Byron Donalds implied Black people were better off under Jim Crow. So we checked.

OPINION: We fact-checked Republican Byron Donalds' claims about Black families, conservative values and progress during America's racial apartheid era. Here's what we found.

U.S. Congressman Byron Donalds says stuff about things (Photo by Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit)

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

Byron Donalds is usually wrong. 

To be fair, as one of only five African-American Republican members of Congress, being wrong is part of his job. In 2023, Donalds (R-Fla.) appeared on Joy Reid’s MSNBC show to be wrong about critical race theory and “woke” history. He was wrong when he believed his fellow Republicans would support his candidacy for speaker of the House. He was wrong when he voted to overturn the results of the 2020 election. So it wasn’t unusual when people accused the two-term congressman of valorizing the era of government-approved racism known as “Jim Crow.”  

This is what Donalds does.

But instead of accusing Donalds of performing anti-Blackness in exchange for praise and pats on the head from his white colleagues, theGrio decided to fact-check Donalds’ actual statements. 

Was the Black family better off under Jim Crow?

Here’s what we found.

What Byron Donalds actually said

On Tuesday, Donalds appeared at two Trump campaign events organized to “garner the Black male vote,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. During the “Congress, Cognac and Cigars” gathering, Donalds explained how Black people benefitted from institutional racism.

“During Jim Crow, the Black family was together,” Donalds explained to the crowd at the white-owned business in one of the “whitest and most conservative” parts of the city where Donalds and his GOP colleagues unsuccessfully asked elections officials to toss out Black voters’ ballots. “During Jim Crow, more Black people were not just conservative — Black people have always been conservative-minded — but more Black people voted conservatively. And then H.E.W., Lyndon Johnson — you go down that road, and now we are where we are.”

Pressed by CNN host Abby Phillip on Wednesday, James Crow Jr. doubled down on his remarks. “All I was doing was referring to the time periods,” the American apartheid advocate explained. “Frankly, what that is, is about the empirical fact that before the Great Society before Lyndon Johnson’s policies, there was more Black families united. The marriage rate in Black America was significantly higher before the Great Society. The period of time that coincides with that, obviously, is the Jim Crow era.”

What was Jim Crow?

After the 1876 presidential election, 15 white men gathered in a room to figure out a solution to the first Stop the Steal Movement. 

Known as the Wormley Agreement or the Compromise of 1877, five Supreme Court justices, five senators and five representatives awarded the presidency to Rutherford B. Hayes in exchange for ending the Reconstruction Era. The concessions included a specific accommodation that the federal government would stop forcing former confederate states to recognize the constitutional rights of Black citizens. Legislatures in Northern and Southern states immediately created a series of racially discriminatory policies that became known as Jim Crow laws.

For 100 years — from the end of race-based slavery until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – every Black person in America lived under this constitutionally enforced, government-approved system of white supremacy. Because of Jim Crow, the Black codes created after emancipation were now the law of the land. Segregated schools were mandatory under Jim Crow. Under Jim Crow, it was perfectly fine to disenfranchise Black voters and ban non-white people from living wherever they wanted. Jim Crow excluded Black taxpayers from using facilities built and maintained with their tax dollars. 

And according to Byron Donalds, Black people thrived.

Were Black voters more conservative?

Most Black people couldn’t vote under Jim Crow. According to the U.S. census data, between 1880 and 1960, the majority of Black Americans lived in the South. Specifically, they lived in states that disenfranchised African-American voters, which is why the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s preclearance requirement banned these states from changing their voting laws without permission from the Department of Justice. It is literally impossible to know what the majority of Black Americans wanted under Jim Crow if they couldn’t vote.

Even if one counted the votes of the Black people who did vote, there was never a moment in the history of this country when the majority of Black voters supported conservative politics. Shortly after the Civil War, Southern Republicans started the anti-Black Lily White movement to prevent Black voters from gaining control of the party. Meanwhile, conservative Democrats didn’t even allow Black people to attend the party’s conventions in an official capacity until 1924. Although a majority of Black voters supported Franklin Roosevelt’s presidential campaign, it wasn’t until 1948 that most Black voters (77%) considered themselves Democrats. By then, white voters had fled the Democratic Party, precisely because the party was no longer conservative. 

So, when Donalds said, “Black people voted more conservatively during Jim Crow,” either he was lying or he didn’t know what he was talking about.

Did Black families fare better?

First, let’s look at wealth. 

In 1900, white households had about nine times the wealth of Black households. This disparity in wealth essentially remained unchanged throughout the Jim Crow, according to “The Wealth of Two Nations: The U.S. Racial Wealth Gap, 1860-2020. In 2022, the average white family had $100 for every $15 held by Black households. And while the Black-white employment gap began during the Great Depression, which coincided with Jim Crow, this still doesn’t tell the complete story.

Under Jim Crow, tax dollars from Black families were used to fund segregated education systems that increased the generational wealth of white families. Take Jim Crow South Carolina, for instance, where Black citizens made up 48.9% of the population in 1940. Because the state constitution made integrated schools illegal, Black K-12 schools were worth an estimated $12.9 million while white schools were worth nearly five times that number. 

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Jim Crow’s legalized theft wasn’t limited to education. Under Jim Crow, Black families were forced to foot the bills for libraries, hospitals, parks and public facilities they couldn’t use. Their federal tax dollars funded scholarships and home loans for white veterans while Black veterans were excluded from the G.I. Bill. New Deal programs used Black taxpayers’ money to give white people jobs, build redlined neighborhoods and create whites-only suburbs. 

Maybe Byron Donalds believes robbing Black families of their generational wealth and opportunity and giving it to white families is good for African America.

Donalds is partially right that the rate of Black marriages has declined since the Jim Crow era. The percentage of Black children born to unmarried mothers has also dramatically increased. However, those statistics hold true for every racial demographic. While Donalds would like to attribute this to the Democrats, government handouts and “welfare” programs, people who know things understand that out-of-wedlock births correlate with poverty, education and income more than race. Plus, first-time white moms are more likely to have a “shotgun wedding” when they get pregnant. 

Furthermore, Donald’s entire definition of “family” is based on marriage statistics, but researchers who actually cite facts found “no significant differences” between how unmarried Black fathers interact with their children compared to other races. The only difference they noted is that “White fathers spend significantly fewer days per month” with their children than Black fathers. 

To be fair, here’s what Donalds said about the downfall of the white family:*

*I’ll insert Byron Donalds quote about white families here when I find it

About those conservative values

The biggest problem with Byron’s status as the Black Bull Connor is that everything he believes is based on a commonly accepted myth. For more than 200 years, both parties have managed to bamboozle their constituents into believing in the false premise of political conservatism. Whether Donalds is a shameless liar, a well-meaning ignoramus or a political prop intentionally misinterpreting history, facts and data for his own political gain, one thing is abundantly clear:

There is no such thing as “conservative principles.” 

Before Strom Thurmond led an exodus of conservative white Dixiecrats to the GOP, the “states’ rights” Democrats were considered the conservative party. Today, the Republican coalition consists of evangelical Christians, anti-abortion “pro-lifers,” small government proponents and ideologues who want to preserve their Judeo-Christian beliefs of gender, sexuality and individual freedoms. 

“Conservatism” is just white supremacy wrapped in an American flag. 

If Donalds’ party actually believed in fiscal conservatism, they would want to repay this country’s debt to Black Americans. To be fair, if they were fiscally conservative, the national debt would not increase when Republican presidents are in office. And while conservatives blame the downfall of the Black family on welfare, Democrats and LBJ’s Great Society programs, Governing reports that “eight of the 10 most federally dependent states were Republican, while seven of the 10 least federally dependent states were Democratic.”

A small government conservative who believed in personal and religious freedom wouldn’t want politicians weighing in on reproductive choices, gender identity and sexuality. A social conservative wouldn’t support a lying, racist, xenophobic convicted felon. Wouldn’t an “evangelical Christian” do something about generational theft, inequality and poverty? Instead, they have chosen a lying, thieving, corrupt adulterer as their lord and savior. A real pro-lifer would at least pretend to care about police brutality, Black maternal mortality rates, the death penalty, access to health care and gun violence. A states’ rights conservative wouldn’t disenfranchise Black voters or ask the federal government to toss out certified election results. 

Interestingly enough, Donalds’ marriage would be illegal under Jim Crow. When “conservative North Florida Democrats” took control of Florida’s legislature in 1885, their new constitution prohibited “all marriages between a white person and a negro, or between a white person and a person of negro descent to the fourth generation.” Then again, if Byron Donalds was an actual conservative, he would hate the progressive laws that created the diversion programs that benefitted him when he was arrested for marijuana distribution and when he pleaded no contest to felony theft

Anti-Blackness is the only conservative principle

The only logical conclusion that anyone could gain from Donalds’ argument is that Black people were better off when their votes, tax dollars, education, economic well-being and — most importantly — their humanity were controlled by white people. In his whitewashed, conservative brain, white people are more intelligent, have better values and are more responsible than Black people. According to Donalds, the fact that Black people survived the most brutal period, most undemocratic era of physical violence, institutional racism and government-approved anti-Blackness is proof that white people are right and Black people are wrong.   

This is the conservatism that Byron Donalds wants Black people to embrace. 

Unfortunately for Byron Donalds, his belief in white people’s fictionalized version of history is disproven by history, facts and factual evidence. Before Black people strangled Jim Crow to death, America was not a democracy. This nation murdered, raped, tortured and pillaged its poorest, most oppressed citizens until Black people gave this country some family values. We are the patriots whose blood, sweat and tears conserved the ideas that founded this “land of opportunity.”  

I don’t judge Byron Donalds for insinuating that Black people were better when white supremacy was the law of the land. For the last 60 years, most white voters have cast ballots for candidates who espouse the same beliefs. This is their American dream. Donalds is just part of their ongoing effort to convince Black Americans that they were better off when their votes, tax dollars, jobs, health, generational wealth, education, homes and their very lives were subject to the whims of white supremacy. In their minds, this was when America was at its greatest. And, as the Republicans’ leading Jim Crow advocate, Byron Donalds has one job: 

Make America great again. 

Michael Harriot is a writer, cultural critic and championship-level Spades player. His NY Times bestseller  Black AF History: The Unwhitewashed Story of America is available in bookstores everywhere.