Why is Colin Powell popular among blacks, while Clarence Thomas isn't? And what about Stacey Dash?
(The Root) -- This week actress Stacey Dash generated some of the greatest attention she has enjoyed in recent years. Unfortunately for her, not all of the attention was positive.
While many fans commended the actress' youthful appearance during a televised cast reunion of the classic 1995 teen film Clueless, others harshly criticized her recent endorsement of Republican presidential nominee Gov. Mitt Romney.
Wearing a red bathing suit reminiscent of the television show Baywatch and a big smile, Dash posed in front of an American flag for a photo that accompanied a tweet reading, 'Vote for Romney. The only choice for your future." Her message was retweeted thousands of times. It also generated endless insults, with some questioning her intelligence as well as her blackness. (She did receive some high-profile support from conservative pot stirrer Ann Coulter.)
Dash is not the first black American to face criticism for expressing support for conservative candidates or ideas. Black conservatives from Florida Rep. Allen West to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, as well as black Democrat-turned-Republican, and former congressman, Artur Davis, have faced particularly impassioned criticism from black Americans.
But not all black Republicans have faced allegations that their party affiliation makes them less black. The Dash backlash, therefore, raises a question that has rarely been explored: What makes some black Republicans more accepted in the black community than others?
In an interview with The Root, Tara Wall, a senior adviser to the Romney campaign, acknowledged that she relates to Stacey Dash because she, too, has received particularly pointed criticism from black Americans for being a Republican. About Dash's endorsement of her candidate, she said, "I think it's great," adding, "I think it's sad that people have been so hateful in their responses, but I can relate. I can't repeat some of the things she's been called on Twitter."
Wall said of the criticism that she has received over the years in her role as a Republican spokesperson, "You get some negative, nasty comments, but my dad raised me to have a thick skin." But Wall acknowledged that there does seem to be almost a litmus test within the black community that dictates which black Republicans are deemed more palatable to black Americans, such as Colin Powell. (A 2007 poll I conducted in conjunction with the Suffolk University Political Research Center for the book Party Crashing found Colin Powell to be the third-most-influential black American among blacks ages 18-45, just behind Oprah Winfrey and then-Sen. Barack Obama, who tied for most influential.)
Wall theorized that part of why Powell was embraced by black Americans even before his endorsement of Obama in the 2008 election was that Powell is perceived as a moderate. But in terms of whether or not there is a black-conservative litmus test, Wall said, "I don't know who is the arbiter of what kind of black Republican is an acceptable black Republican. I think it's a great question to ask Democrats. It's usually Democrats doing it [determining whether a black Republican is acceptable or not], which is quite laughable. You don't see Republicans doing that to Democrats."
Raynard Jackson, a political consultant and prominent black Republican who was chairman of President George H.W. Bush's campaign operation in St. Louis, Mo., perceives a sort of unspoken litmus test that black Republicans face within the community. According to Jackson, "The black Republicans who receive the most favorable treatment within our community are those who are actually engaged in our community. When you look at people like Mia Love, Allen West and J.C. Watts, most of these prominent black Republicans are not engaged within the black community in a significant way."
To make his point, Jackson noted that Powell had a long-standing relationship with the NAACP and the United Negro College Fund long before he became one of the GOP's most celebrated faces. "Everyone knew where Colin Powell's heart was when it came to helping our community. Even though there are issues on which he disagrees with the NAACP, they knew that ultimately he shared the same goals with them, which is to make a difference in our community for the better."
Jackson added that Powell's willingness to speak openly about the importance of issues like diversity within the Foreign Service when he became secretary of state reinforced the notion that regardless of his party label, he was on the right side of issues of importance to black Americans. Powell famously broke with the Bush administration over its position on affirmative action, which he supports. Jackson does, too. He and Powell are not alone among black Republicans.
Former Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele also supports affirmative action and said that in some ways that issue has become the ultimate litmus test for black Republicans within the black community. Steele, who is now a political analyst for MSNBC, noted that he garnered nearly 30 percent of the black vote during his run for the U.S. Senate in Maryland (data I included in Party Crashing). That number stands in stark contrast to polls showing that Romney is likely to earn less than 1 percent of the black vote in this presidential election.
Steele noted that many minorities, including himself and other Republicans, have benefited from affirmative action. Therefore, when black Republicans oppose such measures, it often infuriates other black Americans. "People resent you denying that aspect of your success. You can't deny that reality."
To Steele's point, Justice Thomas, who was appointed during a Republican administration, has been a particularly attractive target of unrelenting criticism from black Americans. Thomas opposes affirmative action, yet many speculate that his race could have been a consideration in his own career advancement, including his appointment to the Supreme Court. (He has acknowledged mentioning his race on his application to Yale Law School, to which he was admitted.)
Steele said that with affirmative action back before the Supreme Court, particularly in a presidential election year, it is likely to re-emerge as a defining sociopolitical issue, especially for communities of color. As such, its status as a sort of political litmus test or "identifier," as Steele calls it, is likely to grow.
"We are a community that looks at how you argue for us or against us," Steele said. "It's largely how you connect with the community and how you articulate what is happening to the community in the context of your conservatism."
Brandon Andrews, a 26-year-old black conservative, echoed this sentiment. Andrews is somewhat of an anomaly: a Republican aide on Capitol Hill who is also a political-action chair for the NAACP. He is helping to lead the civil rights organization's voter-registration efforts in Washington, D.C.
Andrews explained that he has been warmly embraced by African Americans in the D.C. area, many of whom may not share his party affiliation but do share his commitment to community activism. Ultimately, "People know me as a community volunteer first, not a Republican," he said. "As a young politico, it is easy to get caught up in doing something for one party or the other, but I think I'd be doing an injustice to the community if I spent more time phone-banking for a candidate than registering voters in the community that candidate is running in."
Andrews cares about issues like having a strong military and more efficient government, but because people know he cares about social justice, too, and has consistently demonstrated that fact, it doesn't seem to faze them that he may not share their views on other issues or their party label.
Stephen Lackey, a 32-year-old Republican fundraiser who is black, shared similar experiences. "For me, I've been embraced by the community, and it's because I'm seen in the community as someone who cares about the black community, period. My ideals and the way I do my work [come] from the conservative agenda, but the work remains the same."
Raynard Jackson, who is a veteran of a number of GOP state and national campaigns, argued that until Republicans, black and white, confront the party's issues with race, black Republicans will continue to face suspicion within the community. For instance, he said that Romney surrogate and former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu's recent comments calling President Obama "lazy" were racist, and he should be fired from the Romney campaign. "I won't vote for the Republican ticket if Sununu is not terminated for that," Jackson said.
He also lamented that "Republicans get themselves in trouble when they talk about this Pollyanna idea about being 'colorblind.' If someone can't see that I'm black, then they need to go to my eye doctor, because they have a medical issue. You should see me for who I am but not treat me [as inferior] because of it."
Steele pointed out that it was a Republican president and an African-American Republican appointee who helped shepherd the first government-sanctioned affirmative action programs decades ago. Arthur Fletcher, called the father of affirmative action, was an appointee serving in the administration of President Richard Nixon.
Now, years later, affirmative action could be dealt a fatal blow with the help of another black Republican, the Supreme Court's Thomas. That would be an outcome that Steele doesn't believe will be good for America or black Republicans. "There are people who believe my skin color has nothing to do with my success," Steele said. "That may be true, but skin color can damn sure affect who is successful."
Joe Watkins, a former White House aide to President George H.W. Bush, explained that the whole notion of a litmus test really boils down to one thing. Noting that black viewers were always very kind to him while he was a conservative political commentator for MSNBC during the 2008 election, he said, "If they think you're reasonable, people will be reasonable. If people think your positions are unreasonable or you are unreasonable in terms of how you present them, then they treat you different."
Watkins added, "If people think you have love in your heart for all people, particularly your own people, black people -- even if they disagree with you -- regardless of your party, they will at least listen to you."
Keli Goff is The Root's political correspondent.