What My Mother Taught Me About Black Conservatives

Her viewpoint isn’t uncommon. It’s just widely overlooked.

Two Black women stand in a church among other parishioners.
Ashley Gilbertson / VII / Redu​x

In 2004, my mother accompanied me to Long Beach, California, for the United States Olympic swimming trials. I was going to be covering the Athens Summer Olympics for the Detroit Free Press that year, and I was sent to the trials to write about a young phenom named Michael Phelps, who went on to become the greatest American swimmer in history and one of the most decorated Olympians of all time.

I knew my mother would enjoy the trials because of her deep passion for swimming. She loves the water. She had been a swimmer as a child and had even dreamed of becoming an Olympian herself. She later became a certified lifeguard and worked for the YMCA and the Oakland Community Center. Even when she was struggling with addiction during my childhood, my mother would occasionally splurge on a health-club membership just to have access to a pool.

Book cover of Jemele Hill's memoir "Uphill."
This article is adapted from Hill’s forthcoming book.

One night in Long Beach, we stayed up late, passionately arguing about whether former President George W. Bush had lied about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction to justify his decision to invade in 2003. She didn’t think so. I was extremely critical of Bush—I would eventually be proved right about how he misled the American public—and neither my mother nor I backed down that night.

Politically, my mother and I are polar opposites. Although my mother doesn’t like being labeled a Christian conservative, she is more than comfortable calling me a liberal. To me, both labels seem appropriate. However, my mother explains that her political views stem from what she calls a “biblical worldview.” My mother is pro-life, despite raising a daughter who had an abortion. She has told me for years that, as a Christian, she would be going against God if she voted for any candidate who supported a woman’s right to an abortion.

My mother’s point of view, though not uncommon among Black people, is widely overlooked in American politics today. Black people aren’t necessarily turned off by conservative ideas. But many of us are turned off by a party that seems to willingly embrace blatant racism and anti-Blackness.

However much I disagree with my mother, I admire the way she has stuck to her principles. We all make bargains when voting, because so many politicians have serious flaws. So I wasn’t all that surprised when my mother seemed to be buying some of Trump’s misleading and divisive rhetoric during his 2016 presidential campaign. I was, however, disappointed. Trump’s relationship with Christian evangelicals is one of convenience. He was more than happy to entrench himself in their community in exchange for their loyalty and support. He gave them what they wanted: Supreme Court justices who would undo Roe v. Wade. He facilitated an environment in which religious-liberty protections would allow people to openly discriminate against LGBTQ people. And he created an atmosphere in which evangelicals felt entitled to openly be bigots.

I wouldn’t consider my mother to be part of the far-right, extremist Christian movement. And I can’t ignore what so many Christians in America are willing to tolerate and excuse for their religion. Many didn’t just eagerly overlook Trump’s racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and abject cruelty; they took things a step further and deified Trump. Paula White, an immensely popular but controversial evangelical who served as Trump’s spiritual adviser when he was in the White House, called her work with Trump “an assignment from God.” The pastor Jeremiah Johnson became known as the “Trump prophet” for proclaiming that Trump would be reelected in 2020. The morning after his loss, Johnson sent out a letter to his mailing list claiming that he and a “chorus of mature and tested prophets” had been assured by God that Trump would be victorious. “Either a lying spirit has filled the mouths of numerous trusted prophetic voices in America,” he wrote to his followers, “or Donald J. Trump really has won the Presidency and we are witnessing a diabolical and evil plan unfold to steal the Election. I believe with all my heart that the latter is true.”(Johnson later apologized for his remarks and temporarily shut down his ministry.)

With all of this in mind, I know many people are surprised to learn that a 60-something Black woman would be susceptible to Trump’s message. But I have learned through many conversations with my mother—some of which were not so pleasant—that Trump’s appeal fed off of the disappointment that some people her age feel about younger Americans.

My mother thinks that “this generation”—a broad category that includes my fellow Gen Xers and me—is soft, entitled, irresponsible, and too politically correct. She believes that we have squandered the gains made by the civil-rights generation. My mother was among those who cheered on Bill Cosby as he lectured Black people about personal responsibility before his own fall from grace. During his infamous “pound cake” speech, which he delivered at the NAACP event commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, Cosby hit every point on the respectability-politics bingo card. He not only suggested that Black women who get pregnant out of wedlock should be ashamed, but he also criticized women for having “five or six different children” from “eight, 10 different husbands, or whatever”: “Pretty soon,” he joked, “you’re going to have to have DNA cards so you can tell who you’re making love to.” He also scoffed at Black parents who give their children overly ethnic names and took a swipe at “people with their hat on backwards, pants down around the crack.”

Cosby had created classic television series, including The Cosby Show and A Different World, that portrayed Black characters in positive ways. Yet his speech showed a simmering hatred for certain Black people, reducing many of us to the worst, lowest-common-denominator stereotypes. My mother is not quite so harsh, but she does gravitate toward respectability politics—she always has, as have many other members of my family. Thus, I’m always amused when white people try to paint the entire Black community as liberal and lecture us on personal responsibility, as if Black people haven’t heard Cosby-like messages on repeat in our homes, churches, and schools for our entire lives.

To be clear, my mother was never a member of the Trump cult. She never wore MAGA apparel. She certainly never rejected Black people or her Blackness. She is proud to be a Black woman. However, she was initially drawn to Trump’s no-nonsense delivery, his alleged business acumen, his “drain the swamp” nonsense, and, most of all, his choice to run as an anti-abortion candidate. Never mind that he had proudly claimed to be “pro-choice in every respect” during a 1999 interview with the legendary NBC anchor Tim Russert on Meet the Press: “I hate the concept of abortion … but I still believe in choice.”

Although I am loath to give Trump credit for anything, he’s always been good at marketing himself. His messages are cringeworthy, but he knows how to deliver them effectively.

Unlike my mother, I recognized Trump as a racist con man from the start. In 2017, about a month after a deadly white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, I criticized him on social media—which got me in trouble with my then-employer, ESPN. Considering our heated debate in Long Beach, my mother can’t have been surprised that, even as my professional life exploded because of my comments, I never backed down. Trump wasn’t the first president about whom history proved me right.

This article is adapted from Hill’s forthcoming book, Uphill: A Memoir.

By Jemele Hill

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