Ben Carson, paediatric neurosurgeon turned Republican Presidential candidate, is best known for his flexible relationship with truth and reality. Since stepping onto the national stage in 2013, Carson has made the following claims: Obamacare is ‘the worst thing that has happened’ in America since slavery; prison turns people gay; AP history creates soldiers for ISIS; Hitler’s gun control caused the Holocaust; and the pyramids were grain silos. That’s just the shortlist. Despite these wildly provocative claims – or perhaps due to them – Carson is enjoying polling success in the Republican race, pulling ahead of favourite Jeb Bush and theatrical Donald Trump (although, at the time of publishing, his lead had slipped). In the extensive media coverage of Carson’s campaign, it is clear that one issue continues to stymie Americans: his political affiliation. He’s an African-American presidential candidate for the Republican Party, and Black Republicans are few and far between.
African Americans are, and always have been, the most partisan voters in the United States; today, upward of ninety per cent of Black Americans vote Democratic. This is a staggering figure, particularly if you consider that almost one third of African Americans identify themselves as conservative. This begs an obvious question: why aren’t these conservative African Americans voting Republican?
The answer lies in history. African-American voting habits can be traced back to abolition of slavery. When President Lincoln ‘freed the slaves’ he ensured the electoral support of Black Americans. In the decades that followed emancipation, wherever African Americans were able to vote, they overwhelmingly cast their ballots for the Republican Party (during this period the Republican Party was America’s liberal party). During the 1930s, Democratic President Franklin D Roosevelt’s ‘rights revolution’ swept the nation, and markedly improved the condition of Black Americans across the nation. African Americans were quick to notice the change in party policy; writing in 1976, the editors of the Black periodical the Chicago Defender declared, ‘since President Franklin and the New Deal, being Black and Republican was about as compatible as being Black and aspiring to leadership in the Ku Klux Klan.’ The Democratic Party solidified the support of African-American voters during the 1960s, as President Lyndon B Johnson’s government presided over the largest extension of civil rights in the history of the United States.
Throughout US history, Black Americans have consistently voted for the party that will defend and extend their civil rights. As historian Leah Wright Rigeur argues convincingly in her 2014 book The Loneliness of the Black Republican, even conservative African Americans overwhelmingly support civil rights. Elections embody this conflict between conservatism and civil rights: while Black conservatives may believe in Republican principles, they are reluctant to vote for the party lest their civil rights be wound back.
The Republican Party has done little to allay these fears, supporting measures ranging from stricter voter identification laws, to rolling back affirmative action schemes, to challenging fair-housing legislation. Black Americans understand ‘the party’s color blind language as coded antiblack antagonisms.’ Moreover, the GOP has consciously and repeatedly courted the white southern vote. This began in earnest during the 1960s, when the party fiercely opposed the civil rights movement and the legislative changes it prompted. Today, the party is unable to shake the perception that they are racially conservative and indifferent to the Black experience in America.
History explains why Black Republicans are treated as curiosities, and why the term itself – Black Republican – is treated as an oxymoron. As Rigeur wrote, ‘All of our instincts, scholarly or otherwise, tell us that African Americans should not be Republicans, nor should they be conservatives.’ History also reveals that there have always been Black conservatives, and that they have always occupied a unique position in the American political landscape.
Ben Carson comes from a long tradition of Black conservatism, ‘one that is rooted in a belief in religious morality, personal responsibility, self-help, individualism and free-market enterprise.’ Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Black leaders such as Booker T Washington espoused an accommodationist strategy for Black advancement. Rather than directly challenging white supremacy through political means, Black conservatives argued the most effective way of improving African-American prospects was through economic mobility. This view was updated during the 1980s and 1990s, when Black conservatives such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and public intellectual Thomas Sowell, were given a national platform to air their views. Black conservatives increasingly began to call for ‘colour-blind’ policies, arguing that racism was best tackled through individual acts and not through structural change.
The motivations of Black Republicans can be, for some, difficult to discern. Republicans are conservative, and conservatism implies the maintenance of the status quo; what about that unequal status quo could African Americans be seeking to preserve? Carson’s motivations for joining the Republican Party, however, are far less interesting and important than what his candidacy can tell us about race, the Republican Party and America.
Carson has been extremely well received by both white and Black conservatives. In particular, white conservatives have heaped praise on the candidate – Rupert Murdoch recently labelled him a ‘real Black president’, and Carson has been widely lauded as the right-wing answer to President Obama. Carson’s appeal lies partly in his life story: despite some imagined details, it (appears) undeniable that Carson grew up in poverty, and raised himself ‘up by his bootstraps’ in order to gain phenomenal success as a surgeon. His life confirms the mythology of the American Dream, and supports the broader Republican stance that change is affected by individual actions. Carson’s popularity is also fuelled by his enthusiastic endorsement of Republican policies and positions. It allows for the political equivalent of ‘I’m not a racist, I have Black friends,’ with the Republican Party able to point to an African-American man endorsing their views on so-called ‘race issues.’
In essence, Carson’s candidacy – like Herman Cain before him, and Alan Keyes before that – illustrates Republican efforts to attract Black votes through ‘identity politics, not policy’. This strategy is unlikely to pay dividends. Historically, Black Republicans candidates have not swayed Black voters; a recent study by David Niven from the University of Cincinnati found that ‘party matters so much more than race.’
Ultimately, the necessity of the Republican Party to attract Black voters through identity politics points to a truth they would rather hide: America is not post-racial. If it were, conservative African Americans would feel free to vote Republican without fear of losing their fundamental civil rights.