There is a fascinating Saturday Night Live sketch from 1980, a piece almost entirely forgotten by most viewers of the NBC comedy show. The sketch survives in the pop culture arena only because it features the SNL debut of comedian Eddie Murphy.
Airing about a month after the country elected an ex-actor to the presidency (ousting a former Georgia peanut farmer in the process), the skit is a spoof of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, that unconventional animal wildlife series sponsored by an insurance company.
In the SNL piece, a Jim Fowler–type zoologist braves the “savage” landscape of a tony Manhattan cocktail party in search of an elusive subject: the Negro Republican.
Tracking the “migratory patterns” of African Americans “fleeing the liberal lake wastelands” for the “fertile promised land of the GOP,” the scientist stumbles badly—a hilarious case of mistaken identity—when he assumes that a black funeral parlor director must be a member of the GOP.
Undeterred, he spots another black man nearby—a thorough examination of speech patterns, clothing, musical tastes, and economic interests confirms that the subject is indeed the evasive Negro Republican.
With great care, the zoologist sedates the “exotic creature,” attaching a blinking transmitter disguised as an American flag pin to the man’s lapel. As the disoriented man awakens, the scientist quickly hides, emerging to take notes on his subject from afar once the Negro Republican has wandered back into the “wild.”
“In Search of the Negro Republican” is a riveting political satire, interesting not for the writing or the cast’s performance but for the ideas conveyed by the sketch—ideas about popular perceptions of African American members of the GOP.
A black Republican, it would seem, was a rare fellow in 1980—a political opportunist & an economic conservative who, seduced by the promise of a Reagan Revolution, had disavowed his longtime home in the Democratic Party.
By that same token, a black Republican was a racial turncoat—a Benedict Arnold in blackface who had appropriated clichéd notions of middle-class whiteness: a stuffy voice, a preference for the Carpenters over the Isley Brothers, the choice of a drab, unsophisticated suit, and a degree of comfort with the quintessential symbol of American patriotism, Old Glory. A black Republican was a curiosity—a creature to be observed, sedated, and studied.
The SNL sketch, as with any satire, is a primer in exaggeration, entertaining precisely because it taps into stereotypes of black Republicans— caricatures that we know logically are absurd, yet nevertheless still make some kind of intuitive sense.
The uneasy racialized undertones of the sketch are rendered practically invisible because something about the parody resonates. Stripped of nuance, the stereotype works because it exposes the fundamental question that so many of us ask:
Why would an African American join the Republican Party?
The question is an old one, an ubiquitous inquiry that many people, Democrats and Republicans alike, have posed consistently since the 1930s—the decade when black voters first began to flee the Republican Party, then known as the “Party of Lincoln,” an ideological home so very different from what “Republican” means today.
Since then, the link between blacks and Democrats has become a knee-jerk one, a relationship that is taken for granted by all sides.
Over the decades, the concept of a “black Republican” has come to seem a contradiction in terms, invested with an odd kind of alienness.
“Since President Franklin and the New Deal,” wrote the editors at the Chicago Defender in 1976, “being black and Republican was about as compatible as being black and aspiring to leadership in the Ku Klux Klan.”
Beneath the stereotypes and the made-for-TV satire, our notions of black Republicans rest on two basic truths.
First, without question, blacks are the most partisan of any racial group in the United States.
Since 1948, a substantial majority of African Americans has identified as Democrat; since 1964, that lopsided figure has only increased, as more than 80 percent of black voters have cast their ballots for the Democratic Party nominee in every presidential election.
By 1980, more than 90 percent of the nation’s five thousand black elected officials were Democrats, including all of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
And in 2012, African Americans played a vital role in helping reelect Barack Obama to the White House, offering the president 94 percent of their votes.
This partisanship, as Michael Dawson, Nancy Weiss, and others have suggested, “was never blind or random but was based on a realistic assessment of which party would best further black political and economic interests.”
And as the extensive histories of civil rights and black politics make clear, African Americans made critical and significant advances for racial equality and social justice by way of the New Deal and the Great Society programs, thereby “anchoring” African Americans in Democratic liberalism.
Second, the GOP of today bears little resemblance to the “Party of Lincoln” to which black voters had been fiercely loyal since the era of Reconstruction. Instead, the modern Republican Party is indelibly associated with Herbert Hoover’s “lily-white” movement, “Operation Dixie” of the 1950s, and Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy.”
It is a party whose 1964 presidential candidate voted against the landmark Civil Rights Act passed in that year, and whose 1980 nominee launched his official presidential campaign with a now-infamous “states’ rights” speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi—the town in which three civil rights workers were murdered sixteen years earlier.
As politicians shaped the GOP from the “top down,” ordinary white city dwellers and suburbanites from all backgrounds and income levels along with an “army” of conservative activists, influenced the direction of the GOP from the grass roots, reacting to changing social and cultural norms, the liberalism of the civil rights movement and the radicalism of Black Power.
In short, the GOP is a party whose conservatism, to quote Robert Smith and Hanes Walton, seems to make it “virtually impossible for blacks, given their history and condition,” to accept.
These two strands of thought are mutually reinforcing, confirmed through our everyday experiences: individual encounters, media reports, fictional depictions in television and film, and scholarly studies all work in concert to produce a pervasive vision of the past century that leaves little room for the coexistence of African Americans, conservatism, and the Republican Party.
All of our instincts, scholarly & otherwise, tell us that African Americans should not be Republicans, nor should they be conservatives. Yet black Republicans do exist
and their inevitable existence, of course, complicates our assumptions. Some black families never left the Republican fold, while other individuals have found their way back to the GOP.
The past three decades alone have witnessed the rise of a number of prominent African American members of the Republican Party: Samuel Pierce, Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell, J. C. Watts, Condoleezza Rice, Michael Steele, Constance Berry Newman, Alan Keyes, Robert A. George, Herman Cain, Michael Powell, Lynn Swann, Allen West, and Tim Scott, to name a few.
But rather than erasing public curiosity, the appearance of black Republicans merely intensifies it, often infusing a new urgency into the original underlying question of why.