It’s Hard Out There for (Young) Black Members of the GOP
African American conservatives dispute myths that the Republican Party has no real draws for them
“I’m not a zero,” declared former presidential candidate Herman Cain, arguably the nation’s most famous and most charismatic black Republican.
Here, Cain, an opponent-turned-supporter of current party nominee Mitt Romney, isn’t responding to a direct insult. It’s clear, however, that he and other African American Republicans, young and old, are fed up with what they call media-perpetuated – er, “Democrat Machine” -perpetuated -- notions that the Grand Old Party has no real draw for blacks.
Despite its being the party that fought for the abolition of U.S. slavery, African Americans generally aren’t fans of the Republican Party. According to a survey by the American National Election Studies, nine out of 10 Republicans are white.
How then does that poll account for Cain, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Congressional candidate Mia Love or former Democratic Congressman Artur Davis? (The last three were part of a diverse lineup of primetime speakers at this week’s Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.)
Surely, they aren’t zeroes. And neither is 22-year-old Regent University graduate student Rushad Thomas who, judging from his response, seemed to have been asked far more than once to justify his support for Romney as young black man.
He’s a recent convert, he says.
“I voted for Obama [in 2008] because he was black and not because I agreed with him on policy issues,” Thomas said with a chuckle. “Everyone makes mistakes. I will be doing mea culpas for years.”
Thomas, a devout Catholic and a fiercely pro-small government and pro-life conservative, was already on the fence about his support for the Democratic Party at age 19. He believes polls purporting that people like him don’t exist are part of a concerted effort to divide America.
“I think a part of the [polling] helps perpetuate a false narrative that all black voters are Democratic,” Thomas said. “The media tends to buy into clichés.”
One thousand registered voters were surveyed by the public opinion polling firm, Hart Research Associates, for the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. According to the survey report, most of the respondents were white (74 percent). Blacks made up 12 percent of respondents.
Historically, abolitionists and civil rights movement icons had ties to, or were members of the Republican Party, when the party's platform aligned more with black and brown aspirations for freedom and equal opportunity. Over time, far right conservatives drove some blacks out of the party (and black Democrats further to the left) with "red meat" rhetoric demonizing minorities, which many have interpreted as racially motivated.
Thomas, a volunteer for the Romney-Ryan campaign in Norfolk, Va. where he attends school, says he isn’t one that believes racism doesn’t still play a role in the politics of both major parties. If he were pitching the GOP to his black Democratic peers, he’d point to the party’s belief that people need to make a way for themselves.
Sometimes that pitch can fall of deaf ears. Crystal Wright, a Washington, D.C.-based communications professional and the founder of the political blog “Conservative Black Chick,” says black and white Democrats have been quick to label her a traitor to her race because she is a young, black, female and a registered Republican.
"When are black people going to be outraged about how the liberal media talks to and about us as if we were little children?" Wright asked during a telephone interview from Tampa. "I take great offense to [the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.] Do you think white people would allow someone to dictate their narrative that way?"
"[Blacks are] not a monolithic group that lives in a chocolate pint of ice cream," Wright added.
Neither Wright nor Thomas downplayed the historical significance of Obama becoming the nation’s first African American president. Both feel they should be able to appreciate Obama’s accomplishment and still desire a commander-in-chief who aligns with their own beliefs.
“I think a lot of us have felt a sense of exasperation on both sides of the conversation,” Thomas said. “Maybe right now [African Americans] feel like the Republicans aren’t listening to us. In order to hasten us to that place, where people are judged on the content of their character and not the color of their skin, as Dr. King said, we have to stop thinking about each other purely in the terms of race.”
Near the close of her speech to the RNC on Wednesday night, Condoleezza Rice reminded convention attendees that African American Republicans haven't forgotten the hard fought battles to ensure that some could reach heights thought to be improbable even a few decades ago.
“And on a personal note, a little girl grows up in Jim Crow, Birmingham (Ala.), the segregated city of the South, where her parents can’t take her to the movie theater or to a restaurant,” Rice recalled. “But they have her absolutely convinced that even though she can’t have a hamburger at the Woolworth’s counter, she could be president of the United States if she wanted to be, and she becomes the Secretary of State.”