by Corey D. Fields, author of Black Elephants in the Room: The Unexpected Politics of African American Republicans
The 2020 Republican National Convention featured a diverse line-up of speakers, including many Black speakers who trumpeted the Republican Party and its presidential nominee Donald Trump. Unsurprisingly, these speakers received a mixed response. Some questioned whether this outreach would be effective with black voters. Others thought the efforts were thinly veiled attempts to convince white voters that the party wasn’t racist. Either way, the convention was yet another reflection of how the face of Black conservatives has shifted under the Trump administration. Diamond and Silk have replaced Mia Love. Sheriff David Clarke is more relevant than General Colin Powell. Candace Owens has supplanted Condoleezza Rice. Internet celebrities have taken the place of the legislators, military leaders, and judges who used to stand in as the “face” of Black Republicans.
The selection of these speakers and the response to them reflects many of the themes I found in my own research on Black Republicans for my book, Black Elephants in the Room. In particular, two related phenomena frequently mentioned by the people I studied help make sense of the reaction to this year’s convention speakers: the sellout critique and the skeptical embrace.
According to the sellout critique, Republican partisanship calls into question the racial legitimacy of Black Republicans. As a group, they are perceived as working counter to the collective interests of African Americans. Every African American Republican I spoke with for my book recounted an experience where their partisan identification was used to question their racial loyalty. The questioning mostly came from other Black people, but white liberals also invoked the sellout critique. Many of the responses to the Black convention speakers this year framed them in relation to the primarily Democratic Black electorate.
But this questioning of Black Republicans’ connection to the broader Black community is not only part of the sellout critique. The African American Republicans in my study often complained that concerns about their racial identity resulted in a skeptical embrace from white Republicans. On the one hand, white Republicans are eager to have Black Representation in the GOP. On the other hand, there is a perception that Black racial identity will take precedence over partisanship. Black Republicans reported feeling like they have to constantly prove their “conservative bona fides” to their white Republican counterparts. This is especially important to note because Black Republicans rely on gatekeepers within the GOP to provide a platform and resources. White skepticism within the GOP shapes how Black Republicans who spoke at the convention get to talk about their racial identity and how they frame conservative social policy.
As an example, the Black Republicans I interviewed described being screened based on their adherence to their party’s rhetoric on race. When the Republican Party and its representatives embrace white grievance, articulate anti-black policies, and lift up anti-black voices, Black Republicans feel unable to talk about Republican policies in ways that will uplift black people. The only Black Republicans who are able to gain a platform are those who articulate ideas consistent with white grievance.
This, of course, only heightens the intensity of the sellout critique.
This year’s media and public reactions to Black convention speakers often focused on the sellout critique. However, that focus obscures the way that relations with white Republican fundamentally shape attitudes about Black Republicans. Although the sellout critique and skeptical embrace come from different groups, they work together to structure perceptions of Black Republicans.
The interrelatedness of these two phenomena is clear when we examine of the Republican party and its relationship to Black communities. Invocation of the sellout critique is actually not about maintaining partisan solidarity among Black people. It instead reflects a response to shifts in the GOP’s stance on issues of concern to black voters. Since the New Deal era, Blacks have voted for Democrats in Presidential elections, but the sellout critique of Black Republicans only begin to emerge as a cultural force in the late 1960’s. Edward Brooke served as Black Republican senator until 1979 without experiencing serious alienation from Black communities. Older Black Republicans in my study remembered when being Black and Republican might elicit a raised eyebrow, but wouldn’t engender strong rejection. When the party came to be actively perceived as a threat to Black people and Black political interests, the reputation of Black Republicans worsened.
By filling the convention with Black speakers, the leadership of the Republican Party aims to communicate that it’s a diverse, non-racist organization. However, the current crop of Black Republicans reflect the priorities and preferences of current leadership in the party. It’s the skeptical embrace that ensures the party only promote Black Republicans who advance the party line on race. When the party line on race draws from a platform of white grievance, the Black Republicans who articulate a “Race doesn’t matter” brand of Republicanism are more vulnerable to the sellout critique.
The GOP may want more Black people in the party, but that’s unlikely to happen without upsetting the ideas about race that currently circulate among Republican partisans.