Society has been engaged in a laudable effort to learn more about the experiences of black Americans. This is a vital effort that merits our attention. Last year, we published an article featuring books that some have found valuable in this regard. Most of those books are written from a left-of-center perspective, and they are worth reading. However, it’s rare to see the popular press recommending important books by black conservatives. And yet, hearing their voices is also vital if we’re serious about true diversity and inclusion.
Why does that seem to be so excruciatingly hard?
Tim Scott, from South Carolina, is the lone black Republican Senator. In addition to needing security everywhere he goes, given the extent of credible threats on his life, Scott carries a gun to protect himself. His words also receive a unique level of scrutiny and critique. After Senator Scott argued recently that “woke supremacy” ought to be taken as seriously as white supremacy, CNN’s Don Lemon got so frustrated that his producer had to step in to encourage him not to yell, to which the pundit replied, “I have to. I know you don’t want me to yell, but this is ridiculous.”
Along with Hershel Walker, Senator Scott was called part of “the coon squad” and “Uncle Toms” for their support of the Republican agenda in recent years. And MSNBC’s Joy Reid likewise recently suggested he was essentially a token for the GOP, saying he provided the right a “patina of diversity.”
In response to all this, Senator Scott suggested in a recent interview that there are always some people at their “wit’s end” over African American conservatives speaking their minds and standing up for their values.
There have always been people of color deeply aligned with conservative principles in American culture, from Booker T. Washington to Marcus Garvey to Condoleeza Rice. A 2007 Pew Research Center survey showed that 19% of blacks identified as part of the “Religious Right”—with more identifying as conservative than Republican. This was consistent with the strong support the African-American community gave the 2008 California Proposition 8 at the time (a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as an opposite-sex union), with 70% of those interviewed in the exit poll saying they voted in favor of the proposition—a higher percentage than any other racial group. In a more recent 2020 Pew Research Center study, a quarter of black Democrats identified as “conservative” and 43 percent as “moderate.”
Despite study after study showing that black people continue to be politically diverse, it always seems to surprise people how long the list of famous black conservatives and African-American Republicans actually is. The usual grouping of intellectuals Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, Armstrong Williams, Walter Williams, and John McWhorter, and political figures Clarence Thomas, Tim Scott, Allen West, and Ben Carson, continues to grow.
After noting a shift among immigrant populations toward the Republican Party, Jay Caspian Kang wrote about how “shocked” many were in the Democratic Party—noting that they “cannot understand why those same castoffs would ever vote against their self-appointed protectors.” “The joke,” political strategist David Shor said in a 2020 interview, “is that the G.O.P. is really assembling the multiracial working-class coalition that the left has always dreamed of.”
That people of every race can choose their own political opinions and affiliations should not surprise us. Yet it continues to. In what follows, we summarize five (other) ways that public commentators too often write off and delegitimize black conservatives in America today.
1. Props and puppets. Black conservatives are characterized by some as somehow being used as tools by leaders on the right. When Kayne West, for example, began expressing support for President Trump, he was widely critiqued, with Claudia Ruiz saying, “you’ve lost your way man … or maybe you’ve just always been a tool.” Referring to higher-profile black conservatives, NPR Gene Demby spoke of a “sense that their primary role is to be the Republican Party’s black friend.”
The former president of the NAACP Kweisi Mfume said of black conservatives, “like the ventriloquist’s dummies, they sit there in the puppet master’s voice.” His speech was met with thunderous cheers.
After sharing a story of being freed from prison that moved many to tears at the RNC, Alice Marie Johnson was likewise criticized as being “propped up” by the Trump campaign. She later responded she is not a “prop”: “I’m not a prop and I’m not a puppet. I make my own choices as to what I’d like to do.”
Johnson went on to reference a woman with a similar story who spoke at the DNC the week prior, “and she was not called a prop for choosing to speak there, yet I don’t have the choice to speak where I want to.”
2. Disturbed or sick. Black conservatives are likewise frequently dismissed as puppets or as psychologically unwell. When Kayne West praised a black conservative commentator, one CNN anchor chalked it up to his mental health. An MSNBC commentator called black conservatives “lost” and “disturbed” people, with one man who identifies as a proud “black gay conservative,” acknowledging how many people text him telling him “that I have a mental illness.”
In what appeared initially to be a dissenting view, Zac Cheney-Rice wrote “Black conservatism is not fallacious because its adherents are stupid, sick, or brainwashed. It is fallacious because their conception of racism is not much different from that of most white conservatives, marked by delusion.”
Got that? Not sick or stupid.
3. Consciously doing harm. Others insist that black conservatives are lying about the injustice and hate they know they are perpetuating. Referring to “the likes of Candace Owens, the Hodge twins, John McWhorter, et al.” commentator James Jones calls “Black people with different opinions” outright liars. “They peddle a fictionalized version of America that non-Blacks are eager to devour that they may sit comfortably in their racism.”
Zac Cheney-Rice agrees that these folks are marked by “a refusal to reckon honestly with the bigotry that has allowed the GOP to survive all these years”—reflecting a uniting “commitment to time-worn conservative delusions around race and aversion to empirical evidence.”
John E. Jones argued, “Nowadays many Black Republicans intentionally twist facts to make it seem that today’s Republican Party is an ally of Black people; it is not.”
4. Traitors to the race. Still others assert that black conservatives are fighting against the well-being of their own people, and sinning against their own. In an Esquire essay called “A Case Against Black Republicans” University of Chicago professor Mitchell S. Jackson writes, “Every Black Republican is at least a tacit supporter of transgressing what Jesus proclaimed as the second greatest commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself (here’s Matthew 22 looking at you, Black Christians).” He later said, “Black folks who support Republicans in light of their long train of abuses and usurpations do so at the expense of justice for Black people at large.”
Leah Wright Rigueur, a Harvard political scientist and the author of the Loneliness of the Black Republican, said “There’s research that shows that black folks hold much more negative opinions about black Republicans than they (do) of white Republicans with the same views because they feel like it’s a betrayal.”
More than a betrayal, some have raised questions about what this support means for their own identity. Biden famously apologized for a comment earlier this spring when he said in an interview, “If you’ve got a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or for Trump, then you ain’t Black.” After the Republican National Convention featured at least a dozen Black speakers, an MSNBC guest-host Tiffany Cross called it a “modern-day minstrel show”—where people wore black-face to imitate African Americans in song and dance—thus, merely “pretending” to be African American.
Two political scientists point to research documenting that African-Americans have become loyal to the Democratic party in part because of social pressure from other black voters. As one woman recounted, “My sister at one time said [I was a] traitor … to my race.” The “trauma of being called a race traitor” is not new, as documented in a fascinating study of 20th-century literary representations focused on the “black male race traitor.” The author, Gregory Coleman, writes, “African Americans have had to put considerable energy toward negotiating the possibility of being perceived as race traitors by others within the African American community.” Coleman shares his own experience standing up for a white friend in high school, and having his mother tell him worriedly, “I don’t want you to be a ‘Clarence Thomas.”
5. Embracing white supremacy. Other voices have insisted that black conservatives have a deep-seated commitment to the superiority of white people. Black conservatives have frequently been accused of being too friendly to white people, aka, an “Uncle Tom.” As Larry Elder summarized in his new documentary “Uncle Tom is someone who has sold out by embracing the white man.” Asked his thoughts on black conservatives, one man said “y’all just a house negro—just trying to please the white man.”
James Jones writes, “There are Africans who were enslaved who swore up and down that their masters treated them well as they were being denied personhood and also snitched on possible riots. Is that simply a difference of opinion? If I utilized their experience as evidence that slavery wasn’t that bad, would anyone take me seriously?”
“A lot of people said that my family was brainwashing me,” admitted a woman who was adopted by white people in Colorado. John E. Jones added, “Sadly, all throughout American history, there have always been a few brainwashed Black people who blindly helped hinder the progress of our race.”
One prominent black commentator even spoke of being called a “black white supremacist.”
Does everyone agree on what it takes to help a community progress?
Clearly not. But that’s not an easy distinction for many to embrace today.
Grappling with ideological diversity within races. Our convictions around the centrality of socio-demographics like race, class, and gender have seemingly become so strong that it seems to be hard for some to wrap their head around the reality of two black people (fully in possession of their senses) honestly disagreeing about things that matter. This seems to be a unique form of racism.
Candace Owens has become a lightning rod for this kind of criticism. Certainly, she has said many problematic things. But no more problematic than any of a number of white commentators who manage to have their ideas challenged without their race being invoked. Owens receives no such treatment. In the Daily Beast, Kali Holloway called Owens a “tokenized Black messenger” and “Republicans’ Black mascot.”
Timothy Brinsmead remarked that people “are literally mad that black people aren’t thinking the way you think black people are supposed to think.”
The anger is real. As black conservative Gianno Caldwell writes in his book, “Taken for Granted: How Conservatism Can Win Back the Americans That Liberalism Failed”:
Don’t say I ‘ain’t Black’ because I won’t vote for Biden. I’ve been a Black conservative for well over a decade … But never have we seen the current level of vitriolic rhetoric come from such prominent people.
In a provocative piece for the New York Times entitled, “‘People of Color’ Do Not Belong to the Democratic Party,” Jay Caspian Kang wrote, “It’s past time to start seeing voters the way they see themselves.”
After challenging the “broad style of diversity politics” among anti-racist activists to categorize Asian-American, Latino, and African-Americans as all “people of color” he said, “If Democrats want to continue winning elections in states with sizable immigrant populations … they must find some coherent message that goes beyond ‘the other side is racist.’”
Given the political and cultural power of such an accusation (and the degree to which people honestly believe it), it’s hard to see hard-core partisans departing from such accusations anytime soon. But for the rest of us, we need not be so embroiled—especially because the reality is so much better. Namely this: Thoughtful, good-hearted people disagree about important matters—including within the black community. Is that so hard to admit?
If we truly care about diversity and share a desire to move forward together through the challenges ahead of us, let’s insist on appreciating, honoring, and yes, hearing from the rich diversity of all black voices.