David Remnick: The Republican party has made it very clear that it has no place for Black activism. At every level, leaders of the party demonize the Black Lives Matter movement in what they characterize as the teaching of critical race theory in the schools. The GOP opposes affirmative action, and almost any effort to redress discrimination in the present.
In some quarters, simply acknowledging that racism exists is considered unpatriotic, and yet recently the Republican party has also attracted increasing numbers of Black candidates to its fold. The website 538 recently published a report that was headlined, A Record Number of Black Republicans Could Be Headed to Congress, and it cited some 80 or more candidates. That's a very stark contrast to the current statistics, two Black representatives and one single senator in the GOP. What exactly is going on?
To get some perspective, I spoke with Professor Leah Wright Rigueur, a Historian at Johns Hopkins University. She's the author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican, a book that covers the period from the new deal through the Reagan administration.
Professor, you wrote, some time ago, a book about Black Republicans. I'd love to know what is the trend among the African American community where the Republican party is concerned. We would assume, maybe wrongly, that in the wake of the Trump years that these numbers would've gone down.
Leah Wright Rigueur: That assumption rests on a couple of things. One, we are actually, I think, blinded by the partisanship of Black voters. We look at that relationship between African Americans and the Democratic party, which has been very consistent since 1964, and we say, well, the majority of African Americans vote for Democrats, so that's just the way it is.
One of the things that we have noticed, particularly since Barack Obama is no longer in office, so there's no longer a Black male president in office, that the tensions and the relationship between the Democratic party and Black voters has grown a little more tense. With that comes an increase in the number of Black non voters. People who say, "I opt out of the political process."
There comes an increase in the number of Black third-party voters. People who say, "Well, I'm going for Bernie or I'm going for Andrew Yang," or something like that. Then, of course, there comes a very small, but I think pivotal, group of Black voters who say, "You know what? I'm going to the Republican party." Again, it feels really shocking that it would happen during the era of Trumpism. I'm not going to say Donald Trump because it's bigger than Donald Trump.
It feels really surprising, and yet when you realize that the tension with the two-party system is at the root of it, it actually makes sense that in the aftermath of Barack Obama, with Black people's levels of support and warmth for the Democratic party in decline, and the belief amongst a small sect of African Americans that the Democratic party is just as racist as the Republican party, that actually frees some people up to actually vote Republican. That's what we are seeing right now in 2022.
David Remnick: See, you're describing a number of trends if I'm getting this right, which is--
Leah Wright Rigueur: Right.
David Remnick: What are the numbers?
Leah Wright Rigueur: Well, we honestly can't measure anything by the barometer of Barack Obama, because he was unique in a lot of ways. The number one way is that he motivates Black voters, but in particular Black male voters to come out in record numbers, numbers that we haven't seen since the 1965 Voting Rights Act is passed into legislation and all kinds of new Black voters come into the party.
When Barack Obama is no longer on the ticket, it changes everything. Then add to that, you put somebody like Hillary Clinton on the ticket, a certain segment of the Black community says, "Well, wait a second. This is the same person who used the infamous phrase super predators, and whose husband as president presided over the Crime Bill." What we end up seeing, of course, is a drop off in the number of people that come out for the Democratic party. I believe Hillary Clinton still gets more than 90% of the Black vote. We do see a number of African Americans who vote for the Republican candidate, in this case, Donald Trump.
David Remnick: In fact, the figures from Pew say that Black support for Trump went from 6% in the first election to 8% in 2020. Now, those might be small numbers, but still it's a little mind-boggling.
Leah Wright Rigueur: I won't say mind-boggling because it's still very much within the trend of Republican presidential candidates over the last 50, 55 years.
David Remnick: It wasn't any Republican candidate. This is Donald Trump of Charlottesville. This is Donald Trump of his immigration policies, is Donald Trump of a thousand other things that we could name all day long, and yet there was a slight increase in the Black voters.
Leah Wright Rigueur: The feelings of warmth of African Americans towards the Democratic party has been on the decline. I'll tell you what, Republican strategists understand that that matters. They may not understand why, they may not care about the meat and potatoes of it, and they may not have anything to offer those disgruntled individuals, but they sure do know how to exploit that division.
David Remnick: How would you describe the ideological diversity of the African American community and the African American voters?
Leah Wright Rigueur: Partisanship actually forces us to ignore so much of that richness of ideological diversity that exists amongst Black voters. Angela K. Lewis, about a decade ago, comes out with a book that talks about African Americans and conservatism. She says, there's such a thing as everyday conservatism that exists amongst African Americans.
David Remnick: What does that mean, everyday conservatism?
Leah Wright Rigueur: Well, it's conservatism in terms of values, belief, religion that doesn't translate into partisanship. In any given time, it fluctuates between about 20% to 33% of African Americans self-identifying as conservative. Oftentimes, you'll see Republicans who are like, "Oh, this is a natural relationship between African Americans and the Republican party." Clarence Thomas says this all the time in his speeches, but the truth is African Americans won't support candidates, in particular Republican candidates, if they believe them to be racist or not have the best interest of African Americans in mind.
David Remnick: Professor, at the last count of the Republican national committee, there were around 120 Black Republican candidates running at the state, local, and federal level, 80 of them running for Congress. Why do you think there's a record number of Black Republicans who are running for office this time around?
Leah Wright Rigueur: That is actually pretty easy, it's support from the Republican institutions. That's what's different from previous years. In the past, there have been lots and lots of Black Republicans who have run for office at every level. I think about a candidate like Kim Klacik, who raised a lot of money, I think in the millions of dollars from small donations, grassroots donations, ran to replace Elijah Cummings.
She had a viral campaign. She even ends up getting a shout-out from Donald Trump. He re-shares her commercial, but in something that really goes unnoticed, after her campaign, she complains that she gets no support from the Republican infrastructure. In fact, it is a consistent complaint that Black Republicans have really made since the 1960s. We also know, looking at internal documents from Republican institutions, that, by and large, Republicans don't like supporting Black candidates, particularly because they believe that Black candidates cannot win.
David Remnick: Even in a district like Elijah Cummings?
Leah Wright Rigueur: Black voters, if they believe that a candidate does not have their community's best interest in mind will actually punish that Black candidate more than if that candidate was white. Why do they do that? Because it feels like a betrayal. It feels like treason, racial treason.
David Remnick: When you look at a race like Georgia, the Senate race in Georgia, you have Herschel Walker who was a very good running back long ago, but I think it's fair to say that if you look at his performance as a candidate, it's been a misery. He doesn't know the issues. He says disastrous things day in and day out. It seems like a very cynical operation on many levels.
Leah Wright Rigueur: Oh, it's a very cynical operation. If Herschel Walker wins in Georgia, which he might, it won't be because of Black voters. I'll tell you why, because we can look at polling. We can look at how African Americans are talking about Herschel Walker, and they don't respect him. They don't believe that he actually has the best interest of the community in mind. They think that he's a plant, that he's propaganda.
I think actually the Republican party knows that Herschel Walker is not winning over anyone in the Black community. What they're banking on is that there will be enough white voters and non-Black voters to push Herschel Walker over the finish line. Anything that they pick up in that race in Georgia, any Black votes that they pick up in that race won't be expected.
In fact, what we see is that Black Republican candidates do well in two kinds of areas. If they are in predominantly Black areas or where Black votes matter dramatically, they do well when they avoid controversial racial topics or at least show that they have organic connections to African-American communities. The other area where they do well is in predominantly white areas that are conservative and in that respect, they don't have to do very much except echo whatever the standard bearer of the party needs them to echo.
David Remnick: The Republican party today is capable on a daily basis of stone-cold racial and racist pronouncements and only 20% of registered Republicans seem to be pushing back hard against this but he is still where he is, Donald Trump, and Trumpism will outlast Trump as you began our conversation saying, so what place is there for African Americans in the Republican party, and how will that possibly increase in such an atmosphere?
Leah Wright Rigueur: This is the irony, which is that in a moment where the party is not just going through an identity crisis, but instead has really wholeheartedly embraced white grievance politics and policy explicitly, is also the moment where they are endorsing more Black candidates than they have in really the past 25 years. Part of that, again, is about maximizing and really exploiting the opportunity that exists because of the breakdown in the relationship between the Democratic party and Black voters.
The congressional hearings on Russian interference in the 2016 election and, again, in the 2020 election have revealed that a lot of these institutions that really were employed by the Republican party pumped money into exploiting those tensions because they realized this is an opportunity and it is an opportunity of the like that we haven't seen in really years.
David Remnick: Many of the candidates who are running in predominantly white districts, Black candidates, somebody like Wesley Hunt in Texas, or John James in Michigan, what chance do they have, and what issues are they campaigning on, and how are they talking about race?
Leah Wright Rigueur: Sure. James is actually really interesting. I'll compare it again to somebody like Herschel Walker, who talks about race all the time in ways that are really alienating and off-putting as opposed to James who really seems to be far more delicate about this and about avoiding those controversial things while simply hitting the talking points of inflation, the economy. Those are things that it is easy to rally around because everyone is feeling it.
I think, in particular, when we look at polling data from across all racial groups, the thing that is consistent across these racial groups is that they care about the economy. They care about inflation, they care about jobs, and so if you're a Republican right now, you don't want to run on Roe. You don't want to run on like critical race theory because it is a much easier and far more effective strategy to simply run on the fact that right now--
David Remnick: 9% inflation.
Leah Wright Rigueur: Things cost a lot.
David Remnick: What are some of the hurdles or obstacles that Black Republicans face once they actually get in office?
Leah Wright Rigueur: It is constantly a struggle to be a racial minority in your political party, in that even if you fundamentally believe that the Republican party is doing good, it is another thing altogether to sit in those rooms with those people who have access to immense power and be treated like a second class citizen. By and large, they don't use that kind of language. It's far more careful. Although during the Trump years, I think they had to be far more outspoken and many of them ended up, I think, paying the price for that.
David Remnick: Like Mia Love.
Leah Wright Rigueur: Right, like Mia Love or Will Hurd who declines to run, and once he declines to run, that's when he starts speaking out about his experience in the party. We also know that, again, there's absolutely no reward for, I think, critiquing or offering constructive criticism for the party in the moment that is now, and I'm not even talking along racial lines. I'm saying, look at what's happening to Liz Cheney, she's a pariah. We can look at that and see that the experience is the same for Black Republicans.
Tim Scott is an interesting figure because he really has tried to walk a tightrope of holding fast to an investment in poor and Black communities. He's done a number of initiatives around this issue. He's come out on issues of criminal justice reform, a number of these issues, while also recognizing that the second that he speaks out or distances himself explicitly from his party and from the standard of Trumpism that he will be punished for that as he is right now.
David Remnick: Let's look in our crystal ball or you look at yours. How are all those Black Republican candidates going to do in 2022 in the midterms? What's your prognostication?
Leah Wright Rigueur: I'm going to go based on what has been historically true at least over the last 55 years, which is that Republicans, including Black Republicans, tend to do better during midterm elections amongst Black voters. Anything between 10% to actually 35% is completely normal during midterm elections. It is entirely possible that whoever the Republican candidate is gets 10%, 12%, even 15% of the Black vote. Anything within that framework is completely normal and to be expected.
David Remnick: Leah Wright Rigueur is a Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University.
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