Colin Powell

The Paradox of the Black Republican (Book Excerpt)

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.”1
“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 and 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.
© Copyright, Princeton University Press. No part of this book may be
distributed, posted, or reproduced in any form by digital or mechanical
means without prior written permission of the publisher.
For general queries, contact
2  •  Introduction
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.”2
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.3
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.4
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
© Copyright, Princeton University Press. No part of this book may be
distributed, posted, or reproduced in any form by digital or mechanical
means without prior written permission of the publisher.
For general queries, contact
The Paradox of the Black Republican  •  3
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.6
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 and 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.