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).

Jackie Robinson: Militant Black Republican

The Loneliness of the Black RepublicanToday is Jackie Robinson Day, the anniversary of the day in 1947 on which Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first black player in eighty years to play major league baseball.

Not only was Robinson an outstanding athlete, playing in six world series and named Most Valuable Player in the National League in 1949, he became a powerful voice in the burgeoning civil rights movement. But Robinson raised his voice from within the Republican party.

Leah Wright Rigueur (The Loneliness of the Black Republican) tells the story:

On a Saturday evening in February of 1966, over a thousand mostly white Republican men and women crowded into a Cleveland hotel banquet hall, eager to hear Jackie Robinson’s opening keynote for the annual Ohio Republican Conference. The baseball icon-turned-political activist did not disappoint.

“I am not what is known as a good Republican,” Robinson declared upon taking the stage. “I am certainly not a safe Republican. I am weary of the black man going hat in hand, shoulders hunched and knee pads worn, to ‘Uncle Tom’ to the enemies of our progress.”

Read the rest of the story at The Root.

Leah Wright Rigueur: Rand Paul’s failed appeal to black voters

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Racial Blunders and Disappointment Surround
Rand Paul

By Leah Wright Rigueur

Rand Paul was supposed to be different.

But now, with news of Paul suspending his struggling campaign in the face of disappointing Iowa caucus results, an uncomfortable question looms large: what happened?

There are many well-documented reasons for Paul’s political disappointments – namely Republican voters’ rejection of the Kentucky senator’s brand of libertarianism. But aside from his tea-party-ish approach to politics, Paul’s appeal was also supposed to be rooted in his two-year effort to broaden the Republican tent.

The “unconventional” Republican candidate, pundits and scholars alike touted Paul as the politician that would finally bring black voters into the GOP fold. African Americans, Paul often argued, were an integral part of his strategy to reach the White House. Since 2013, he has publicly courted black voters, using his policy positions on mass incarceration, criminal justice reform and the militarization of the police as entryways into broader conversations with black communities. He’s been outspoken about the Republican Party’s need to court racial minorities, criticizing the GOP’s repeated failure to speak and listen to black voters.

But “Big Tent” rhetoric is nothing new; calculated GOP strategists have been endorsing minority outreach since 1936, when Republicans first lost the black vote. Embracing this trend in 2013, the Republican National Committee’s autopsy report observed that the party had to perform better among racial minorities, or it risk losing future presidential elections. When pressed, most of the Republican presidential candidates will admit as much, even when their policies and talking points undermine their claims. As ridiculous as it may sound, Donald Trump’s campaign, for example, has declared that he intends to win “100% of the black vote.”

These are relatively superficial endeavors, however. In contrast, Paul has emerged as different for two reasons: first, his willingness to play the long game – he’s been actively pursuing the black vote for over two years. Second, he’s gone beyond shallow rhetoric by sponsoring actual policies like the REDEEM Act, which he co-introduced with New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. Paul’s work in this regard has drawn praise from a diverse cross-section of black communities, from grassroots activists to political elites. The NAACP, which once challenged Paul to a debate over his controversial comments over the 1964 Civil Rights Act, applauded Paul’s outreach efforts and met with him in Ferguson, Missouri in late 2014. Less than two months ago, Paul grabbed headlines for an on-the-ground meeting with black clergy, chief among them Rev. Jamal Bryant of Empowerment Temple AME in Baltimore. Paul, Bryant has repeatedly declared, is a politician that “gets it” (the other candidate to earn high praise from Bryant? Bernie Sanders).

And to some extent, black voters seem to be far more receptive to Paul than they once were. Take for instance, a spring 2014 poll from Kentucky: 29 percent of black respondents indicated that they would support Paul over Hillary Clinton if he were the Republican presidential nominee. But local politics – especially in one’s home state – is a far cry from the national stage where polls tell a very different story. One national survey from spring 2014 found that only 17 percent of black respondents viewed Paul favorably, while 44 percent held unfavorable views. More than a third had never heard of him. Another poll, this one from 2015, seemed to suggest that Paul would gain a mere 3 percent of the black vote if pitted against Hillary Clinton. Polls are notoriously fickle and there may be many reasons for this perplexing information. For one, few pollsters actually asked black voters about Paul; another explanation may be that black voters – like the rest of the country – simply couldn’t imagine Paul as president.

But I’m more convinced that Paul’s inability to translate outreach into tangible black support has to do with his actual programs and policies, beyond criminal justice reform. Among black voters who know of Paul, there’s an obvious wariness. Most of the black people who praise Paul’s outreach are also quick to list the areas where they disagree with him: abortion, gun control, vaccines, minimum wage, voter ID, taxes, healthcare, discrimination law, and much, much more. According to PEW, 78 percent of African Americans believe the federal government should play an active role in reducing poverty – a position directly at odds with Paul’s limited government approach. In this respect, Paul is not unlike his father, Ron Paul; in 1978, a black Republican consulting firm shied away from helping the elder Paul, privately railing that his “positions on the welfare system, minimum wage, and health care were too far to the right to offer the type of sensitivity Black voters were looking for.”

And though Paul has clearly distanced himself from his father’s abhorrent racial history, the younger politician continues to have his share of public racial gaffes; the Baltimore comment in April, the Cliven Bundy meeting in June, and the “All Lives Matter” moment in August are just a few of the recent incidents that come to mind. These are not insignificant incidents; for many African Americans, moments such as these make Paul’s previous outreach efforts appear insincere. Racial blunders add a layer of mistrust and confirm pre-existing skepticism. Whenever Paul stumbled, it was easy for critics to suggest that his behavior was part of a long pattern of anti-black hostility. Or in other words, to accuse Paul of being just another “typical Republican.”

Therein lies the central dilemma: in order to win over black voters, Paul would have had to fully transcend black suspicion and cynicism about the modern Republican Party. That’s a herculean task, not only because of the party and Paul’s history, but also because of the GOP’s present-day antagonisms on matters of race. But this is a marathon, not a sprint, and Paul still has time – and opportunity – to rehabilitate his image and strengthen his relationship with black voters. He is, after all, an active candidate in the Kentucky senatorial race, where black voters will surely play an important role.

The Loneliness of the Black RepublicanLeah Wright Rigueur is 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.

Q&A with Leah Wright Rigueur, author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican

This week, Leah Wright Rigueur took the time to talk with us about her new book, The Loneliness of the Black Republican. Read the introduction for free, here.

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How did you come up with the title and jacket?

LR: The title of the book comes from a 1987 Heritage Foundation speech by Clarence Thomas, originally titled, “Why Black Americans Should Look to Conservative Policies.” In 1991, when George H.W. Bush nominated Thomas to a seat on the Supreme Court, newspapers and journals re-printed the speech under the header, “No Room at the Inn: The Loneliness of the Black Conservative.” In 1999, conservative writer Shelby Steele later borrowed this title for an essay for the Hoover Institution and a chapter in his book The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America.

I slightly amended the title to reflect the stories of those African Americans that joined the Republican Party, an ideological gamut that encompassed liberal, moderate, and of course, conservative factions. Of all the titles I considered, The Loneliness of the Black Republican felt the most “right.” Since 1936, black Republicans – of all ideological backgrounds – have complained of being isolated because of their small numbers; they constantly bemoaned their outsider status from both their political party and racial community. At the same time, the title holds some irony, since black Republicans played a significant role in the modern GOP. Over the course of nearly 50 years, the Republican Party strategically implemented some of black party members’ ideas and policies. Black Republicans ideas also occasionally gained support from outside the GOP, as well – from the black press, black Democrats, and even black voters.

The jacket image is a photograph of Jewel Lafontant at the 1960 Republican National Convention, courtesy of the Oberlin College Archives. She’s seconding the presidential nomination of Richard Nixon. Lafontant was a prominent Chicago attorney and civil rights advocate (she helped co-found the Congress of Racial Equality – CORE), who became a Republican advisor for Dwight Eisenhower, Henry Cabot Lodge, Richard Nixon, and George H.W. Bush. The photograph immediately stood out when I first came across it while doing research for the book. Here is this powerful and brilliant black woman, with her eyes lowered – almost demurely – surrounded by white faces, none of whom seem to be paying attention! The photo also felt provocative since black women are the least likely of any racial/gender demographic to support the GOP. Considering all of that, I had to have this picture on the cover, as it so perfectly captured the idea of “loneliness.”

What would you have been if not an historian?

LR: I would have been a print or broadcast journalist. I love all things newsworthy, political and pop-culture related!

Who do you see as the audience for this book?

LR: Everyone! All kidding aside, I wrote this book for a general audience interested in politics, history, and civil rights. Within The Loneliness of the Black Republican, I took a measured approach to better understanding the role that African Americans have played in shaping the modern Republican Party. The book also holds lessons for members of both the GOP and the Democratic Party; in short, there’s something here for people of varying ideological backgrounds interested in the experiences of marginalized groups of people trying to gain power within a two-party political system.

My book inverts our understanding of the American political system – how and why people vote the way that they do and how they behave, politically. A great example of this is Jackie Robinson’s story, which I cover in detail, in the book. Nearly everyone knows Robinson for his baseball accomplishments, but few people know about his work with the GOP. Robinson described himself as a “militant black Republican” – he worked extensively with New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and lobbied aggressively, on a national stage, to rid the party of its racist and segregationist element.

Although my book is a work of history, it also holds relevant lessons for contemporary politics.

What was the biggest challenge involved with bringing this book to life?

LR: When I first started my research, I feared that I wouldn’t find enough evidence to support a book-length project. I couldn’t have been more wrong! I found thousands of stories of black Republicans, spanning nearly a century. I was overwhelmed with information – the challenge thus became choosing whose story to tell and how. Initially, I felt terrible that I had to leave out so many stories, but as an author, I had to carve out a representative guide to black Republicanism. On a happier note, I have enough material to begin work on my next project, which will look at black Republican politics, 1980 – present day.

What are you reading right now?

LR: I recently read Megan Francis’ book, Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State, which re-conceptualizes the significance of the NAACP in American politics in the early part of the 20th Century. Next up is Lily Geismer’s book, Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party and Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (April 2015). I’ve known all of these authors for years, and it is exciting to see their projects develop, take shape, transform and grow. I’m also trying to work my way though Stephen King’s novel Revival.

What was the most interesting thing you learned from writing this book?

LR: It’s clear that the characters in The Loneliness of the Black Republican influenced modern day black Republican thought – there are direct links to figures ranging from Clarence Thomas, Tim Scott and Mia Love, to Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Michael Steele. But what completely blew me away was the way in which some of the figures in my book influenced, in part, modern black Democrats. It is uncanny how similar President Barack Obama, New Jersey Senator Corey Booker and even Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick are to Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke, for example. If we erased the political labels, I’d assume all of the officials came from the same political party.

Tell us something people would be surprised to know about you:

LR: I just had a baby girl in December 2014! I also have a two-year old son.
Our household is a lot of fun, to say the least!


 

bookjacket

The Loneliness of the Black Republican:
Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power
Leah Wright Rigueur

Leah Wright Rigueur on the state of the Republican Party

Last Wednesday, the Republican National Committee Black Republican Trailblazers awards took place in Washington D.C.. The event honored black Republicans both past and present, and this year the awards celebrated the largest class of black Republicans in Congress since Reconstruction. Leah Wright Rigueur, author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican:Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power commented on the state of the Republican Party to All Things Considered. Read what Rigueur said and learn more about the awards, here.

Be sure to read the introduction to The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power, here.

 

bookjacket

The Loneliness of the Black Republican:
Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power

Leah Wright Rigueur