In an era when “Black lives matter” has become a crucial rallying cry across the country and when African-American concern for racial inequality and discrimination hovers at extraordinary levels, it can be difficult to assess the political significance of a group as marginal as black Republicans. Only 11 percent of black people identify as or lean Republican, and in the last 50 years or so, black Republicans’ political and policy views, especially on issues connected to race, have largely placed them at odds with the mainstream of African-American political opinions.
Being a political minority among black people and a racial minority within the GOP makes for a precarious position, indeed. The recent emergence of Donald Trump as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee has destabilized black Republicans’ already shaky foundation even more. Trump is deeply unpopular among black people. According to recent surveys by Reuters, roughly 80 percent of black people view Trump unfavorably. Among black women, Trump’s disapproval rating appears to be approaching 100 percent.
Given this context, black support for Trump appears peculiar, to say the least; but at first glance, it appears that he has a following among some black audiences. To hear his black surrogates (including Ben Carson), one would think that many black voters enthusiastically support the Republican nominee. The National Black Republican Association endorsed Trump back in January, while NBCBLK diligently tracked down enthusiastic groups of black Trump supporters at rallies in March. Most recently, the National Diversity Coalition for Trump launched in April, spearheaded by a group largely composed of African Americans.
But realistically, where do black Republicans fall on the issue of Donald Trump? Much like the infamous presidential election of 1964, the 2016 contest is forcing black Republicans to define their loyalties. Writing about this exact tension more than 50 years ago, the black editors of the Los Angeles Sentinel made a ruthless but accurate observation: The election made “wishy-washy” black Republicans “take open stands on topics they had skirted or about which they had double-talked for years.”
A look at the numbers hints at this tension and indicates that black Republicans’ politics and political affiliations don’t convey simple answers, despite the boasts of Trump’s black faithful. In fact, it appears as though black Republicans are divided in their attitudes toward Trump. For example, among black people who identify as very conservative/moderately conservative/lean conservative, Trump’s unfavorability rating sits at 76 percent; among black affiliates of the Tea Party, it is 61 percent. Some of this debate has played out in public spaces like social media and cable news channels, where black Trump supporters have battled viciously with black Republicans in the #NeverTrump camp.
There’s even a level of diversity within the latter camp, with some black Republicans rejecting Trump for his racism, whereas others accuse him of not being a “true conservative.” And there are those, like Lisa Fritsch, who accuse him of both but place the blame squarely on the Republican Party for creating the conditions that produced a viable Trump candidacy. As Fritsch writes in her piece, Republicans are guilty of a kind of “paranoia that a black conservative can’t really be trusted. After all, at the end of the day, they’re still black first.”
Fritsch’s accusations capture some of the contradictions inherent in the Republican Party right now. While Trump’s rise is unprecedented, it’s not surprising, since the GOP hasn’t been the “party of Lincoln” and civil rights in more than 50 years. For some black Republicans, Trump’s rise introduces a dilemma of sorts: Substantively and aggressively tackling the problems with the Trump phenomenon would mean criticizing the party as a whole, which would also mean indicting their own politics and willingness to affiliate with the GOP. Such soul-searching also means forgoing a seat at the table (even if that seat never really existed to begin with). We see glimpses of this in Carson’s endorsement of Trump, a move that has revived the neurosurgeon’s political career and apparently has him advising the party front-runner on everything from health care to the Supreme Court to potential vice presidential running mates.
These are not new debates for black Republicans. In many ways, the infighting that is emerging among black Republicans, Trump and the GOP involves old debates that feel new because Trump has stripped away the veneer of colorblindness. We see these kinds of clashes in the aftermath of the 1964 presidential election, when Jackie Robinson launched the National Negro Republican Assembly, and years later with the creation of groups like the Council of 100 and the National Black Republican Council. We see flashes of it whenever Colin Powell berates the GOP for its “race problem.”
But in 2016, there is no organized or institutionalized black Republican response as there was in 1964 or 1974; nor are there loud and public individual responses from black Republican leaders like Robinson, Edward Brooke, Arthur Fletcher and others. The glaring silence among various black Republicans may be strategic, but it is also conspicuous. One only wonders how prominent black Republican figures like Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, Rep. Mia Love of Utah and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will eventually react to their party’s nominee, or whether their silence is simply a statement in and of itself.
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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. Her research and commentary have been featured on PBS, CNN, CBS, NPR, MSNBC and the Washington Post. Follow Wright Rigueur on Twitter and at her website.