Later this week, President-elect Donald Trump will become President Donald Trump. With his inauguration looming, the Republican party must feel pretty good about their position moving forward. But how are they doing with minority voters, specifically African Americans? We talk to expert and author Corey Fields about what motivates black Republicans, how they’re treated both at home and within their party, and what the future may hold for the direction of minorities within the Republican voting block.

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  • Corey Fields, Assistant professor of sociology at Stanford University, affiliated member at the Center for the Comparative Studies of Race and Ethnicity, and author of the book Black Elephants in the Room: The Unexpected Politics of African American Republicans

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The Precarious Position of African-American Republicans

Gary Price: What is life like for African Americans who identify as Republicans? The answer to that question may be a little more complicated than it seems and something Stanford Associate Professor of Sociology Corey Fields decided to tackle in his book Black Elephants in the Room: The Unexpected Politics of African American Republicans. Fields, who is affiliated with the Center for Comparative Studies of Race and Ethnicity, says people usually react with surprise at the mere mention of the phrase “black Republicans.”

Corey Fields:  It’s unexpected in the sense that people don’t anticipate that African Americans would be Republican given the demographics of who makes up members of the Republican Party and also the voting patterns of African Americans in general. So less than 10 percent of African Americans have cast votes for Republican candidates in the past two elections and so it’s not a common partisan choice by any stretch.

Price: But Fields says that’s not all he’s refencing as “unexpected” in the title of his book.

Fields:  Once you actually start talking to Africa American Republicans and hear how they motivate their politics and what it is that they want, a great number of them actually have what I would describe as unexpected beliefs in that they see what they’re doing as being grounded in a commitment to black identity and racial uplift for the black community. That’s not something we normally associate with Republican politics.

Price: In his book,  Fields identifies two distinctions among African American Republicans, the first of these distinctions is what he calls “race-blind” voters.

Fields:  The race-blind group – you could think about it as sort of being culturally black, but not politically black. There’s this sense of, they’re committed to black institutions, they go to black churches, they live in black neighborhoods. It’s not that they’re not black, right? It’s just that they don’t see their blackness as being important for understanding their politics or their life chances. There’s the sense that they don’t use race as a political lens to understand the world.

Price: On the other hand, Fields says there are “race-conscious” African American voters.

Fields:  The race-conscious group, who they similarly express a commitment to say a black cultural identity, but they also embrace a black political identity. They understand the political world through the lens of race. And so race structures how they understand what’s happening to them personally. It structures how they understand what’s happening to black people as a group. So we can think about it as a more racialized politics.

Price: And, despite their differences, Fields says both race-blind and race-conscious black voters can reasonably end up on that common ground of conservative policy.

Fields:  There are multiple ways to think about what racial uplift for African Americans might look like. One of the themes of the book is that  there’s a lot of variation even among African Americans, right? The African American vote is writ large about what’s best for the black people and what’s the best pathway to get there? There’s a lot less variation and political options. So in some ways the diversity of African Americans political beliefs and attitudes gets masked by the constrained political system that only leaves two choices. So even among African American Republicans there’s variation.

Price: And Fields says that because black Republicans can be motivated by such different things, it hasn’t always been easy for the GOP to identify the best way to reach out to African American voters.

Fields:  In a lot of ways there’s been a focus on thinking that social policies would be the pathway into making inroads with black voters. You certainly see that in regards to how the party has traditionally structured its African American outreach. There’s this idea that black voters express higher levels of religiosity and commitment to social conservatism that maybe isn’t necessarily reflected in the Democratic Party. So this presents a political opportunity for Republicans. Despite that belief and despite that motivation of outreach efforts, in my research I was surprised at how little social issues seemed to animate the politics of African Americans Republicans.

Price: Then what does motivate African Americans on the right?  Fields says the answer to this is several different things, but a big one has been an appeal to their pocket books.

Fields:  There is a strong focus on economic policy and ways of thinking around pro-business orientation, low taxes could be deployed on behalf of African American communities.

Price: But there’s another reason some black republicans give to explain their party affiliation that may be even more compelling.

Fields:  Commitment to smaller government was a big part of this. For some that was just an ideological commitment, that part of being conservative is wanting smaller government. But there were a number of activists that I spoke with who framed their commitment to smaller government in language that reflected a sense that the government was coded as being white and smaller government meant less white involvement in black communities and that was the ultimate goal — to have a self-sustaining independent black community that was free from the whims and precariousness of depending on white government officials.

Price: Despite these entirely logical explanations, being a black Republican isn’t always easy… not as a member of the black community or as a member of the party itself.

Fields:  The same concern motivates both those communities, though it manifests in very different ways. African American Republicans report both black people and white Republicans are anxious or concerned or angry and not believing that a person can combine a commitment to black identity with a commitment to Republican partisanship.

Price: As Fields explains it, first black Republicans have to deal with criticisms at home.

Fields:  For other African Americans that manifest in the book what I call the ”sell out” critique when there’s a feeling that somehow African American Republicans are working against the interests of black people as a group and that they’re part of a commitment reflects a lack of racial identity or less racial identity. You see this when calls of “Uncle Tomism” or race traitor. African American Republicans are all reported having to deal with this perception. It was very frustrating for them, especially when it came from people close to them, family and friends who they felt “these are people who should know me. They should know that I’m committed to black communities.”

Price: And then, of course, African American Republicans have to handle doubts leveled on them from within the party.

Fields:  For white Republicans that manifested in what I talk about as this skeptical embrace. On the one hand white Republicans want to embrace black Republicans. They want to present the party as being more inclusive and black Republicans become important to that message. But simultaneously there’s this concern that black Republicans, when it comes down to it in a pinch they’re going to put the race before politics, race before partisanship. There’s this ambivalence. African American Republicans reported feeling like they had to present their conservative bonafides when it came to white Republicans.  

Price: That uneasy relationship appears to be a two-way street.  Fields says many African American Republicans have dissatisfactions of their own.

Fields:  African-American Republicans felt like the Republican Party was constantly bungling race issues and putting them in this awkward position of having to justify how they could be in a party that supports candidates who say racist things, or support candidates who constantly make embarrassing racial gaffes, or a party that refuses to listen to what African American communities want and speak to them in empathetic and understanding ways.  I thought that the relationship between white Republicans and black Republicans would be more like a cozy symbiotic, everybody wins type of relationship. But there was a fair amount of frustration and constraint that African Americans felt in regards to their white colleagues.

Price: If the party wants to limit the frustrations of black Republican voters, it may seem reasonable to nominate an African American candidate for president. This could show their willingness to work with minority communities. However,  Fields says attracting more black voters may not be so simple.

Fields:  What I would guess based on my research is that it would depend on the message that black Republicans carried. So if it’s an African American Republican who’s essentially saying the same things that a white Republican would say I don’t think you’re going to find huge levels of support within black communities. It’s easy to say, “Oh well, black people voted for Obama because he was black,” but I think that completely ignores the fact that the policy preferences of African Americans aligned with the policy statements of Barack Obama. So I’m not convinced that black voters are fundamentally oriented and motivated by a shared identity, like “I’m vowing for the black guy.” I think the message matters. So if the Republican Party wants to put an African American at the top of the ticket that’s not going to be enough.

Price: Ultimately, Fields says he found it quite clear that though the Republicans had a very successful 2016 election cycle, their relationship with minorities — all minorities — is as tenuous as ever.

Fields:  In some ways we can think about the relationship that African American Republicans have with the Republican Party and think about how that might parallel other groups, like Latinos or women or LGBT folks. The story I tell about African American Republicans is applicable to a wider range of folks who presumably are going to be necessary if the Republican Party wants to maintain this level of electoral success as demographics of the country shift.

Price: To read more of Corey Field’s insights, you can find his book “Black Elephants in the Room” in bookstores now. For more information about all of our guests, visit our site at viewpoints online dot net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.