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The Black Republican Paradox

Leah Wright Riguer’s Book Explore What Some Consider An Oxymoron

At one time in our nation’s history, The Republican Party was known as “The Party of Lincoln.” Some older Americans still refer to it as that, harkening back to a time when the GOP held sway among blacks. 

A group known as the Radical Republicans were in fact a fiercely loyal faction of the party during Civil War times. Known for their fiery advocacy around the abolition of slavery and racial accountability in the South, they represented a key progressive voice around change. 

Today, Black Republicans are scarce, like proverbial flies in the electoral buttermilk, with Democrats having captured the support of over 80 percent of this black electorate over the years. 

In recent years questions have surfaced in some political circles as to why Black Americans have generally steered away from the GOP and conservative values during modern times. According to the book “The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power” by noted academic historian Leah Wright Rigueur the answers are primarily tied to three critical inflection points in our nation’s history: the “Great Depression,” the New Deal, and the GOP nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964.  

Carefully weaving together four decades of U.S. social and political history, the book offers a well-articulated deep dive into the efforts of Black Republican leaders and activists, from the New Deal Era through the 80s presidency of Ronald Reagan. Throughout she introduces the reader to an esoteric collection of black Republicans that have played a pivotal role in the GOP movement over the years like Senator Edward W. Brooke of Massachusetts and William T. Ford., Gerald Ford’s transportation secretary. 

The book’s examination of the black political insiders within Richard Nixon’s administration — a group that reflected a broad brushstroke of black Republican thought was particularly interesting.  Nixon’s staff included the likes of civil rights leader James Farmer, affirmative action advocate Arthur Fletcher, and Robert Brown, the latter a supporter of increased funding for black businesses and higher education. As a side arm of the Nixon White House, this Black Silent Majority offered ideas and perspectives from the far right of black political spectrum. 

Rigueur deserves much credit for her skillful assessment of how blacks and whites often see conservatism from different lenses. And in a seeming message to conservatives who look askance at black Republicans who fail to telegraphically tow the party lin , she argues that conservatism isn’t a “rigid ideology, fixed over time and space,” but a theme that is “far more complicated” and sometimes “contradictory” in its messaging. 

As a small group of loyalists committed to a political party often shunned by their own race, black Republicans often find themselves mired in an existential crisis — a state of “loneliness” in Regueur’s vernacular. With this comes a growing recognition that resolving this divide is pivotal to the future of the GOP party and it’s advocacy for republican principles. 

A Bit of Personal Context

Raised in a black middle-class family in Columbus, Ohio by a father who was a university administrator and mom, a special education teacher, I lived under the assumption that to be black was to be Democrat. 

As an interesting aside, I reached out to author Leah Wright Rigueur on LinkedIn in the hope of garnering a quote or two from her for this article. In my appeal to build a connection, I made the “sui generis” assumption that she was a Black Republican, only to later find out on Twitter that’s not the case. 

A similar narrative was set in motion with my Dad when he was named the first Affirmative-Action Officer for The Ohio State University in 1968. He went on to become the first black administrator at the university, ascending to the role of Executive Assistant to the President and Secretary of the Board of Trustees. 

What most didn’t know about my late Dad was that he had a strong conservative bent around issues like Affirmative Action and merit. While I am not sure as to whether he ever voted Republican, I do know this for sure — he was far from a liberal. 

I recall the uproar created back in the 80’s when Dad invited Clarence Pendleton, the politically conservative black chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights under President Reagan  to speak at a university forum. Once a self described “bleeding heart liberal,” Pendleton later became a polarizing figure by espousing the belief that black American reliance on government programs was a form of entrapment — a condition he felt prevented blacks from rising above a cycle of dependence and welfare handouts. 

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is another interesting study in black conservatism. An avowed black nationalist Marxist and Malcolm X admirer while in college, Thomas made a shift to the right, asserting that the only hope for black people was to turn within — transcending the evils of racism that he experienced as a young adult through the ethics of hard work and self-reliance. While typically demure about his political party (most assume that he is a Republican), Thomas has publicly admitted in the past to having “some very strong libertarian leanings.” 

In the end,  there is much to be admired by Leah Wright Rigueur’s book “The Loneliness of the Black Republican” in delivering a fresh look at the complex dynamics tied to blacks and the Republican Party. On the heels of the tumultuous racial climate that has ensued in 2020, I consider it a very relevant and profound read for our times.

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