are taboo, Carson’s rhetoric is both palatable to white audiences and comforting. In fact, Carson’s race lends a certain level of legitimacy to his remarks. In other words, conservative voters can look at Carson and have their personal beliefs on race validated, because a black man is articulating their exact same ideas. Historically, we consistently see this, as the GOP moved further to the right. Republicans in 1975, for example, used the Black Silent Majority Committee’s various conservative platforms to validate their views on various racial issues – even as African American voters routinely rejected the organization’s positions. This fraught relationship even led Clarence Thomas to once quip that black converts to the GOP’s acceptance hinged on becoming – in Thomas’ own words – a “caricature of sorts, providing sideshows of anti-black quips and attacks.”

Given all of this, what are we to make of Ben Carson? Are we to take him seriously? Well, in short, yes – we absolutely should take his candidacy seriously. Regardless of whether or not his campaign fizzles or he ends up at the top of the Republican presidential ticket, the general public, scholars, and journalists need to grapple with what, exactly, Carson represents. At this point, the scenarios are nuanced – at the extreme end of the spectrum, Carson could end up as the Republican nominee. He could also end up as vice-presidential nominee, a future presidential cabinet member, a member of Congress, or as a consultant to various public and private Republican factions. There’s a very real chance that Carson may ultimately end up influencing public policies, either directly or indirectly. After all, over the course of the last 80 years, the GOP has implemented black Republicans policies and programs, often favoring those ideas that are firmly couched within right-wing thought. And as we have seen in the past, previous Republican contenders rarely fade from the limelight, choosing instead to use their popularity to influence popular opinion. Ultimately then, we must pay attention to how Carson uses this platform, no matter how precarious, to influence American politics and life.

Leah Wright Rigueur is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is the author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power (Princeton University Press, 2015).