This paradox is not just about the party’s platform. Republicans still struggle with the perception that their party is indifferent to the particular experience of blacks in America. There’s nothing exotic about black people who believe in free markets and small government, who oppose abortion, same-sex marriage, or affirmative action, whose views on immigration and foreign policy are imbued with a strong security-first mindset, or who ascribe to respectability politics and the concept of rugged individualism. They are black conservatives, and they are in ample supply. However, it is unusual to find black people who, in addition to holding these conservative principles, also oppose the Great Society-era statutes outlawing racial discrimination and deem them unnecessary, like many in the Republican Party. Taken together, black Republicans appear to espouse the party platform and accept the party’s view that structural racism does not play a role in denying black America access to today’s meritocratic society.
Black Republicans are outliers in the two camps to which they belong—the elephants in any room they enter. The friction between much of black America and the Republican Party, particularly regarding civil-rights legislation and social programs, makes the position of the black Republican all the more difficult. Recent polling provides evidence of the dissonance. For example, 66 percent of white Republicans believe blacks receive equal treatment in the criminal justice system compared to only 10 percent of blacks. On more controversial matters such as an apology for slavery and reparations, nearly 60% of black Americans support these measures whereas only 10 and 4 percent of Republicans do, respectively. Though racial polarization exists on these issues, the gap is widest between black Americans and Republicans. As a result, black Republicans find themselves as precarious conciliators between two groups that seem uninterested in reconciliation.
In short, black Republicans are perceived to be the token black person in a group of Republicans, and the token Republican in a group of black people. This sense of isolation has shaped the black Republican experience for decades. Their plight is chronicled exceptionally well in The Loneliness of the Black Republican, a new book by Harvard Kennedy School professor Leah Wright Rigueur. Her thorough examination traces the winding journey of black Republicans from the inception of the New Deal to the election of Ronald Reagan.
So why would any black person want to be Republican? It varies from person to person, but Rigueur’s work suggests the reasons fall into four rough categories. First, many inherited the political loyalty of their ancestors that supported the party of Abraham Lincoln and saw hope in the black outreach of Teddy Roosevelt. Second, others believe that economic security is the best way to secure civil rights, so their “work hard and be twice-as-good” mentality aligns well with conservative principles and policies. This may sound like prioritizing individualism over collective well-being, but it is closer to a belief that personal responsibility is the best way to achieve group progress. Third, there are those who believe a contested black electorate is the best way to empower black America, so they make the pragmatic decision to work from the Republican side. And fourth, and most interestingly, there are opportunists who choose the Republican Party because its black underrepresentation creates more attention and prospects for the few black members it does have.