Hummmmm. Even if late, sometimes the light comes on.
When I arrived in Tampa for my first-ever Republican National Convention in 2012, I was enchanted. I met Jeb Bush and attended a panel on education and school choice. Kevin Johnson, the Democratic mayor of Sacramento, spoke alongside Bush, who talked about how his educational policies in Florida were focused on helping minorities find quality education, regardless of Zip code. There I was, listening to this bipartisan conversation focused on helping poor youths empower themselves and excel. There were no dog whistles and no racial innuendo, just good genuine policy focused on giving those in need a hand up. Exhilarating!
I was a proud African American who had voted for, donated to and supported Republicans in elections past, and now I was going to be part of a revolution in the GOP. The party of Lincoln finally reached out to people who looked like me.
It has never been easy being a black conservative. I was frustrated by how Democrats never seemed to have to earn African American votes but instead hid behind accusations of racism to hold the loyalty of people of color. And my views often made me feel ostracized. Like many African American conservatives, I sometimes approached social gatherings with other minorities with dread — I always tried to steer clear of politics, knowing that the conversation would veer to adulation for the first African American president and how I was “selling out.” But my first convention made me forget all of that for once.
The convention made me feel good about becoming more involved with the party, even though there was some ugliness simmering beneath the surface. An African American camerawoman was attacked with racial slurs, but I thought that was just an outlier. Later, I had to move on from Mitt Romney’s stereotype-laced postelection conference call, in which he said that minorities did not support him because they wanted gifts. The leadership of the party was slow to address racial strife in Ferguson, Mo.; West Baltimore, Hempstead, Tex.; Sanford, Fla., and many other places — even making excuses such as media overhype and race-baiting.
I wrote it off as the need for more diversity in the party. I even found myself defending voter suppression laws in states throughout the South since we needed to ensure “the integrity of the vote,” even if that meant doing it on the backs of those with fewer resources.
I mentally discarded other incidents until Donald Trump walked down that escalator and declared his candidacy for president. When he attacked Hispanics, it sent a chill down my spine. If he feels that way about them, how does he feel about me? I thought.
The intensity of my excitement in 2012 was replaced with a sobering disappointment for 2016. Trump’s desire to appeal to the so-called alt-right wing was troubling. His slowness to disavow the KKK was eye-popping. His insistence that more “law and order” is needed to address poor relationships between police and African American communities was sickening. His clumsy and ill-informed “outreach” to African Americans — which assumed we all lived in poverty, squalor and government dependence — was more insulting than uplifting. His decision to leverage African American apologists as surrogates such as Ben Carson and Mark Burns showed he was out of touch with the African American community and unwilling to change.
The 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland was a much different experience than Tampa. Against my better judgment, I attended, much less naive than four years before. The timing was critical — we were just a few weeks removed from the police killings in Dallas and the death of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge. The nation was stirred by the violence and unrest. Cooler heads needed to prevail. The first-day convention speakers did the opposite. Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke praised those who acquitted the officers in the Freddie Gray case and blasted the Black Lives Matter movement with very little compassion for the pain felt by so many when unarmed African Americans are killed by those in authority. Speakers after him followed suit.
Unlike 2012, this time I noticed I was a stark minority in a sea of white. I hadn’t been conscious of it before — it had not even mattered. All of the sudden, I felt like an outsider.
Part of my original attraction to the party was my conviction in my beliefs and how I thought those beliefs aligned with the party. I believe that society’s problems cannot be solved by simply growing government. I believe that government should be a steward of public money and resources, not wield them for personal political power. I believe that local government should be where the most power lies so citizens can more easily hold officials accountable. I believe that everyone should be able to worship the God they believe in, however they want to. I believe in the power of the free market. I do not believe in equal rewards, but I do believe in equal opportunity, regardless of Zip code. And my heart also bleeds when another unarmed African American is shot dead in the streets by police and politicians cover it up or leverage it for gain.
But today’s GOP, the party of Trump, of voter suppression and of religious and racial intolerance, does not represent those beliefs.
In my opinion, there are two types of African American Republicans. The first group is not sensitive to the distinct needs of the African American community or understands those needs but for selfish reasons puts them second to gain favor and not “rock the boat” within the party. The second group gets it and wants the party to change. They try tirelessly because they love this country, are devoted to what they believe in and want this party to be viable for African Americans.
For those in the first group I described, I hope for you that the Trump presidency delivers happiness. I have a hard time seeing how it could for the rest of us sensitive to our communities, but your priorities may lie elsewhere.
To those in the other group — the ones that get it — keep up the fight. You are better than me. I can no longer consider myself associated with this party that supported such a man and such an indifferent campaign.
I truly struggle to understand my place in this new Republican reality, where insensitivity and callousness replace the “better angels of our nature” (to quote the great Abraham Lincoln). And the reward for this approach? A wave that propelled Trump to the White House and Republican control of Congress.
Why bother? It is hard to see how my vision for the party could ever come to be if the opposite of that vision yields such fruit.