Are African-American Republicans the most minority group of all?
On Memorial Day 2009, my mother and I had the house to ourselves. She is a retired doctor and thirty-five years ago was the first African-American woman to open a private medical practice in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Her home office holds a mammoth pine desk and a guest bed I was arising from that morning. I heard her downstairs in the kitchen clanging dishes, running water, opening and closing cupboard doors. The teakettle whistled.
Her back issues of Rush Limbaugh’s magazine, The Limbaugh Letter, were organized neatly in a rack beside her computer terminal. The same shelf held pictures of family members (an old photo of me with a Gwen Ifill hairdo) and keepsakes left by my recently deceased grandmother.
Books in her panoramic bookshelf included medical encyclopedias, children’s books, and conservative tomes: Gray’s Anatomy; Shelby Steele’s White Guilt; Neal Boortz and John Linder’s The Fair Tax Book; Rush Limbaugh—this time with bleached teeth and feathered hair—on the cover of See, I Told You So; Bill O’Reilly’s Culture Warrior. All of her William F. Buckley, Jr., books, the ones she used to read with the covers turned inside out in public, must have been in the attic.
On a pad on her desktop, notes about a patient with osteoporosis and low blood pressure as well as sepsis (patient takes a CHF pill) were scrawled above a quote from Margaret Thatcher: The trouble with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.
And another maxim:
Today, the gays and lebs want to bring their view of reality into our homes, where women, gays, minorities rule everything; and the rest of us take a back seat.
Who is this “rest of us”? The only “rest of us” left in that scenario would be straight white males. The quote wasn’t attributed but was signed with my mom’s initials, NW—Noralean Williams.
Even though it’s only in recent years that my mom has interested herself in conservative politics, she’s long been curious about other peoples’ points of view. Twenty years ago, before she became a Republican or a conservative, she went with a friend to an antique shop in Myrtle Beach and on seeing a blue and gray Civil War cap told her friend, My goodness. I think I’d like to have one of those Rebel hats. Her friend was repulsed. What? You’re going to buy that!?! Mom just thought the cap was spiffy and didn’t worry about its ties to the pro-slavery Confederacy.
How can we combat Obamamania?—another line on Mom’s scratch pad in her distinctive cursive hand. This has occupied her mind lately. Two black Republicans were just elected to Congress in November of 2010, part of a rising tide of African-American conservatism in the country. But that’s not enough to stanch the tide of Obamaism. As a medical doctor who also knows the ins and outs of the business side of care, she thinks his health-care bill falls just a tiny bit shy of the opening salvos of a socialist takeover. She thinks African Americans have become too dependent on government support and that Obama and the Democratic Party encourage this. Like Allen West in Florida and Tim Scott in South Carolina—the two black Republicans elected to Congress in November, the first in the Deep South since Reconstruction ended in 1877—she thinks many African Americans have misguidedly followed the ideas of W.E.B. Du Bois, who emphasized petitioning the government for rights and higher education, instead of those of Booker T. Washington, who wanted blacks to take more of an entrepreneurial path. But maybe what gets to her more than anything else is how much people like President Obama—how much, she believes, he has inspired people to believe in him as a “false prophet.”
This would include my father. But he and my mom have learned not to talk politics much. When they do, it often turns into an argument. “It’s about forgetting that you’re black,” he once said of my mom’s love of Rush Limbaugh.
My mom, my dad, and their friend Dr. Merritt were having lunch in my parents’ kitchen that day. Dr. Merritt, like my dad, votes Democrat and is an avid Obama supporter. Dr. Merritt had brought over tofu chili and salmon cakes, and they were all eating and arguing about Fox News.
“Pffft,” is all my mom said. She was wearing a purple-and-white muumuu. The sun shone brightly through the kitchen windows, highlighting the gray in her hair. More than half her hair is gray now, and she wore it pulled off her face with a headband.
“I’m going to try to leave Tweet alone, because I know she likes Fox,” Dr. Merritt said. “But they’re pitiful. Just out-and-out pitiful.”
Tweet is my mom’s nickname.
“No,” said my dad. “They aren’t pitiful. They’re racist. But if that’s the only thing you listen to, that’s what you believe.”
“I try to read the paper,” Dr. Merritt said. “USA Today, something where you can get a reasonable assessment of what’s going on since I can’t get the New York Times,” he sighed. Dr. Merritt lives about thirty miles away in a small town in North Carolina called Clinton.
My mom wrinkled her face at the mention of the Gray Lady, and pushed the tortoise-shell glasses farther up her nose.
“What’s wrong with the New York Times?” Dr. Merritt asked, sincerely puzzled.
“Ironically, she used to read it religiously,” said Dad.
My mom doesn’t like when he refers to her liberal days. As a med student at Howard University during the ’60s, she still admired John F. Kennedy, even though in the ’80s she started reading William F. Buckley, Jr. (that’s when she first turned the covers inside out). Through Carter and Reagan and the first Bush, she remained a liberal. But a string of events, starting with Clinton’s sexual peccadillo with Monica Lewinsky in 1998, which embarrassed her so much she couldn’t turn on the TV for fear she’d see Clinton’s face, eventually pushed her into the arms of the Republican Party. When Bush ran for president against Gore in 2000, though, that was the last time she still considered herself a Democrat. She wanted Gore to win. She changed her registration to Republican so that she could vote for John McCain instead of George Bush in the primary. She hoped they would nominate McCain, so Gore would have a better chance of winning. But then Bush won. When September 11 happened, a year later, she still hadn’t gone downtown to change her registration back to Democrat—and she decided she wasn’t ever going to.
“But Tweet,” said Dr. Merritt in the kitchen, chuckling and turning his entire body toward Mom. She’d stopped eating now. Dad hadn’t. “Please tell me before I die, what is it about Fox News that you can’t see through in the first two sentences, that they don’t portray black people in a positive light?”
“It’s a disease, John,” said my dad. “If you listen to ‘Limbo’ enough, you get a disease that you have to be treated for.”
“That’s what we say about liberals,” Mom quipped back. “Liberalism is a disease.”
“Whew. Tweet,” is all Dr. Merritt could say.
“Limbo,” said Dad. “The biggest racist in the world, and you have the audacity to actually quote him on something?”
“He hates Latinos, gays, blacks, everybody. Well, I hope you don’t say anything like this around our other classmates who won’t be as nice to you as we are,” Dr. Merritt said, ending the discussion with his laughter.
This is the ridicule to which my mom is subjected. And despite whatever small victories black Republicans have made in the past few months, the expression of their political beliefs risks ostracizing them from their peers. And even while emerging more prominently in the public eye, it’s not easy finding a welcoming community to join. There’s little culture—mainstream or otherwise—for black Republicans to explore. “Have you ever seen a black conservative on BET?” my mom asked me once. At the time, she was thinking about joining the Fayetteville Republican Women’s Club, a social club of sorts that hosts monthly dinners and speakers. But she worried she’d be out of place, because the group is mostly composed of people she doesn’t typically associate with—wealthy white women.
Conservative African-American organizations like the Frederick Douglass Foundation and the National Black Republican Association have lately tried to integrate blacks more smoothly into the Grand Old Party. Despite these recruiting efforts, the GOP can still be a forbidding place: Even today, only about two percent of the Republican Party is black. Meanwhile, it’s estimated that more than ninety-six percent of the African Americans who voted in the 2008 presidential election voted for Obama.
In the essay “Blacks Rethink Democratic Party,” Barbara Howard, of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, describes how being black and Republican is potentially alienating:
Some blacks have quietly become Republicans in spite of an obvious lack of recruitment strategy by the Republican National Committee. There are some of us who vote our conscience and values regardless of pressure from family and friends to vote on their emotions. Being black and Republican can be a lonely road to travel. Hateful insults come from associates and friends alike—even from family. One stands to lose friends and sometimes prestige, reputation, and even economic opportunities.
Maybe that’s why my mom spends a lot of time online. There, she’s not only found links to groups like the Frederick Douglass Foundation, but she’s also found at least a few other people who share her politics via blogs, such as Elizabeth Wright’s “Issues & Views,” which Wright describes as “a black conservative’s place for independent thinking and common sense—a little oasis for those who got caught up in the momentum of the civil rights movement, but failed to discern the false from the true.”
But few African Americans would see the “momentum of the civil rights movement” as a major problem today. African-American Republicans, then, in an irony of history—an irony that my mom, for one, would certainly be uncomfortable with for all the special status the word minority implies—may be among the smallest minority of all minority groups in America today.
Recently, looking for some like-minded individuals, my mom and I got in the car and drove to a meeting of the Lower Cape Fear Republican Women’s Club in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. I was home for Christmas, just after the elections in Congress, and, for the first time since 1870, the Republicans had control of the North Carolina state legislature. Mom was curious to check out the meeting, and so was I.
We arrived at the Bluewater Waterfront Grill in Wrightsville Beach, pulling our emerald-green Ford Taurus into the parking lot of a two-story, plantation-style restaurant overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway. Upstairs on the breezy patio of the “Sunset Room,” the place was already bustling with political candidates and former political candidates. The decor you might call “nautical formal”: marine-blue walls, windows looking out onto the waterway, oil paintings of fish and boats. Teenage waitresses hurriedly brought coconut shrimp, clam chowder, and crab cakes out to the navy and gingham blazer-wearing men and women, who were seated at long, elegant tables clothed in white and topped with candles. When we entered, everyone stopped and stared at us.
Yes, Mom and I were the only black people in the room.
But they’d been warned we were coming. “Welcome!” a small woman in a blue plaid blazer and a white Oxford blouse sang out to us. This was Representative Carolyn Justice from Wilmington. She’d interrupted her speech to the entire forty-five or so people in attendance when we’d come in. Now she smiled in our direction, along with everyone else, welcoming us. “Are you with the Republican women? Come on in!”
The club president escorted us to a table, and two people got up to offer us their chairs. We were served sweet tea and appetizers.
“It’s my pleasure to be here with y’all,” said Senator-elect Thom Goolsby, a pale man in a blue blazer and thin red tie. His speech began with him gloating about the recent legislature win, chastising the outgoing president pro tem Marc Basnight, who’d been in office over twenty years and whom the freshman senator called “the architect of our state’s destruction.” Goolsby then congratulated the women for drafting a resolution recommending to the legislature that North Carolina require a state-issued identification to vote. It’s a measure to keep illegal aliens from voting.
“As Carolyn and I go up with our historic Republican delegation, fasten your seat belts! We are in for a hell of a ride. We need your support. If we screw this chance up, then we’re California,” he said, referring to the state’s bankruptcy. “We’re New York. We’re New Jersey. We’re Illinois.”
After the thunderous applause, the president of the group asked my mom and me to introduce ourselves since we’d traveled eighty miles to get there.
“I’m from Fayetteville,” my mother began, standing up and looking a little nervous, in her pea-green blazer and slacks, fingering her gold necklace. “Thank you for….”
I got up and went to the bathroom.
When I came back, Senator-elect Goolsby was sitting in my chair, rapt in conversation with my mother.
“She drove all the way from Cumberland County,” Karen, the young president of the group, said to onlookers.
“That’s great. I’m glad you could come,” Goolsby said to my mom.
Goolsby and Mom lamented that they could not oust the two Democratic congressmen from Cumberland County, Mike McIntyre and Larry Kissell.
“We don’t have as strong a get-out-the-vote campaign. More poor whites need to be mobilized.”
“We already have those votes,” said Goolsby. I knew my mom was surprised to hear that, but she didn’t let on. She thinks Democrats have a better street game than Republicans, that they devote more energy going door to door in poor white, Latino, and black neighborhoods. According to her, Republicans should do more of this in order to get the votes of both low-income whites and blacks. Republicans won big this time, she thinks, simply because not as many blacks went out to vote.
“They left after Lincoln and we’ve never gotten them back,” Goolsby said. Apparently, gaining the black vote in any election is quite a prize.
Over the course of the evening, many people came over to say hello to my mother, offer her their cards, and ask her opinion. Justice, as well as former candidate Ilario Pantano’s wife, Jill, a statuesque brown-haired beauty, sat down with her and chatted. Mom looked happy to be there, quite comfortable in their company, but I wondered if this is how tokens feel—satisfied to be thought of as someone special and worthy of such attention, and comfortable serving as evidence that the whites around them aren’t racist.
As for me, I guess my mother is right when she calls me a “liberal,” as she often does. But I’d come to the meeting with genuine interest. Ever since I was a kid, my mom was always reading a book or watching the MacNeil/Lehrer shows or listening to public radio. I’d come on this journey, I suppose, because I wanted to better understand my mother.
When we were leaving, Laura Parks, a forty-ish mom who homeschools her son and has been Republican since she was eighteen, walked out with us in the chilly night and offered to lead us back out to Highway 40, the interstate that would take us back to Fayetteville. We followed her as far as the Wilmington exit, then honked our horn to say goodbye.
“What did you and Goolsby talk about?” I asked. But, both distracted and pumped up by the warmth she felt among her new friends, she was mumbling to herself about what needed to be done in the country. Finally, as our drive back to her home in Fayetteville continued, she began to sing along to the ’70s lite rock on the radio, even more down for the cause than ever.
Art credit: "Lawdy Mama" by Barkley L. Hendricks. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.