Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway, I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and for the rest of hour we're going to talk about, and with Black Republicans. We want to get past the simple headlines and the noisy nonsense and really contend with the complicated position of being both Black and Republican.
We start by talking with Leah Wright Rigueur, historian, and author of the book The Loneliness of the Black Republican. In her book, Leah writes about how Black Republicans are often disparaged as racially inauthentic or traitorous. We ask her to reflect on the reasons why both fair and unfair.
Leah Wright Rigueur: The biggest reason for the distrust between Black people and Black Republicans is because of Black Republicans' political affiliation. By and large, the way that we can understand Black Republicans just from a really basic perspective is that they are racial minorities in their political party, and they are political minorities within their racial community.
That political minority within their racial community is really, really important, because African-Americans, Black people, Black voters as a whole do not trust the Republican Party. Historically they have not trusted the Republican Party since really the 1964 political election. That's because, because through various incidents, through policies, through statements, rhetoric, what have you, so very real, but also I think rhetorical reasons, Black people have learned that Republicans are not trustworthy. They've also watched and protested quite loudly when Republicans have taken anti-civil rights views.
Those are, I think, the very real reasons and the very valid reasons that African-Americans would be suspicious of Black Republicans. There are all of these sayings where Black people will say things like, "Being a Black Republican makes no sense." It's akin to the leopards ate my face kind of a thing, but essentially it doesn't make sense because of the Republicans' very real anti-civil rights position.
Where Republicans, particularly in the last 40 years, have taken positions that have put them at odds with whether it be a pro-Black agenda, whether it be a pro-civil rights agenda, but where Republicans have taken very real positions against those spaces in ways that are detrimental to Black voters.
Now, I think some of the ways that this might be unfair, some of the unfair rationale is that amongst Black people, amongst Black political participants, we know that Black people have extremely nuanced, extremely diverse, extremely wide variable views. They run the gamut of the political and ideological spectrum. I think when we then look at Black Republicans and we say, "Well, that doesn't make any sense for them to politically affiliate with the Republican Party," that's actually, I think, an unfair position, because we know that ideologically there are Black people that hold positions that lineup, almost perfectly, with what we would consider either conservatism or the conservatism that is espoused by the Republican Party, past and present.
The very thing, the association with the institution of the Republican Party is what makes people suspicious of Black Republicans. Rightfully so, but at the same time, we know that there are a lot of Black people within the community that hold these very same positions although they don't publicly affiliate with the institution of the GOP.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We ask Leah whether Black Republicans tend to see themselves as loyal partisans or as outsiders within seeking to challenge the party establishment.
Leah Wright Rigueur: It's a little bit more complicated than a binary would make it seem. That in fact, you can find Black Republicans who are deeply ideological across all of the boundaries of the contemporary Republican Party. Anti-communist, anti-abortion rights, or some of them will say pro-life, deeply religious pro-capitalist sentiment.
We find all of these checkmarks that line up with the contemporary Republican Party in some respects. That's what I would call an ideological or dogmatic Black Republican, but we also find a number of Black Republicans who work within the Republican Party or work with the Republican Party or affiliate as Republicans who see themselves as outsiders whose job is essentially to push the Republican Party in the direction that they need it to go into.
There are a number of scholars who work on this subject matter. I think Corey Fields is an example of someone who has done really interesting work on this topic. These are what Corey would define as race-conscious Black Republicans. In that, it really does matter this idea of what the Black community thinks of, what they need, what they want, this idea of an agenda that incorporates civil rights and African-American and Black needs essential to their understanding of what their role is in the Republican Party.
Even though they might be ideologically in sync with the Republican Party on a number of issues, and you do have to be in sync with them on a number of issues in order to take that step of affiliating, we still see that race consciousness, and advocating for racial civil rights and things of that nature is still central to their argument of how they work within the party.
Then, of course, there are Black Republicans who we might say are completely just, they're opportunists. The kind of, I think we might call the shine that you get by affiliating with the Republican Party, the race to achieve that shine is much shorter than the race to achieve preeminence or prominence within the Democratic Party. That's simply a numbers issue.
There are far fewer Black people within the Republican Party than there are Black people in the Democratic Party. The ladder by which you gain perhaps influence, attention, shine is much, much shorter than the ladder that Black people that are working within the Democratic Party have to go through.
On some people, I think this kind of opportunism certainly has different dimensions. I think we can turn on the news. You can turn on cultural elements of television, and we can see that there, but then the thing that I want to point out here too though, is that one of the reasons it is very difficult to see this nuanced or complicated view of Black Republicans or Black people in the Republican Party right now, is that the party doesn't reward dissent. It doesn't reward criticism.
Black Republicans that critique the Republican Party particularly now, but historically this has always been true, will never get the same kind of platform as Black Republicans that stand firm with whatever the party standard-bearer says.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This week, California Governor Gavin Newsome easily defeated a recall challenge. That doesn't mean his main competitor, a conservative talk radio host Larry Elder plans to receive until the California sunset. Elder didn't win, but he emerged as the top choice of pro-recall voters. Let's just say some of us here at The Takeaway suspect he might be looking for an apartment in Iowa if you know what I mean.
Now, Elder is a member of a small group. A group often maligned and misunderstood, a group of some pretty outrageous characters taking up a lot of public space. No, not conservative talk radio hosts, contemporary Black Republicans. Let's start with a little history. After the end of the civil war, virtually all Black men identified with the Republican Party. This was the party of Lincoln and of reconstruction. When 19th-century Black men cast their first ballots and held their first offices in this country, it was in a Republican Party that had defeated Dixie. To have Black southerners who wanted to be Democrats, they would have found it impossible because they were banned from participating in the party.
This is the legacy that former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice points to when she talks about growing up in Alabama in a Black Republican household. Here she is talking with MSNBC's Al Sharpton back in 2013.
Condoleezza Rice: Then my father big, tall, dark-skinned man rather imposing, the pole tester said to him, pointing to a jar about this high, "How many beans are in this jar?" Now when my dad couldn't answer, of course, he failed the poll test. He was very despondent about this when it was around his church, this elder of his said, man, who named Frank Hunter said, "Reverend, don't, you worry about it. I'm going to tell you how you get registered to vote."
He said, "We're going to go down, back down there." He said, "Now, there's a clerk down there, and she's actually a Republican. If you'll just say you're Republican, she'll register you, because she wants to get as many Republicans as she can." He went down and he said it was a Republican. She registered him and he stayed true to his word and he was a Republican the rest of his life.
Melissa Harris-Perry: But today's Democrats and Republicans are not the same as the 19th-century version. Beginning with FDR's new deal in the 1930s, Black people in the urban centers of the Northeast and Midwest, begin to move into the Democratic column. The partisan move was solidified in 1965 when Southern Democrat President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. That was when Black folks reentered the electorate after 80 years of Jim Crow disenfranchisement, and they did so primarily as Democrats. Here's Martin Luther King in 1965.
Martin Luther King: I congratulated the president for the passage of the new voting bill knowing that he had worked so passionately and unrelentingly for this bill and made a direct clear to him that this would be a great step forward in removing all of the remaining obstacles to the right to vote.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Still, Black people are not a monolith. In most presidential elections for the past 50 years, the Republican candidate has earned between 8 and 12% of the African-American vote. The first Black secretary of state was Republican Colin Powell. The second was Republican Condi Rice. The first Black Lieutenant governor of Maryland was Republican Michael Steele. First Black US Senator of South Carolina is Republican Tim Scott, and the first Black person to represent Utah in the House of Representatives was Republican Mia Love.
Love or hate him, Black Republicans are part of this story of America. Here, with more are Joe Watkins, host of State of Independence and former aid to President George H. W. Bush. Welcome, Joe.
Joe Watkins: Hey how are you, Melissa?
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm great, and also Ron Christie, former special assistant to President George H. W. Bush and a Republican strategist. Welcome, Ron.
Ron Christie: Always pleasure, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Joe, are you feeling like a museum object? I just did a whole lot of analysis of a category to which you belong being a Black Republican.
Joe Watkins: I'm so old, Melissa, that I actually joined the Republican Party because of what they were doing in the 1940s and '50s for civil rights. All those Republican senators were the people that supported Lyndon Johnson to get the Civil Rights Act approved in 1964 and then Voting Rights in '65 and Fair Housing after that. That's what prompted me to join the Republican Party in the 1970s as a young person was that history. All Republicans are not the same, of course, we know that, just as all Democrats aren't the same.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's an interesting point, Joe, and Ron, I think to that same point, in this moment for whatever reason you joined the Republican Party, are you feeling like it's the same Republican Party?
Ron Christie: I would say in the era of Trump but we have just left. Many Republicans felt that they were conservatives without a party. In other words, it became the personification of Trump rather than the personification of the Republican Party. The Republican Party that Joe and I joined stood for a strong national defense, stood for values, stood for the civil rights issue in the United States being the value of an education.
I don't feel alienated post-Trump of the Republican Party but certainly, the Republicans have a lot of rebuilding to do if they want to get the trust and respect of voters regardless of their race to join our ranks.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ron, let me just push on that a little bit. Given that Larry Elder was the standard-bearer in the California moment in this recall, are we in the post-Trump era yet or still like the residual Trump era?
Ron Christie: I think the residual Trump era. One thing most of your listeners have to understand is that the question was shall the governor be recalled? Yes or no? If yes, then who should the candidate be? Much in the media has been out there saying, "Oh, it's Larry Elder against Governor Newsome." No, it's "Shall the governor be recalled," and it just so happens that Larry Elder was the one who had the most, by way of percentage, of votes behind him but this isn't a Larry Elder representing all Black Republicans. This is Larry Elder trying to unseat an unpopular governor in my beloved home state.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Of course, Joe, there wasn't a Republican primary, Republican voters didn't choose Elder in a set of debates and that kind of thing. Let me ask you the same question about whether we're in the post-Trump era yet and whether or not you think Black Republicans might be part of moving the party that you joined back into that party.
Joe Watkins: I think, Ron Christie had it right on point. It's still residual I would say, and I think it's yet unseen as to what we'll do going forward, Black Republicans will do, how they'll vote. How many Blacks will be elected to House seats or US Senate seats or governor seats in the coming cycle?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ron, I want to come to you on what happened with Clarence Thomas after his speech on Thursday. It was reported on because it's fascinating to me to see not only a critique ideologically, which I think is fair. One can have those disagreements but also a racial critique. A critique that he does not represent Black people and is basically traitorous or inauthentic.
Ron Christie: It always astounds me, Melissa, when you hear people say Clarence Thomas as opposed to Associate Justice Thomas who, as you pointed out, is the longest-serving justice in the Supreme court right now. He doesn't represent a race, he represents an ideology and a return to contextualism, and the idea that people would attack him because of his race on Twitter shows you how far we have to come to achieve Dr. King's dream of basing people on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.
He is conservative. Joe and I, my friend, are conservative but we look at what the constitution says based on the law and facts rather than how one should vote based on the color of their skin.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Joe, I want to respond to Ron here because I know that sometimes what happens when we hear that language especially with the deployment of King, is that you can-- a lot of times, progressives, I'm one of them, will bristle a bit and say, "Hey, yes, I hear you, but Dr. King said that about content of their character while trying to change laws and policy and actually trying to create more protective capacity for Black folks who hadn't ever been judged that way to actually move through the world and into the American dream." I'm wondering how you respond to that?
Joe Watkins: I'm old enough to be able to say that I was friendly. I got to be friendly, in his later years, with Dr. King's father. Martin Luther King Sr who, for the most part, was Republican for much of his life voted with the Republican Party. Dr. King Jr was somebody who worked with elected officials without regard to political party to move forward the agenda, the level of playing field for Black people in America. He wasn't a partisan politician as such. He was just trying to get things done.
Of course in today's world especially with so many of his lieutenants Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young becoming a more partisan and being involved with the Democratic Party, King's legacy has now tilted to make him into a Democrat but at the end of the day Martin King was about the cause of Black people. He was non-partisan and he was happy to work with Republicans like those Republicans that got the Civil Rights Bill passed and the Voting Right Bill passed as well as Democrats.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ron, I'm wondering what's the basis on which one could have an actual fair argument talking about public policies and whether not they are generally good or generally bad for Black communities. I feel like we could roll out empirical data around economic growth under Democratic presidents versus Republican presidents or we can look at family structures whatever those structures are, whatever those measures are. What do you think is the appropriate basis for having that argument rather than like a racial authenticity argument?
Ron Christie: I always approach these types of discussions with facts and evidence. The fact is whether you liked Donald Trump or not, you can look back to the year that I was born in 1969 and you've never seen Black unemployment as low as it was during his administration, not George W. Bush or H.W Bush or Barack Obama but Donald Trump. Why is that? How is that? Could it have to be something along the lines that we reduced taxes that reduced regulatory burdens on people and allowed people to earn more and decide how they wanted to spend money as opposed to how government wants to dictate to them how their money should be spent?
It's things like this, Melissa, that I think that move beyond race and you talk strictly about, again, facts and evidence. The fact is that Republicans believe that people should have more personal freedom and the opportunity to use that wealth and Democrats by and large believe that the government should dictate how that should be spent. That's not a racial argument, that is a ideological one that often gets lost in these racial discussions.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Trump is a difficult one though, or President Trump is a difficult one though I want to suggest because on the one hand, I'd be happy to have that argument and not just an argument but actually I agree that the libertarian impulse the impulse towards freedom. The impulse towards actually throwing the government off a little bit is one that's very strong within Black communities but then there's also the racial language and the reality of increased hate crimes under President Trump.
I don't know that I want to trade off more jobs and higher pay for feeling insecure or living in a world that feels like it is rhetorically attacking me. Joe, how can we hold accountable those racist aspects at the same time having a reasonable discourse about the economic questions?
Joe Watkins: I think it's useful to have a discourse on how we move forward. Obviously, one of the issues has to do with policing and I was very open about this on CNBC. I talked about the need for police reform and how it can be done and conservative Think Tanks, as well as some non-conservative Think Tanks have spoken very eloquently about how there can be police reform so that people of color aren't unfairly targeted, and this can be done, but it's very easy to assign what's happening to a president, what's happening in the society to a president.
I think it's just a bigger conversation. I think that it has to do with all the people that we elect to office. In a perfect world, we would have term limits as far as I'm concerned, so that nobody would be a lifelong politician, people would just serve for a few years and then go back to doing whatever it is they do. At the end of the day, all of our elected officials, our members of Congress, our senators need to engage in a conversation about how we move this country forward and over and above the issue of race.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Look at that, Joe Watkins and I have a meaningful agreement on a public policy. I'm a pretty big fan of term limits myself. As always, I so appreciate conversations with both of you, and I'll hope you'll come back and continue to have more. Ron Christie and Joe Watkins, thank you both for joining us.
Joe Watkins: Great, Melissa.
Ron Christie: Great to be with you.
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