What is a Black conservative anyway?

OPINION: Today’s Black conservatives are not at all like their Black forebears, who understood firsthand the evils of slavery, racial oppression and Jim Crow. This new generation blames the “welfare state” and “socialism” for what ails Black people in 2022.

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Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

I was having dinner and drinks with some of my Black Greek fraternity and sorority friends in Virginia recently. We were discussing Virginia’s new Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, and lieutenant governor, Winsome Sears (a Black woman). We were talking about our nation’s political divide between liberals and conservatives. We wandered into the tall grass, as we say in the South, about the unspoken fact that Black people, particularly of a certain age, are much more conservative than how we vote

From out of the blue, someone sitting at the table leaned in closer, looked me dead in the eye and said, “Sophia, Black conservatives—is that really a thing?” We all laughed, and then I leaned back in just as hard and said, “Well, let me tell you that it is.” And there we went, down the road for hours of tense, heated debate and open dialogue about what has long been a hot-button issue in the Black community—the division between Black progressives, Black activists, Black intellectuals, and yes, Black conservatives. 

In the year 2022, there are very few high-profile Black Republicans or conservatives. South Carolina Senator Tim Scott is the only Black Republican in the Senate, and before him, it was Senator Ed Brooke of Massachusetts, who served from 1967-1979. In the House of Representatives, going back to Connecticut’s U.S. Rep. Gary Franks in 1990, who was the first Black Republican to serve in Congress at that time in six decades, then former U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) was elected in 1994 and served in the House Republican Leadership, while Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah) elected in 2014 became the first Black woman ever elected as a Republican to Congress. She lost re-election in 2018. Currently, there are just two Black Republican members serving in the House: Burgess Owens of Utah and Byron Donalds of Florida.

This recent historical context is important because it explains why someone would ask me, “Black conservatives—is that really a thing?” The truth is it’s a much rarer thing for Black Americans to profess publicly. It hasn’t been since the days of President Dwight Eisenhower when large numbers of Black voters and leaders considered themselves Republican. People like Jackie Robinson and Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. Today’s Black Republicans/conservatives are not held in such esteem and are often reviled and scorned by the Black community, which leans heavily Democratic. 

For example, in a powerful piece for the Washington Post after the historic confirmation of soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the legendary Colby King wrote about Scott, “as the sole Black member in the Senate Republican caucus, Scott stood by as his GOP colleagues harangued, besmirched and badgered a well-qualified, widely respected Black woman with untruthful smears and bad faith attacks. Before Jackson’s confirmation hearing, Scott said he looked forward to “a respectful and thorough hearing process.” But when the bullying started, King opined, Scott went missing.

So if we use Scott as a guidepost for the intersection of modern Black republicanism meets Black conservatism, it is a vast departure from famous Black Republicans like Fredrick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, men who understood firsthand the evils of slavery, racial oppression and Jim Crow. Or Black intellectuals, like W.E.B. Du Bois, who believed social change could best be achieved by developing a talented tenth of college-educated Black people. These were all truly self-made men who were considered great leaders by the Black community writ large. These men preached “pull yourself up by the bootstraps,” and “you don’t need a hand-out from well-meaning white people.” For generations, this was the mentality of regular Black folks and self-made Black entrepreneurs from Madame C.J. Walker to residents of Black Wall Street, who came up from poverty to build thriving Black businesses and Black wealth. 

South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott speaks before a recent Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee oversight hearing on the SEC. (Photo: Evelyn Hockstein-Pool/Getty Images)

Today’s Black conservatives are not at all like their Black forebears, whether it is Justice Clarence Thomas—who, much like Scott, follows Republican Party orthodoxy and does not feel any sense of loyalty or duty to Black people—or a more menacing, angry crop of Black conservatives, like former Republican gubernatorial nominee Larry Elder, who has said things like, “systemic racism in America is a lie.” Elder believes that police brutality or racial profiling against Blacks isn’t an issue when every objective data point we have proves it is. He attacks Black leaders as “race hustlers, pimps, and worse.” He is beloved by the right and predominantly white audiences. He shot to the top of a crowded GOP field for governor of California and won the nomination against more credible candidates, like my college classmate and good friend, former Republican San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer. 

Or take Candice Owens, the Fox News contributor, author and speaker who has called Black Americans the “most murderous group in America” and who downplayed the murder of George Floyd, saying he was “not a good person” as some kind of justification for his horrific death at the hands of police. This kind of rhetoric gains Owens and Elder white acceptance and heralds them as new civil rights leaders when they are nothing of the sort. Owens is part of a new generation of young, Black conservatives who do not embrace the Black conservatism of the past. Diamond & Silk are two other new Black conservatives who came to fame on the internet during the Trump presidency. The pair are racial injustice deniers who pride themselves on aligning with Trump, Steve Bannon, Charlie Kirk, the late Rush Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson, and others who preach from the pulpit of white privilege and white grievance. 

In this July 13, 2021, file photo, conservative radio talk show host Larry Elder speaks to supporters during a campaign stop in Norwalk, Calif. Elder was not on the list of candidates released Saturday in the recall election that could end the term of California Gov. Gavin Newsom. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

Bottom line: This is not your grandmother’s Black Republicans—these people blame the “welfare state” and “socialism” for what ails Black people in 2022. They rail against affirmative action, equity and inclusion programs. They do not like former President Obama, and they align themselves with white supremacists. Let me be clear: I have zero tolerance for their self-enriching, race buffoonery because, at its core, it is not rooted in a desire to move forward the very real agenda of poor and working-class Black Americans—better housing, education, less poverty, alleviating student loan debt, providing better access to capital, homeownership and opportunities. Their intent is to divide, call names, cast aspersions and enrich themselves financially by becoming what they call other more liberal Black leaders—“race hustlers,” only in reverse.  

Everyone who has followed my career knows that I was drawn into GOP politics after hearing the late GOP congressman and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp speak at my college campus at San Diego State University during the 1988 presidential primary campaign. After that, I went on to work in the Senate for moderate Republican California Senator Pete Wilson, then back at home in New Jersey for the state’s first female governor, Republican Christine Todd Whitman. 

I ultimately ended up on Capitol Hill as the first Black female committee counsel for the conservative Republican majority in the late 1990s. I also served on George W. Bush’s reelection legal team in 2004. I eventually left the Republican Party because I could see where it was headed after the 2010 Tea Party takeover and that the party would ultimately end up right where it is in 2022 as a very white, anti-voting rights political party. It was painful to watch my former party berate and demean the first Black woman nominated to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. How far we’ve fallen.

I am not sure what the way forward is for Black social and economic conservatives like me, who fully embrace civil and voting rights and our Black heritage. We love our community, too, and we fully understand that systemic racism exists because you cannot have hundreds of years of legalized racism, servitude and segregation and expect it to all disappear in 60 years. That is neither rational nor real. 

For true Black conservatives, we must chart a way forward that encompasses our real-life experiences as Black people in America by working across the aisles with our more progressive brethren to forge our shared hope for a more perfect union for Black Americans. Doing so in this divisive climate will not be easy. But I am still an optimist. I believe that we can do what our ancestors did after slavery—they built colleges, hospitals, towns and thriving businesses. They ran for office, pushed back against racism, built coalitions and won on civil and voting rights. Malcolm and Martin were different, but they each worked for the advancement of their people. We are their heirs. We must do as they did and strategically come together to win the important social justice fights of our time. 

Sophia A. Nelson is a contributing editor for theGrio. Nelson is a TV commentator and is the author of “The Woman Code: Powerful Keys to Unlock,” “Black Women Redefined.”

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