A candid admission here. For years I’ve had a suspicion about the “conservative Black Republican.” The question I’d grappled with is, based on everything I’d come to understand, how on earth would an African American want to align themselves with a party that has a history and policies that I find abhorrent?
“Uncle Tom,” “sellout,” “race traitor,” are among the typical monikers Black conservatives often get tagged with. Count Supreme Court judge Clarence Thomas (above), Hershel Walker and South Carolina senator Tim Scott among today’s frequent recipients. Which brings us to another little-known Black conservative…Shelby Steele.
In his long 1999 article, “The Loneliness of the Black Conservative,” Steele wrote on the price that he and others like him have paid for their convictions as Black Conservatives.
“Today a public “black conservative” will surely meet a stunning amount of animus, demonization, misunderstanding, and flat-out, undifferentiated contempt,” he wrote back then. “And there is a kind of licensing process involved here in which the black leadership—normally protective even of people like Marion Barry and O. J. Simpson—licenses blacks and whites to have contempt for the black conservative. It is a part of the group’s manipulation of shame to let certain of its members languish outside the perimeter of group protection where even politically correct whites (who normally repress criticism of blacks) can show contempt for them.”
If we fast forward Steele’s article to today, many Black Conservatives will echo some of those sentiments based on their experiences.
So what this narrative will attempt to do is set aside the labels and offer a closer look at the “Black conservative.” It also will call out those who have owned the headlines and hijacked the truth about the majority of those who self-identify as Black conservative, many of whom remain discrete out of fear of being called an “Uncle Tom,” often from their own community.
First, what is Black Conservatism and what is a Black conservative?
Black conservatism is a political and social philosophy rooted in communities of African descent that aligns largely with the conservative ideology around the world. Black conservatism emphasizes traditionalism, patriotism, self-sufficiency, and strong cultural and social conservatism within the context of the Black church. In the United States it is often, but not exclusively, associated with the Republican Party.
Pew Research Center polling found that the percentage of African-Americans who identify as Democratic has declined in recent years, from 75% during Barack Obama‘s presidency to 67% in 2020. However, a 2017 sample size of 10,245 voters concluded that just 8% of African-Americans identify as Republican. Why Black men voted at a higher rate for former president Donald Trump than Black women during the last election led to considerable speculation and hot debate.
Wrote Steele, “a Black conservative is a Black person who dissents from the victimization explanation of Black fate when it is offered as a totalism—when it is made the main theme of group identity and the raison d’être of a group politics.”
Now of course as in any group, it’s patently unfair to broadly define and categorize the Black conservative. That fails to individualize members who may have different views from other conservatives and those who are turned off by their clownish portrayals in the media.
Recently, in his “The GOP’s New Stars,” commentator Elie Mystal starts out with, “I don’t agree with Black Republicans. I think that they are wrong on policy prescriptions for Americans.” A paragraph down he writes, “But I can respect Black Republicans. I can recognize Black Republican scholars and politicians as legitimate thinkers who have something to add to the American political discourse. Rank and file Black Republicans are not “race traitors.”
However, the problem, says Mystal, is that the GOP has decided to make people like Hershel Walker, Candace Owens, Larry Elder and Kanye West the “faces” of Black conservatism in America. His point is quite valid.
“That tells you more about how the Republican party thinks about Black people than it does about the few Black people who have decided to play into the party’s unending desire for minstrels.”
Which brings us to the late general Colin Powell who was a moderate Republican from until 2021, when he became an independent following the January 6 United States Capitol attack. Thanks to General Powell, my thinking about Republicans changed to viewing the likes of Walker, Owens, Elder, et al as convenient outliers, not true Black conservatives.
General Powell was one of the most prominent Black Republicans in the history of American politics. In 2016 he denounced the “nastiness” of the 2016 Republican primaries during an interview on CBS This Morning, comparing the race to reality television and stated that the campaign had gone “into the mud.”
Unfortunately, today’s caricature images of the Black conversative Republican – Walker, Owens, Diamond and Silk – have drowned out the image of Powell and other true Black conservatives in the contemporary world; those with values I agree with.
In the end, on whatever side you stand – Black Republican or Black Democrat – the opportunity is to move from debate to respectful dialogue. If we stop duking out our differences on YouTube, Fox News, MSNBC and CNN, we can peel back the proverbial onion with each other in one-on-one interactions. It’s there where we will discover points of commonalities, shared ambitions and building blocks and how we may get there.
© Terry Howard is an award-winning speaker, writer, and storyteller. He is also a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report, The Douglas County Sentinel, Blackmarket.com, co-founder of the “26 Tiny Paint Brushes” writers’ guild, recipient of the 2019 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Award, and third place winner of the 2022 Georgia Press Award.