The GOP’s Black Politician Problem

The Republican Party needs more black politicians, and fewer black personalities.

T.W. Shannon is sworn in as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
T.W. Shannon is sworn in as speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives last year.

Photo courtesy Oklahoma Legislative Service Bureau

The rapid rise of T.W. Shannon in Republican politics—he’s a favorite for the Republican Senate nomination in Oklahoma—has prompted an intra-GOP debate over identity politics. Should Shannon’s mixed heritage—black and Chickasaw Indian—stand as a point of pride for Republicans, or should they decline to play this version of the “race card?” Here’s the New York Times, in a profile of the Oklahoma lawmaker, describing one reaction to his presence, and prominence:

“His name alone!” Sarah Palin exclaimed at a large, nearly all-white rally of supporters for Mr. Shannon in Tulsa last month. “The Democrats accuse us of not embracing diversity? Oh, my goodness, he is—he’s it. He is the whole package.”

Other conservatives, the Times notes, are uncomfortable with this approach, but it’s not a new one. If there’s anything that stands out in Republican racial politics during the Obama years, it is the constant elevation of conservative nonwhites—and black Republicans in particular—as a kind of rebuttal to Democratic claims of diversity. Indeed, when Palin asked rhetorically “The Democrats accuse us of not embracing diversity?” she’s speaking to a real insecurity that consumes conservative attempts at minority outreach.

There is a long tradition of black-American conservatism, and black Republicans have always had a decent profile in the GOP, despite their small numbers. But since the election of Barack Obama in 2008, we’ve seen a whole host of black conservative personalities who substitute bombast for seriousness, playing to conservative audiences and winning acclaim in the cloistered world of right-wing politics.

Herman Cain built a national following with strong slogans and an image of authenticity (calling himself a “real black man,” in contrast to the presumably inauthentic Barack Obama), making waves in the Republican presidential primary and riding them to strong book sales and a Fox News contract. Former congressman Allen West is a regular on the conservative speaking circuit, and Angela McGlowan parlayed her brief right-wing celebrity into an unsuccessful 2010 congressional run. The Rev. E.W. Jackson ran for Virginia lieutenant governor on the GOP’s ticket, and Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson became a Fox favorite, attacking the Obama administration as the new big “government plantation.”

Even now, the overwhelmingly white base of the Republican Party can’t get enough of these “types,” hence the recent stardom of Dr. Ben Carson, once a mainstay of inner city schools and black churches, now a CPAC speaker and potential presidential candidate—the “Draft Ben Carson” political action committee has raised $2.4 million since the beginning of the year.

With the exception of Carson, none of these figures are popular—or even well-known—with actual black voters. What they offer, instead, is a dual assurance to self-conscious Republican voters: first, that they aren’t racist, and second, that the problem with minorities is that they’re too dependent on government largess to see the appeal of small government conservatism.

For instance, at the 2011 Values Voter Summit, Herman Cain—then at the peak of his popularity—earned huge applause for disavowing any anger or resentment at the country’s treatment of blacks:

This nation has made it through the Civil War. This nation has made it through the struggle we had with slavery, Jim Crow laws, civil rights.

A reporter asked me just yesterday: Well, aren’t you angry—angry about how America has treated you? I said: Sir, you don’t get it. I have achieved all of my American dreams and then some because of the great nation United States of America. What’s there to be angry about? Angry?

I covered this speech at the time, and one attendee was candid about what it would mean for Cain to win the nomination. “At least, no one would call him a racist.”

Likewise, Allen West won fame by telling many conservatives what they wanted to hear about racism and the Democratic Party. “I’m here as the modern-day Harriet Tubman to kind of lead people on the underground railroad away from that plantation into a sense of sensibility,” said West during a Fox News appearance in 2011, blasting the Congressional Black Caucus and calling its leaders “overseers” on a plantation of welfare.

Jesse Lee Peterson—featured in the FreedomWorks–funded documentary Runaway Slave, on blacks and the “slavery” of entitlement spending—echoed this sentiment, declaring on his radio show, “Thank God for slavery, because if not, the blacks who are here would have been stuck in Africa.” And during the Virginia GOP’s nomination convention last summer, E.W. Jackson wowed the crowd with a speech that played off of identity politics while disavowing them. “I am not an African-American. I am an American!” he said.

But Shannon doesn’t play to this type. Instead, he has moved forward—and found Tea Party support—as a genuine lawmaker, more interested in pursuing a conservative agenda than landing a radio show. And if he makes his way to Congress, he’ll share this space with Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who—as a House member, and now as a senator—rejected the style of Cain, West, and others, opting instead for a kind of wonkishness. As evidenced by his speech at this year’s CPAC, Scott would rather talk about school choice and education policy than complain about the “Democratic plantation.”

In other words, as the Obama era comes to a close, conservatives may finally be moving away from fame-hounds like Herman Cain, and toward serious politicians who could help with the difficult process of genuine outreach to black communities. That’s not to say that either Scott or Shannon will ever pull a substantial number of black supporters—both men are on the right-wing side of the Republican coalition—but a GOP that ignores the E.W. Jacksons and elevates the Shannons is one that might get a better hearing from skeptical black voters.