The author & assistant professor explores what it’s really like to be an African-American member of the Republican party in his text Black Elephants in the Room.
Author & Assistant Professor, Sociology Corey Fields
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight’s program was recorded just prior to this evening’s third and final presidential debate at UNLV. Up first tonight, a conversation with sociologist Corey Fields about his latest text, “Black Elephants in the Room: The Unexpected Politics of African American Republicans”.
And then, actor-comedian Dick Van Dyke joins us to talk about his book now out in paperback, “Keep Moving”, and we’ll get his thoughts on this election season.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. All of that coming up in just a moment.
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Tavis: Here’s a question. What do you think when you hear about a Black Republican? Are they racial sellouts? What is it really like to be a Black person in today’s Republican Party with a candidate like Donald Trump who you just saw in tonight’s third and final presidential debate?
I am pleased to welcome Professor and Sociologist Corey Fields to this program. His latest text is titled “Black Elephants in the Room: The Unexpected Politics of African American Republicans”. Professor Fields, good to have you on the program.
Corey Fields: Thanks for having me, Tavis.
Tavis: Let me start here, which is what did you learn about how these Black Republicans, whoever they may be, reconcile their Black identity with the Republican Party, its principles and what it stands for, what it promulgates?
Fields: Right. I mean, the most interesting thing was that there is variation in that. There wasn’t one way that they did it. So going into the project, you know, my impression of Black Republicans was shaped just like most other peoples’ from like the people who you see on the news, the people who end up speaking at the Republican Convention kind of thing.
And that tends to be one message, right? It’s sort of a tough-talking Black Republican who is saying, “Black folks, pull yourself up by your bootstraps”, you know, “Stop complaining about racism.” So going into the project, that’s what I was expecting, to get a lot of that and sort of hearing how people reconciled that.
But surprisingly, actually I found a lot of people who sort of talked about their Republican partisanship as sort of a form of pro-Black politics, right? Sort of Black power to be conservative principles kind of approach.
So for me, it was interesting to see, you know, these different strategies, sort of saying I care about Black people, but what’s best for Black people are conservative social policies versus the best thing for Black people is to stop talking about race.
Now those two different approaches get very different responses within the party, right? So, you know, if you’re sort of a race-conscious Black Republican, you often find yourself marginalized even though you support the same policies as the rest of the party.
So you have a strategy for trying to get more Black people involved. There’s less interest in sort of promoting a message of sort of pro-Black conservative politics. So that’s why our image of Black Republicans so often ends up being someone who, you know, sort of sounds a lot like a white Republican.
Tavis: You mention race-conscious. One of the things I learned from your text is that you discovered that there are really–that you put them in two different categories, two different kinds of Black Republicans.
Tavis: One would be the race-conscious Black Republican which you referenced a moment ago who don’t get much love inside the party…
Tavis: Surprise, surprise [laugh]. And the other group of Black Republicans would be race-blind Black Republicans.
Tavis: Tell me a bit more about the distinction between the two.
Fields: Yeah. I mean, a big distinction between the two is sort of how they conceptualize the role of race and racism in structuring the Black experience, right? For race-blind Black Republicans, many will say, you know, build an acknowledgement that racism is a real thing.
But when you think about a sort of hierarchy of Black peoples’ problems, race-blind Black Republicans will say, you know, racism isn’t what’s holding you back. It’s your own sort of like inability to get with the program or your unwillingness to, you know, buckle down, right?
They sort of isolate sort of individualist explanations or even talk about cultural pathologies within the Black community as being the locust of problems that Black people face, and then they link that, these ideas about Black people, to conservative social policies, right?
So the Republican Party makes sense because the Republican Party isn’t interested in sort of racial identity politics which this latest election has shown is not necessarily true, right? It’s just that the racial politics the party doesn’t seem interested in are sort of mostly focused on thinking about racial minorities, right? Sort of having those identities be prominent within the party.
Tavis: I thought to ask you–I’m still thinking to ask you–how these Black Republicans today justify, explain, rationalize their support of a candidate like Donald Trump. But as I’m thinking to ask you that, I’m actually checking myself because I don’t know that it’s fair to ask how Black Republicans can justify–you know where I’m going with this, right?
Tavis: Any more than the white Republicans could justify Donald Trump. So is the question that I was about to ask an unfair question?
Fields: I would say it’s a little bit unfair. This is something they sort of struggle with. And I definitely feel like one of the takeaways after doing the research, it’s completely legitimate to look at a Black Republican and say, “Why are you doing this? How are you doing this? I don’t understand how you can support this kind of policy.”
But I think you would have to ask those same questions of a white Republican. Like I feel like there isn’t anything especially unreasonable about a Black Republican supporting Donald Trump any more than a white Republican supporting Donald Trump.
But the reality is, we do have expectations around sort of like how political preferences are supposed to manifest based on social identities like race. So I understand the question and it makes a lot of sense, but I think in some ways it’s the same question we should be asking every Republican.
Tavis: So I take that. That’s why I caught myself before I asked it. But I think what is…
Fields: But still [laugh]…
Tavis: But still. Yeah, exactly. But still how do they justify [laugh]…
Fields: Right, exactly. Don’t believe…it’s one of these things.
Tavis: Right, right, right.
Fields: I can say this all day and I’ve been saying it all day and in the book. But it still is this open question of how do you do it, right? And the reality is a lot of them aren’t doing it, right? You’re seeing Black Republicans sort of say, “This is a bridge too far.”
I’ve stood by the Republican Party when a lot of people were calling me a sellout, a lot of people were calling me an Uncle Tom, and this is the repayment I get now, having to defend Donald Trump. And you see a lot of Black Republicans sort of, you know, jumping ship.
Tavis: But I think what is fair, though, Corey, I think what is a legitimate question–not that it is illegitimate, but what is, I think, more legitimate perhaps–is questioning how they support the party. Because Trump is an individual and, as we all know, he’s just up–ended the whole apple cart this time around.
Tavis: He’s just the most unique nominee that party has ever put forth, so we all get that. But there is a legitimate question again to be asked about how they support a party that advances policies that many of us see as antithetical to the best interest of Black people. That ain’t a Trump question. That’s a GOP question.
Fields: Exactly. And I think part of the way they do that is sort of reconfiguring how they think about Black interests, right? I mean, I think one of the important takeaways from the book and one of the questions I want to raise from the book is, you know, how do we determine Black interests, right? Like we can talk about that as if it’s a taken for granted or obvious thing, but that’s a hotly contested question in itself, right?
Even among Black Republicans, there are fights over how do we define Black interests and what’s good for Black people. I think, you know, the way Black Republicans themselves reconcile this is to sort of think about conservative social policies as promoting business, promoting family, right? And that these sort of very broadly speaking become principles that will uplift the Black community.
I think, you know, if I’m being completely fair and honest about the Black Republican experience, a lot of times they’d mean standing behind the ideals while trying to disavow the current manifestation of those ideals.
And that’s something I saw in my research, something we’re seeing in the current election where there’s this sense of I’m a Republican, I believe in the ideals even when the party doesn’t stand up to them. And many of the Black Republicans I studied, like they aren’t Republican, Ride or Die, right? There will be many white Republicans, they’ll say not this guy, but still want to hold onto the commitment to the…
Tavis: One of the things I found fascinating, not surprising, but fascinating is that the persons that you talk to when given an opportunity, as I understand from your writing, when given an opportunity to be either on the record or to be anonymous in their comment, they chose to be anonymous.
What did you make of that? One way to read that is that they can be more freely in talking. The other way to read is that, you know, they’re in the party, but a little bit too embarrassed to go on the record. Which one is more accurate?
Fields: I think the former is probably more accurate.
Fields: This was sort of anonymity became a way to sort of open up full disclosure. Because the experience of Black Republicans within the party isn’t particularly positive, right? There is a lot of sort of complaining about being Black within the party, feeling like you were sort of called on as like a racial token to legitimate racist policies, right?
And feeling like you aren’t being heard when you want to articulate a pro-Black agenda getting marginalized. So I think people wanted anonymity so they could talk freely and honestly. In some ways, you know, being a Black Republican, many of the activists I talked to, they like being the outsider, right?
For them, there’s this sense of specialness, of like I see something no one else does that you kind of get to have when you’re engaged in this kind of unexpected politics. Most of them are out to friends and family about their partisanship, so I think this was more–their wanting to be anonymous was more about not upsetting the apple cart within the party because it’s a delicate dance they have to do.
Tavis: Long-term, the percentage of Black Republicans is gonna be the same or is it going to grow? Is it going to shrink? Where are we headed with Black Republicans?
Fields: I mean, there seems to be no real reason to expect any sort of upward trend in it, right? I’d be surprised if the current election in a few weeks produces any bump in the number of Black Republicans like the Blacks voting for the Republican Party. I think what could happen is the sort of destabilizing effect of Trump on the Republican Party, what happens to the Republican Party after the election?
Maybe we see a newly configured Republican Party that’s sort of more moderate and temperate, right? When then might open up things. But in a lot of way, Black Republicans are sort of, I think, capped partly because of the decisions of the Republican Party more broadly and where they’re headed.
Tavis: Well, you put your finger, I think, on the pulse of where we are, which is this question that everybody’s wrestling with which we will see in the coming months and years on how it gets answered. But it’s the penultimate question, I think, which is what does the Republican Party do post-Donald Trump?
Whether he wins or loses, how do they reframe, reshape this party, given the damage that’s been done to it? And is that damage irreparable?
I don’t know the answer to those questions, but we’ll be every night talking about it trying to figure it out with people like Corey D. Fields, who’s the author of the new book, “Black Elephants in the Room: The Unexpected Politics of African American Republicans”. Professor Fields, good to have you on.
Fields: Thanks for having me, Tavis.
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