Where are all the black Republicans?

by Christian Bryant

“IF YOU BLACK, YOU DEMOCRAT,” exclaims an older black man while summarizing the sentiments of the black community.

Onlookers in the Carousel Grande Cinemas nod their heads in collective affirmation upon hearing the man’s statement and seeing his story on the big screen. They are Democrats, Republicans and independents, and they know his assertions to be true.

Filmmaker Kevin J. Williams hosted the Greensboro screening for his film Fear of a Black Republican on June 26. The film journeys over several years as Williams, a white Republican living in an urban area of Trenton, NJ, seeks to find reasoning behind the GOP’s absence in black communities around the country and what that says about the two-party political system in America. The older man provided one of several black conservative voices to the political milieu.

Fear of a Black Republican features interviews from an impressive cast of scholars, public figures and Republican leaders including Cornel West, Edward Brooke, Michael Steele and Ken Mehlman.

Williams’ persistent approach at getting the attention of well known individuals yielded some interesting responses.

In his interview with Cornel West, Williams asks “Do you think the Republican Party really wants more African Americans?” West responds, “The Republican Party wants to stay in power. They would solicit martians to do so. They would solicit negroes too. The Democrat Party wants to gain power. They would solicit martians and try to keep their negroes.”

Williams and his crew of three sought out answers to political questions regarding blacks and the Republican Party and why Republican outreach is so poorly coordinated within black communities. This provided the impetus for even more questions:

If freed slaves identified with the Republican Party aftewr the Civil War, why do so many blacks vote Democrat today? If so many blacks consider themselves to be conservatives and ascribe to mainly conservative viewpoints, why does talk of black Republicans remain taboo?

Even on the campus of my alma mater, Morehouse College, political conversations were not void of cringed faces and puzzled looks at the mention of a black Republican. One of Morehouse’s most illustrious alumni, Martin Luther King Jr., identified as a conservative, yet even the most scholarly of Morehouse’s black intelligentsia couldn’t get past a black man voting for GOP candidates. How could they? “If you black, you Democrat.”

Williams’ inquisition and findings lead me to ask the question: Where are all of the black Republicans?

In order to give some context, the political history of black Americans offers a starting point:

Following the American Civil War, freed slaves became a part of the Republican Party, which was founded by abolitionists in 1854. The Republicans not only supported the abolishment of slavery but also advocated for equal rights to all men.

The advent of the Reconstruction era led to the constitutional and legal status of freed slaves. For the first time in American history, blacks were granted suffrage and the opportunity to take public office via the 15 th Amendment to the Constitution in 1870.

Conservative white Democrats eventually returned to power in the South, favoring states’ rights and seeking to suppress the black vote. The uprising of white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, the White League and the Red Shirts — terrorist organizations of mostly Confederate Army veterans — aided in that effort.

During the time following Reconstruction, new legislation was passed that disenfranchised blacks and poor whites. This included mandatory poll taxes to exercise the right, along with literacy and comprehension tests. As expected, voter turnout dropped considerably in the South.

Between the time of the Reconstruction and the New Deal, the Great Depression struck and proliferated into a worldwide economic crisis. Unemployment rates rose and the Dust Bowl — a period of drought and erosion that destroyed millions of acres of farmland – subsequently hit the Midwestern US in the 1930s.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal created a series of programs with the purpose of complete economic recovery during the depression. This marked the beginning of a dramatic shift in party registration for black voters who heretofore primarily voted Republican.

In addition, Roosevelt, a Democrat, championed civil rights and worked to transition black political organizations from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party.

President Harry S. Truman, another Democrat, issued three executive orders to desegregate the armed forces and make it illegal to discriminate against individuals based on race. This was another step toward equality for blacks and minorities.

President John F. Kennedy, also a Democrat and champion of civil rights, made a bold move during his presidential campaign against Richard Nixon in 1960. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most prominent figures in the Civil Rights Movement, was arrested along with several others for sitting at a lunch counter in Atlanta on Oct. 9 of that year. As recounted in Sean J. Savage’s JFK, LBJ and the Democratic Party, Kennedy called Coretta Scott King and offered his support while Kennedy’s brother, Robert, made a call to ask for King’s release.

A blue leaflet printed shortly after King’s release detailed Kennedy’s involvement regarding the incident as opposed to Nixon’s lack of involvement. The leaflet, dubbed the “blue bomb,” found its way into the hands of blacks and Kennedy received immense support from the black community for his actions.

Although Kennedy would not live to see it, his eventual civil rights legislation proposals led to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The late 1960s saw the declaration of Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater to repeal the Civil Rights Act of 1964 if elected, the onset of the Republican Southern Strategy: a method of winning votes in the new South by appealing to states’ rights. The Southern Strategy was popularized by President Richard M. Nixon.

In his article “The Browning of the GOP” featured in the November 2010 issue of Ebony magazine, Armstrong Williams writes, “The rise of Goldwater signaled unmistakably that the highest levels of the modern Republican Party leadership included outright racists.”

New York Times Magazine writer Clay Risen refuted the claim in December 2006 that the Southern Strategy’s method of attaining votes revolved primarily around racism in his article “The Myth of ‘the Southern Strategy.” Risen writes: “In the postwar era, [political scientists Richard Johnston and Byron Shafer] note, the South transformed itself from a backward region to an engine of the national economy, giving rise to a sizable new wealthy suburban class. This class, not surprisingly, began to vote for the party that best represented its economic interests: the GOP.”

Byron Shafer of the University of Wisconsin said that many whites in the South “voted by their economic preferences, not racial preferences.”

Regardless of how it happened, the fact that blacks fled the Republican Party in large numbers between the ’30s and ’60s still remains. Exit polls indicate that nearly 90 percent of the black electorate voted Democrat in the 2006 midterm elections, the 2008 presidential election and the 2010 midterms. Recent data from the North Carolina Board of Elections shows that 84 percent of registered black voters identify as Democrats.

Vernon Robinson, former Winston-Salem City Councilman, has been a registered Republican since 1980. Although once a left-wing Democrat, Robinson now identifies with the GOP and remains one of very few black Republicans to serve in public office within the Piedmont Triad.

Robinson, the son of a Tuskegee airman, graduated from the US Air Force Academy in 1977 and notes that the military is, in his opinion, “a conservative institution.”

“I more and more aligned with the national security stand of the GOP,” Robinson said.

Not only that, but Robinson felt as though the Democratic Party was moving to the left on issues such as abortion.

Robinson points to three issues that influenced his switch from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party: the “deconstruction of the black family, particularly under the welfare state;” the “collapse of public education as a means of mobility;” and the “lack of entrepreneurial activity in the black community.”

According to Robinson, the government essentially replaced “men with welfare checks,” which added to the deconstruction of the black family.

With regard to public education, “I didn’t see it was possible to pursue education reform inside of the Democratic Party,” Robinson said.

Kyle Suggs’ switch to the Republican Party was carried by the tune of a different drum.

Suggs, a senior systems analyst at Lorillard Tobacco Company, served as campaign manager for Jim Rumley and a national committeeman for the NC Federation of Young Republicans in 2009. To Suggs’ credit, he also helped re-charter the Guilford County Young Republicans. He currently serves as a North Carolina Republican Party representative for congressional districts.

A Maryland native, Suggs admits that he and others around him growing up had negative opinions of the GOP.

“We thought they were all racists,” Suggs said. “All along, the Republican Party was at the forefront of civil rights.”

After a re-evaluation of party alignment, Suggs signed up to be a volunteer at one of President George W. Bush’s events.

“I was nervous about being on the George W. Bush website,” Suggs said with a laugh.

Regarding his reception from blacks after his switch to the GOP, Suggs mentioned that comments like “Uncle Tom” were rarely heard and mostly within the context of an election.

He describes that a large part of his political transition dealt with his Christian faith and conservative views.

“I’m a Christian first, American second; Christian conservative Republican,” Suggs said. “I identify myself as a Christian male who loves my country with conservative views.”

Several polls suggest Suggs’ views on conservatism are echoed throughout most black communities.

“Culturally, the black community is conservative,” Robinson says.

President and CEO of the Polling Company Kellyanne Conway says “Blacks, Latinos and Asians are ideologically in line with Republican positions on economic and social issues…. On issue after issue, minority voters hold a conservative political ideology.”

Williams writes that, “Seventy-five percent of blacks favor school prayer; 73 percent favor

a $500-per-child federal tax credit; and 72 percent favor three-strikesand-you’re-out laws. These are all conservative positions.

“Black America often cringes at the liberal secular attitudes Democrats have toward such issues as gays in the military and education policies that continue to fund a failed system,” he continues.With the overwhelming amount of evidence that blacks favor conservative Republican opinions and ideas, why do they continue to vote Democrat? The late Richard Nadler, political director for the Republican Leadership Coalition, answered the question plainly by saying, “What the GOP is doing stinks.” 

Robinson concurs with Nadler by saying, “The Republican party has marketing problems in the black community…. The only thing blacks know about Republicans is what Democrats tell them.”

In a Republican audio program on improving performance among minority voters, Nadler explains that “Democrats approached a mass-communications challenge with a mass-communications solution” in that they took to forms of black media not only to spread the word about Democratic candidates but to demonize the Republican Party.

This method of outreach by Democrats coupled with inefficiency regarding Republican outreach, he says, result in the current misconceptions about the GOP.

Chairman of the Guilford County Republican Party Al Bouldin recognizes the communications problem.

“We’re looking to broaden our base,” Bouldin says. “The Republican Party hasn’t done a good job of getting the message out…. We’re just now overcoming the stereotypes that we’re just old, white and racist.”

Conway says, “The obstacle, and I believe also the opportunity for the Republican Party, will be to address this partisan paradox; the vast delta between what minorities think and what they do at the ballot box.”

Suggs mentions that “very little trust” exists between blacks and Republicans.

“Republicans don’t want to pander and go against their conservative side,” Suggs says. “[Blacks] love relationships. We are relationship-driven people. If you aren’t there, we don’t think you care.”

The black community hasn’t been without black Republicans in high levels of political office: Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Clarence Thomas, former US Sen. Edward Brooke, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, US Rep.

Allen West, former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and former Republican National Committeee Chairman Michael Steele.

Recent census data indicates an increase in the US minority population, which could mean larger voter turnout for minorities and a better chance for more black conservative leaders to emerge.

“Huge population increases have not translated to large increases at the ballot box… yet,” Conway says.

This means that new votes are theirs to lose.

Nadler adds, “Everyone knows that if blacks and Hispanic voter participation continues to increase — as surely it will — and if we continue to attract such dismal shares, a new Democratic majority will emerge.”