Leah Wright Rigueur

The Black Republicans

Air Date: December 27, 2014

Leah Wright Rigueur discusses her new book "The Loneliness of the Black Republican."


I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

RNC Chairman Michael Steele, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. In reverse chronological order, these are among the most visible contemporary – all African American – faces of the Republican Party.

In her scholarly début, our guest today reveals new insight into the interactions between people of color and the Republican Party. Leah Wright Rigueur’s masterly The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power, chronicles the ideas of Black Republicans from the New Deal to Ronald Reagan’s presidential ascent in 1980.

Formerly based at Wesleyan University, Leah Wright Rigueur is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. “The question of why [Blacks are Republicans] quickly becomes a more loaded inquiry: How could they?,” she writes. Continuing, “For some, anger with Black Republicans is an implicit rejection of a larger accommodationist tradition.

To their critics, Black Republicans are racial apologists, complicit in an age-old crusade to delegitimize the Black quest for racial justice.”

Our guest’s fresh analysis of the origins of the Black Republican narrative reminds us theirs is Party of Lincoln and of radicals who fought for Emancipation and civil rights – in fact a party that supported an anti-lynching plank long before FDR and the Democrats, so to begin, I want to ask her if the spirit of those radicals, in the last half-century of Black Republicans, is still alive?

RIGUEUR: (Laughter) What a question to start out with (laugh). But first, thank you, Alexander, for having me on the show, I, I’m really excited to, to be here and to share my book with you and with a wider audience. So thank you for that.

HEFFNER: Thanks for being here.

RIGUEUR: (Laugh) So is the spirit of radicalism still alive? In some instances, yes, it is. So over the course of my book, it looks at 1936 to 1980. We do see some of those same activities. We see a lot of the torch bearers for civil rights.

We see people who want to work within the so-called Party of Lincoln, even well after it’s no longer the Party of Lincoln, to make it more equitable, make it into a party of civil rights, so that African Americans can have political choices. So we do see that in some places.

HEFFNER: Well, you identified the word radical, it could mean a lot of different things.


HEFFNER: So what are the strains of radicalism and their origin in the contemporary party?

RIGUEUR: So, I think … that’s, that’s a interesting question, in part because like you said, “radical” can be defined multiple different ways. And some of the things that I trace in the book is, are, are contemporary strains of neo-Liberalism, regular Liberalism, just kind of contemporary Liberalism and also the evolution of neo-Conservatism. Where do all of these things come from?

And one of the things that I found in my research is that these things can all be really traced back in some way shape or form to what’s going on in the party between, over the course of this 50 year period. So people who are engaging in kind of explosive politics from the Left side of the spectrum and from the Right side of the spectrum that converge in all kinds of different and, I think flexible ways.

HEFFNER: We were talking off camera a bit about a formative moment in which Barry Goldwater, the Conservative from Arizona was nominated by the Republicans …


HEFFNER: And Jackie Robinson, who believed in the spirit of Lincoln, as a Republican, renounced the party, he wanted to support Nelson Rockefeller, the former Governor of New York …


HEFFNER: … and, and in your book that seems like a pivotal moment that is re-shaping the trajectory of the Republican Party and its relationship with African Americans.

RIGUEUR: Absolutely. So, so it’s a watershed moment, not just for Jackie Robinson, who is this figure that we know is highly political, so we know him for his baseball career and his sports career and for being ground breaking in that way. But he’s also very active in politics. So it’s a ground-breaking moment for him, watershed moment.

But it’s also a watershed moment for Black people in the Republican Party more broadly. Because it forces them to speak openly and very aggressively about their position on civil rights. It forces them to take a side. And part of that is because the party is moving in a direction that many of them do not feel comfortable with. Many, many, many of them do not feel comfortable with this. In fact, they go back and forth in 1964 at the Cow Palace as Barry Goldwater is being nominated with … staging a walk out, what they call a “Black out”. They talk about “Maybe we should stay within the party”. And I think Jackie Robinson is instrumental in really organizing these people into a group that then becomes an oppositional force within the party to Goldwater forces. You know, Jackie Robinson says “There’s no room in the party for racists and there’s no room in the party for Conservative Goldwater Republicans”. And they’re adamant about that.

HEFFNER: Was it really his vote against the Civil Rights Act and his votes against acknowledging equal rights under the law, equal protection that led Jackie Robinson to take that position, so publicly, so strongly?

RIGUEUR: So, there are a couple of different things. I think it’s definitely the vote against the Civil Right Act and it’s the opposition, Barry Goldwater, even before the 1964 Civil Rights Act is, is saying, you know, “I opposed these tenants of the Civil Rights Act and therefore I won’t support it.”

So he’s, even before then. But he’s really opposed, I think to, this argument that Goldwater’s trying to make about civil rights and states’ rights. And so Goldwater is putting forward this idea that civil rights and states’ rights are, are somewhat in competition. And he says that there are certain things that are guaranteed by, you know, by the Constitution. But then he argues other things that we interpret as civil rights are not.

So, in fact, he says “Even though I support Brown v. Board of Education, it’s not necessarily Constitutional, versus the right to vote, which is guaranteed by the Constitution.” And, of course, you can imagine, this just gets Jackie Robinson very, very riled up because he’s saying “How can you say my basic human rights (laugh) and my basic civil rights are, in fact, unconstitutional? I deserve just as much a chance as, as anybody else.”

And so I think part of what’s going on is that he really sees a problem with, not just the ideology, the principles that Goldwater’s introducing, even if, you know, they are intellectually sound, or if, you know, if there is some kind of intellectual rigor behind them, but rather what it allows the party to do and the kind of people it attracts to the party.

And so even as he’s, you know, debating with Goldwater in a public forum and with other Goldwater-its, he’s saying “You’re bringing people into the party that are bringing the party down, that are weakening the party.”

And he starts to see the rise of Southern White Republicans who are engaged in segregationist activities. And, of course, that makes him very, very upset.

HEFFNER: Was … I’m curious if there was any effort to court Jackie Robinson and, and basically do an about-face?

RIGUEUR: It comes, it comes both before and after the, the 1964 Convention. So before I think Goldwater in particular tries to reach out to some Black audiences and they, they still find his message just, you know, distasteful … we can’t, we can’t really fathom it. And there, of course, are exceptions to this, but they’re in the minority.

After the election, surprisingly you see Jackie Robinson and Barry Goldwater strike up a letter writing truce. They start writing back and forth to each other after speaking at an event in the mid-1960’s. And, and part of, I think, what Jackie Robinson is trying to do is explain to Barry Goldwater, from his perspective as a Black man in America … what is distasteful about the Republican Party and about Goldwater’s beliefs. So you really see an intellectual debate erupt between them, but whereas before it’s kind of at-each-others-throats, now it’s trying to make one another understand.

And, and I like to think … you know, Jackie Robinson dies well before Barry Goldwater and before they can establish any kind of real relationship, but Jackie Robinson is effective, at least in getting Goldwater to understand how his message … again, no matter how principled Goldwater believed it was, would actually be a huge turn-off for … not only Black voters, but White Moderates, Latino voters and other underrepresented minority groups. Things like that.

HEFFNER: You’re absolutely right because later in life he said he regretted casting that vote against …


HEFFNER: … the Civil Rights Act …


HEFFNER: … Civil Rights Act … and it personally that engagement … what a lot of African Americans say is that the, the same thing that you’re describing … distasteful … distasteful, is it … when you think of someone like Paul Ryan today who’s, who’s trying to reach the African American community on an issue like poverty, but making gestures that suggest the implicit or even explicit culpability of these people …


HEFFNER: … do you see any parallels here?

RIGUEUR: So absolutely. And I, I think what’s important to note is that one of the things I discuss in my book is that over the course of … not just the 50 year period that I really examine in depth, but even beyond that … even to present day … we occasionally see the Republican Party and candidates within the Republican Party making outreach efforts.

And so, it, it usually comes when they’re on the losing end of a Presidential cycle or something … or midterm election where people say “We need to make more of an effort to do these kind of outreach things.”

And so you do see gestures being made, candidates starting to talk about issues that affect African Americans disproportionately, but they often times run into the same kind of problems, where they use the same kind of rhetoric, either coded rhetoric, offensive rhetoric, that ends up alienating the very people that they’re trying to attract. So, you do very much see it.

HEFFNER: And, and that’s the great irony … I think it is astonishing … people are flabbergasted when they learn of this reversal of parties. Because it was the Dixiecrats and the Democrats …


HEFFNER: Who were so violently in their rhetoric and their action opposed to people of color … didn’t even want to believe they had a place in this union. So I want to step back for a second …


HEFFNER: … let’s go back from Goldwater, because your book starts in the twenties …

RIGUEUR: 19 … yeah the twenties and the thirties …

HEFFNER: … how did we get to a place in the Republican Party that made a Goldwater candidacy, in fact, nomination possible?

RIGUEUR: (Laughter) That is a huge, huge question … and I think it’s a very good question …

HEFFNER: Reduce it, reduce it … for our audience in a way that we can then follow up on it.

RIGUEUR: So there are a couple of different things that happen. I think even before we talk about Goldwater, you start to see the emergence of political strategists who are pushing a lily white strategy for the Republican Party. So they feel as though African Americans are not bringing the kinds of votes that we want, we need to concentrate on White voters, to the exclusion of African American voters.

And so we do see a lot of struggle over that in the 1920s and well into the 1930s. But then we also see people within the party who are still pushing for the inclusion of African American voters, especially the loyal voting body … you know, party of Lincoln.

But ultimately we do have people within the party that are strategizing about what is the best way to win elections? What is the best way to pull people in? And there’s this constant kind of back and forth about … if we, if we appeal to people of color, if we appeal to African Americans we are going to lose White voters, so there’s a constant calculation that’s going about how many, you know, how many White voters we will lose if we appeal to Black voters?

And I think you really start to see that in 1944 when Ralph Bunche, the politicals …the favorite … famous scientist and Nobel Prize winner … does this report for the Republican Party and there are all these wonderful suggestions, that really serve as a blueprint for what the party can do to win back Black voters.

And the party is scared to use it. They are absolutely terrified because while they recognize that these are things that are going to bring African Americans back into the Party of Lincoln, right, the so-called Party of Lincoln, that it may cost them this … increasing votes of White Southerners, and so it’s also at this time that we start to see a difference … segments of the Party ramp up money on spending, on recruiting White Southerners … so we see a lot of different kind of R&C projects that go on in the 1940s and 1950s that are all about attracting White Southern voters.

And I think really what ends up happening is that Goldwater coalesces all of these ideas, brings all of these ideas together and really becomes a voice that speaks to things that a certain segment of the White South is deeply attracted to. In particular, the deep, the deep South states.

HEFFNER: Was that famous blueprint that you allude to in response to the need to find an adequate Republican reaction to the progressive policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the way in which they tangibly assisted the lives of people of color?

RIGUEUR: So I think, you know, there have been many scholars who have written about the emergence of the New Deal coalition and, as I say in the introduction to the book, African Americans make tangible gains from New Deal social policies. Even as, you know, again there have been … many people have written about the problems inherent to these New Deal policies and how African Americans are discriminated against in many of these policies. They still make very tangible gains and they make a connection with Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

You know, the old saying goes, there’s, there’s this great quote that says, “Turn away … you know, turn Abraham Lincoln’s picture to the wall and replace it with Franklin Roosevelt”. Because he becomes kind of a symbol that addresses suffering in a way that the Republicans had just been unable to do.


RIGUEUR: And so this is why they employ Ralph Bunche. How do we, how do we ….


RIGUEUR: … get back in the game? (Laugh)

HEFFNER: And Eleanor Roosevelt, in photographs, in, in …


HEFFNER: … videos that were recently recovered in the Roosevelt series, the Ken Burns documentary … there … people of color …


HEFFNER: … in their communities and, and so that was a, a …


HEFFNER: … selling point for generations of Democrats.

RIGUEUR: Right. And I think you can’t discount the role tht Eleanor Roosevelt plays … you know … there’s … there … I think there are, are some critics who might say, “Well you know, we should … we need to pay attention to the Presidential policies in the Executive office”.

But Eleanor Roosevelt is a huge fiturehead in the White House and the, the efforts that she makes and the outreach that she makes to African Americans is profound. You know being photographed … just being photographed with Black people, having two Black men escort her in the South on a train … I mean that’s, that’s ground breaking And so there’s a symbolic element that we also see come into play with the establishment of FDR’s Black Cabinet.

So even these … though these are people who have non-voting positions, they are African Americans of prominence who are put in high level places to be advisory roles. So just the idea that African Americans can have input into policies that affect them (laugh) is, is really … again … to use this word … profound.

HEFFNER: At the beginning of the program, I mentioned names that resonate not just with Conservatives, but with the vast majority of Americans. You know, the, the Black man on the Supreme Court …


HEFFNER: … is, some would say “reactionary, conservative” who very much would align with the Goldwater of the sixties. So, I mean you say that one of the lingering questions from, from the book and your scholarship is … you know how do, how do Republicans get back to the basics, as it were, with Black communities. And, and, I mean, the outlier here is these, these isolated Conservatives who predominate our politics … that we really think of …


HEFFNER: Colin Powell endorsed President Obama in 2008 and 2012. And, and he’s the one person from the introduction who has not continued along the Conservative or neo-Conservative bent.


HEFFNER: So, how do we make sense of these post-Goldwater figures in the Republican Party or in Conservatism who still embody the essences of what that Goldwater … you know, ideology was?

RIGUEUR: Well, the, the … one of the things that I talk about in the book is how there’s, there’s been a strain of Conservatism, Right Wing Conservatism that has existed within these kind of pockets of Black Republicanism for, for generations, for decades, that actually pre-date …

HEFFNER: Right … and you say in your conclusion, you talk about the commitment to the individual, individual rights …


HEFFNER: … and individual’s being responsible for their own economic welfare and gain …


HEFFNER: And, and that was, you know, a piece of it.

RIGUEUR: Right. But I think what, what’s important to remember is that these individuals, even as they gain steam and pick up after 1964, they co-exist with Black Republicans who run the gamut of ideological beliefs. So they co-exist with Moderates, they co-exist with Liberal Republicans … right … so a figure like … Jackie Robinson co-exists with Black people who support Barry Goldwater, you know, the, the few, that small group.

What’s even more remarkable to me is that during this earlier period, we start to see that even as they hold these intensely conservative views, which give birth to modern neo-Conservatism, they are still intrigued by the ideas of moderate Republicanism and Liberal Republicanism and they are willing to work with these various wings and various factions in order to come up with satisfactory solutions that would appeal to African American voters.

So I think this is one of the defining, you know, differences between periods is which is that you have these wings that are co-existing and actually working together at some point, whereas we don’t really see that as much in the present day.

HEFFNER: One of your theses is that these Black Republicans, or at least the Black Republicans within the electorate, not the high profile ones that we mention are sort of mis-understood. I mean there’s a bit of a misunderstanding here.

In, in a post-Obama political theater in which the Democrats really embraced and publicly embraced Blackness so much that they nominated a bi-racial man who became our first, we call our first Black President … is there any hope … I mean you talk about …

RIGUEUR: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … is there any … what would, what would history … how would history inform the Republican blueprint to reach Blacks news.

RIGUEUR: Well I think there’s, there’s been some interesting research … can of at the preliminary stages that shows that African Americans 1) are incredibly savvy political voters. You know, they don’t just cast votes just because … they cast them for, for deliberate, specific reasons, very nuanced reasons. But there’s also been research that shows that when African Americans start to see no difference between the two political parties on, on matters of civil rights and matters of race, that they actually “woo-able”, they’re moveable, they can … ship changes … are ship side.

And an example of this is we start to see and, and I mention this in the conclusion of the book … but in 2004 we see a spike or a rise in the number of African Americans identifying as Republican between the ages of 18 to 34.

Hurricane Katrina changes all of that. Because we start to see a Republican Administration, how it affects African Americans in response to this, you know, horrific crisis, and so it, it pushes the bioses back. So one wonders, you know, as we start to see African Americans, or Black voters feel a little more indifferent about Democrats in, in 2014 … is there a possibility of the Republicn Party winning them back.

Now one of the things that I argue is that there’s really a lot of possibility on the local level. And the local is, is different in part because people can form connections with individual politicians, connections that don’t, that can transcend party affiliations. Right, so I vote for candidate X, not because he or she is a Republican, but because I like them as a candidate.

So I don’t necessarily see their political affiliation. And that’s what a lot of these politicians are banking on. And so we do see Republicans getting substantial numbers of Black voters in areas where there’s a separation or where in areas where African Americans trust those candidates.

On a national level it, it’s far more difficult because there’s that political distance and then also the Republican Party has to overcome its history and then the wing of the party that continues to do antagonistic things or engage in behaviors that alienate African Americans so as, for example, as a Presidential candidate, you’re always going to be going up against the history of your party and then those people within your party, who we might say, you know, represent the worst of the party standing in as a figurehead for the party … if that, if that makes sense.

HEFFNER: No, it makes sense. And then the question becomes on the Federal level, who is the standard bearer, who can …


HEFFNER: … convey that message. And, and, on the, but I want to dig a little deeper into the local question, because if you believe all politics is, is local … thank you Tip O’Neill …

RIGUEUR: (Laugh)

HEFFNER: … then it would, it would become kind of a revolution as a result of success at the local level. From your research in, in the eighties and nineties compared to today …


HEFFNER: … in communities that are more heterogeneously Black …


HEFFNER: … that have seen some of the scandals associated with political corruption that is one party in this case, the Democratic Party, is there an openness to new ways of thinking about issues … in other words, are these voters going to be persuaded that the Conservative approach is the right one? Or are they just looking for an alternative?

RIGUEUR: So I think it’s both. If that’s you know, if that’s not a cop-out answer … (laughter)

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

RIGUEUR: … part of, I think, what’s going on is that Black voters are always going to be interested in alternatives and, and this even beyond two party politics … we see a lot of interest in third party politics.

We also see a lot of, of Black voters who boycott, who say I’m not going to vote because there are not choices available to me. And this, this is occurring on the local level, too, right. So abstaining from voting as a political act in and of itself as well.

That being said, I think what you will see is interest in supporting a Repubican candidate and policies if those policies can positively affect …


RIGUEUR: … African Americans.

HEFFNER: And you can’t start … we’re running out of time … but you can’t start with being against voting rights.

RIGUEUR: Correct. (Laugh)

HEFFNER: … but I mean that’s sort of a basic point and there still is some confusion about the Republican position on voter ID laws. I mean the Republicans argue that they want to insure the integrity of the ballot box …

RIGUEUR: Right. Well, so …

HEFFNER: What say you?

RIGUEUR: … part of … I mean part of what is so frustrating about this is … if you look back, and if, if you look back at the history … after 1964 there is a, there’s a pivotal moment within the Republican Party where they say, “We can’t focus on things like vote ID laws, we need to focus on registering more Black people to vote.” Like this is the way (laugh) ensure an, an equitable democracy and to make sure that people participate in the political process.

And you know, you have people like Richard Nixon even saying “If we register people to vote and if we help them to vote instead of blocking them from voting, then maybe they’ll be more receptive to actually listening to our policies and then maybe even supporting our policies.”

HEFFNER: It’s a wonderful book, “Loneliness of the Black Republican”. Thanks for much for being on The Open Mind today.

RIGUEUR: Well, thank you so much for having me, it was a delight. Than you.

HEFFNER And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time…for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind.

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