The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power
by Leah Wright Rigueur.
Princeton University Press, 2015.
Hardcover, 432 pages, $37.50.
In her authorial debut, The Loneliness of the Black Republican, Harvard historian Leah Wright Rigueur meticulously traces the development of black Republican politics from the New Deal era through Ronald Reagan’s presidential ascent in 1980. Rigueur’s book is commendable not just as an authoritative treatise on a group notably neglected by historians, but as a compendium of actionable recommendations for black political engagement. Rigueur’s narrative expertly delivers a close look at the intersection of race and politics within the context of the Republican Party, and provides intimate details of the unwavering African Americans who sought to use the GOP as a vehicle for civil rights.
The enigma of the black Republican has fascinated political observers for decades. Taking at face value the fact that roughly 90 percent of black voters now identify with the Democratic Party, many understandably assume that blackness and GOP affiliation are inherently discordant concepts; yet black Republicans do exist and have been around for almost as long as the GOP itself. In fact, as Rigueur observes, blacks formed strong cultural attachments to the GOP long before the Democrat Party established its apparent hegemony of the black community. Indeed, writer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass once exuberantly declared, “I am a Republican—a black, dyed-in-the-wool Republican—and I never intend to belong to any other party than the party of freedom and progress.” Douglass wasn’t an anomaly. Blacks revered the “Party of Lincoln” as a liberator of black people—that is, until the 1936 presidential election of Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, who seized 70 percent of the black vote.
How should we make sense of the shattered relationship between the black community and the Republican Party? Pundits and scholars of all political stripes have long held that blacks rejected the GOP in favor of Roosevelt’s New Deal liberalism. But this analysis is inadequate. Though the Democrat-led New Deal effort promised socio-economic uplift, it doesn’t sufficiently explain black voters’ increasing distrust of the Republican Party. Rigueur rightly posits that significant ideological shifts emerged in the Republican Party in the 1930s. Republicans started to embrace a colorblind ethos, as prominent black Republican senator Edward Brooke later opined, that prioritized “states’ rights” over civil rights. This shift, as Rigueur explains, exacerbated over time and deepened the chasm between blacks and the GOP.
Interestingly, even though Democrats consistently garnered the majority of the black vote in presidential elections after 1936, the black vote remained remarkably fluid in midterm, state, and local elections throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Black voters routinely leveraged their political currency, splitting their votes between Republican and Democratic candidates up and down the ticket. The true turning point for blacks and the Republican Party occurred in 1964 with the presidential nomination of Barry Goldwater, who vociferously opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Goldwater, whose strongest support came from Southern segregationists, cemented the burgeoning idea that the GOP was a “lily-white” party that shunned black voters. This racial antagonism from the Republican Party helped Democratic presidential candidate Lyndon B. Johnson secure 95 percent of the black vote that year. Rigueur’s study pushes back on the laughably jejune thesis that blacks left the Republican Party solely because they wanted government handouts.
An even more crucial question, which forms the connective thread for the major themes of this book, is what accounts for the enduring loyalty of the black Republicans who chose to remain in the party? Given the GOP’s infuriating equivocation on matters of race, one could justifiably ask why blacks would continue to vote for, much less identify with, a party that seemingly doesn’t represent their interests. As Rigueur’s narrative unfolds, the reader develops a deepening appreciation for the efforts of the black GOP stalwarts who were routinely derided as “Uncle Toms” by their Democratic counterparts. We learn that the reason most black Republicans remained is that they thought it their duty to reform the party, and reorient it toward its inaugural mission of racial uplift—a feat which they believed could only be achieved from the inside. One cannot fully appreciate this approach without understanding black Republicans’ historical reverence for two-party competition. Black Republican loyalists saw politics as the optimal engine for achieving civil rights and thus felt that significant progress would occur only when both parties genuinely competed for the black vote. This strategy of using all available political systems to drive change exemplifies the pragmatism with which black Republicans approached racial empowerment.
Rigueur filters black Republicans’ quest for racial equality through the lens of black conservatism, and its various “manifestations” over time. The first manifestation, epitomized by Booker T. Washington and rooted in nineteenth-century respectability, emphasizes self-help, personal responsibility, and faith in the Protestant work ethic. The second manifestation builds on the foundational principles of the first by stressing a belief in free-market enterprise, limited government intervention, and respect for authority, history, and precedent. The third manifestation incorporated elements of the second, but held a much stricter adherence to traditional Republican Party thought. The final manifestation of conservatism she identifies is “complicated to outline” as it includes black Republicans who adopted the colorblind rhetoric and strategies of the more reactionary elements of the Republican Party. The third and fourth manifestations are typified by organizations like the Black Silent Majority Committee (BSMC) who gained significant support from white Republicans by regurgitating their ideas, particularly in their opposition to busing and affirmative action. Rigueur is careful to note that black Republicans’ brand of conservatism have often seemed messy and malleable; thus the manifestations she outlines frequently overlapped.
In many ways, the manifestations of black conservatism within the GOP were direct responses to the rightward shift of mainstream Republican thought. However, though black Republicans become more conservative over time, their conservatism typically remained distinct from that of the rest of the GOP, as black Republicans balanced their commitment to racial egalitarianism with traditional conservative principles. But this doesn’t mean that black Republicans were monolithic—far from it. In their quest for recognition and influence within the GOP, black Republicans navigated the treacherous waters of racial identity and politics in unique ways. Black Republican thought ran the gamut from the aggressive militancy of athlete-turned-activist Jackie Robinson and the National Negro Republican Assembly (NNRA) to the reactionary convictions of Clarence Thomas and the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education (LIRE). Between these ends of the spectrum, we find the moderate pragmatism of Senator Edward Brooke and the National Black Republican Council (NBRC), and the grassroots activism of Oscar Wright and the People Active for Community Education (PACE). This broad coverage of the myriad, sometimes conflicting, ideas black Republicans held, as well as the immense political impact of relatively obscure figures and organizations, is what makes Rigueur’s work particularly fascinating.
Though Rigueur’s work helps fill a substantial void in scholarship on the development of black Republican politics during a commonly forgotten era, it has some shortcomings. Notably, Rigueur underappreciates the influence that black nationalism had on shaping black Republican and black conservative thought. Simply put, black nationalism is the body of ideas that promotes black racial pride, self-determination, and economic self-sufficiency. Formed in opposition to white supremacy, many strains of black nationalism advocate ethnic separatism to maintain and preserve black identity. To be clear, black conservatism and black nationalism are distinct bodies of thought; however, they do have essential overlaps. Therefore, no discussion of post-World War II black conservatism and black Republican politics would be complete without a proper treatment of the impact that leaders like Marcus Garvey had on the developmentof black politics in that period. Garvey, who was heavily influenced by Booker T. Washington, advocated incessantly for black ownership and entrepreneurship. Though Garvey’s influence diminished somewhat following the Great Depression, civil rights activist groups like the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) would build on his ideas decades later. CORE’s promotion of black capitalism as a means of economic empowerment was instrumental in the Nixon administration’s “Black Cabinet” outreach and policy efforts in the late 1960s. To be fair, Rigueur does address CORE’s role in championing black economic empowerment. However, she sometimes attempts to place conservative black nationalists’ efforts within the context of black conservatism with insufficient reference to the black nationalist ideals that informed their thinking. Despite the complex and interesting influence that black nationalist thought has had on black Republican and black conservative politics, it plays a rather diminished role in Rigueur’s analysis.
Rigueur’s recommendations for attractingblack voters going forward are also somewhat unsatisfactory. She correctly points out that black voters are willing to support the right Republican candidate—one who exhibits a genuine interest in their concerns. Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee demonstrated this principle when he won his 1998 reelection bid thanks to the 48 percent of black voters who supported him. Huckabee apparently spent years building trust in the black community—listening to their concerns, then designing programs and policies to address them. Rigueur warns that unless the GOP moves away from its colorblind disposition toward a more race-conscious policy platform, it will likely not woo a substantial number of black voters. Though her assessment of the importance of race-conscious rhetoric and policy is valid, it is incomplete. The fact is, the modern GOP’s problem with race is now much more profound than mere colorblindness. To the extent that the GOP may win over black voters by moderating its race-neutral rhetoric, such gains will be ephemeral until Republicans take significant measures to expel the ascendant white nationalist elements from their ranks. White nationalists and white nationalist sympathizers have established a foothold in the GOP—moving seamlessly between the fringe and mainstream of conservative Republican thought. Without question, mainstream Republicans’ insistence on employing colorblind outreach efforts, their staunch resistance to “multiculturalism,” their incendiary denunciation of affirmative action policies, and their racially charged calls for “law and order” serve as rallying cries for the white-identity movements that seek to expand white supremacy in and through the Republican Party. So long as black voters continue to view the GOP as not just the party for white people, but the party for white supremacists, Republican black outreach efforts will likely yield little fruit. Rigueur’s calculus for black outreach doesn’t sufficiently account for this phenomenon.
These critiques are not grave indictments of the quality of Rigueur’s work. There are no fatal flaws in this discussion. Few historians have produced such a thorough yet accessible analysis of black Republicans and their historical struggle for recognition and influence within a party that often ignored or openly antagonized them. Whether the reader is a serious student of political history or possesses merely a casual interest in the subject, Rigueur’s work promises immense value.
Kareim Oliphant is a writer and public policy analyst from New Jersey.