“One of Our Own”
Black Incorporations into Contemporary Conservative Politics
In 2011 the American Conservative Union announced that Florida congressman Allen West would deliver the coveted closing keynote address at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). A few months earlier, West became the first African American Republican elected to represent the state since the end of Reconstruction; his election was backed by an outpouring of right-wing grassroots support. David Keene, CPAC organizer and chair of the American Conservative Union, declared that Congressman West was “one of our own” who “epitomizes the core conservative values CPAC attendees treasure: a basic belief in human freedom, traditional values, and a love of country based on an appreciation of the nation’s founding documents.”
West caught the attention of conservatives nationally after delivering a fiery address to a 2009 Tea Party rally in Fort Lauderdale, telling the audience, “We have a class warfare that’s going on. You’ve got a producing class, and you’ve got an entitlement class.” West narrated his own story, rising from “the inner city of Atlanta” to serving for twenty-two years in the military and “leading men and women into combat,” as a tale not just of racial striving but of U.S. exceptionalism rooted in market freedoms, military might, and a deep antipathy toward the state. He never suggested this “entitlement class” was Black or brown or relegated to the inner city. “These people,” he explained, “are living in and amongst us” and were poised, like the wayward public-sector workers discussed in chapter 1, to bring the nation to its knees. West concluded to the Tea Party faithful, “If you are ready to stand up, to get your musket, to fix your bayonet and to charge into the ranks, then you are my brother or sister in this fight.” The overwhelmingly white audience gave West a wild ovation, and a video of the speech soon went viral in conservative circles, garnering millions of views on YouTube.
West’s address to nearly eleven thousand CPAC attendees did not disappoint. He celebrated the free market, tax cuts, the private sector, and limited government, warning that “we cannot continue with a public sector that is out-taking the private sector” and that the nation could not “survive as a bureaucratic nanny state.” He made plain his hostility to reproductive rights and venerated the patriarchal family. He reiterated his long-standing commitment to a robust militarism, explaining that while serving in Iraq in the early 2000s he “stood on the wall to tell his country, ‘sleep peacefully at night because this man stands ready to do the violence and things necessary to protect you.’” Elements of his extreme rhetoric anticipated the violent ultra-nationalism that would mark the Trump campaign five years hence, such as his unapologetic critique of “radical Islamist belligerents who transport the seventh century ideologies that are anathema to the values of American and Western Civilization.”
And as in his Tea Party rally address, West narrated his conservative commitments through his personal life and trajectory, with explicit references to his roots as a working-class Black southerner. He explained that his parents, who were “nicknamed Buck and Snooks,” sent him to school “across the street from the Baptist Church” and that as a child growing up in rural Randolph County, Georgia, he climbed pecan trees and was “brought up to say ‘pea-can.’”
Stories of Black folkish authenticity pitched at white audiences are hardly new; Clarence Thomas continually framed his life story in these terms during his confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991. But what makes West’s invocation of these tropes at CPAC and elsewhere distinct is that he offered them as exemplars not of a particularistic Black tradition but as exemplars of conservatism writ large, the purest significations of the enduring value of militarism, patriotism, and an ethic of striving and self-sufficiency. He described at length the scorn he faced from the media and the liberal establishment for being a Black conservative, explicitly connecting his experiences to the condescension and derision that those in the audience continually faced from the same forces. His bravery, in the face of this smug hostility and derision, was for them. He concluded his speech, “This son of America stands before you on this grand stage committing himself to his country, to its national character, to its fiscal and national security, to the preservation of the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of every American. . . . I do it for the men and women in uniform. I do it for the little boy and little girl wearing a high school junior ROTC uniform just like I did. I do it for the unborn American child.” The crowd erupted in deafening applause and a standing ovation. “One of our own” indeed.
While West’s single term in Congress was marked by controversy—he insisted in a town hall meeting that at least seventy-eight Democrats in Congress were members of the Communist Party—his ascension within the contemporary GOP is far from aberrant. West is among an important cohort of Black conservatives who have stepped onto the national stage since the Tea Party’s emergence in 2009, including Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, Representative Mia Love of Utah, 2012 presidential candidate Herman Cain, and 2016 presidential candidate and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) secretary Dr. Ben Carson. Indeed, thirty-two Black Republicans ran for congressional seats in 2012. Other people of color have also become some of the most popular figures among the party’s conservative rank and file in recent elections: Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, Idaho congressman Raul Labrador, Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, and Governors Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Brian Sandoval of Nevada.
These figures, to be sure, vary greatly in their ideological orientation, their emergence within the GOP, and their relationship to contemporary conservatism. In addition, race does different kinds of work in each of these accounts. The immigrant-uplift stories attached to Asian American politicians like Jindal and Haley differ in important ways from the militaristic nationalism of Allen West and the forms of maternal law-and-order politics advanced by a figure like Susana Martinez. But taken together, they suggest subtle transformations in the racialization of electoral politics in general and conservative formations in particular.
Of course, organic traditions of Black conservatism stretch back to the late nineteenth century. As scholars including Corey Fields, Joshua Farrington, Timothy Thurber, and Leah Wright Rigueur have demonstrated, while Black conservatives have had an enduring if uneven relationship with the GOP, many continue to find conservative policies and ideals to be commensurate with the self-interests of Black communities. That is, they understand the principles of free markets and limited government, and more recently restrictions on immigration and reproductive rights, as facilitating Black uplift and Black social, political, and economic power. Angela Dillard argued in the early 2000s that “American political conservatism can no longer be viewed, and accurately represented, as the exclusive preserve of white, male, and heterosexual persons with comfortable class positions.”
The figures we examine in this chapter, however, differ in important ways from previous generations of conservatives of color in general and Black conservatives in particular. This is not because their emergence can be read (as many conservative partisans would have it) as a kind of triumphalist color-blind ideology that has overtaken an earlier history of racial exclusion and subordination. The base and profile of the contemporary Republican Party is as white, conservative, and Christian as it has ever been, and its policy positions and budget priorities only strengthen long-standing racial hierarchies. In many areas of the South in particular, the GOP is effectively an all-white party. The emergence of these figures also does not represent a realignment in the racialized patterns of partisanship that have crystallized nationally in the last thirty years. Since 1964, at least 80 percent of Black voters have cast their ballot for the Democratic nominee for president. Obama secured 95 percent of the Black vote in 2008 and 93 percent in 2012. The Washington Post reported that the 2016 Republican National Convention (RNC) had the fewest number of Black delegates for any such meeting in the last one hundred years (both as a percentage and as an absolute number)—only 18 out of 2,472 delegates total. In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump garnered only 6 percent of the Black vote and less than 20 percent of the Latino/a vote, though men in both groups voted for Trump at significantly higher rates than did women in those groups.
Given these dynamics and the GOP’s record of antipathy during the last fifty years toward any remediation of racial hierarchy and inequality, why do subjects like West, Scott, and Love come to serve as exemplars of contemporary white conservatism—indeed, among its most celebrated figures? How does their racial identity serve to legitimate commitments to market freedoms, anti-statism, militarized authority, and exclusionary immigration politics?
What makes these figures different, we argue, is that their racialized subjectivities do not simply function to discipline or scold other Black people and people of color from embracing anti-racist or redistributory politics. Since 1965 the dominant mode of Black incorporation within conservatism—witnessed in figures including Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, Ward Connerly, and Clarence Thomas and in journals like Destiny and Lincoln Review—has focused on the alleged failures of affirmative action programs and critiques of the state as they relate to race. These conservatives of color (we could also include here figures like the writer Dinesh D’Souza) were primarily authorized to address matters of race from a conservative perspective and to critique those demanding more robust state intervention into discrimination. Their role and imperative was clear: to discredit left/liberal critiques of state-sponsored anti-discrimination measures and those who would demand greater state intervention into racial and social equality.
By contrast, race functions differently for West, Scott, and Love, particularly in relation to their base of white conservative voters. At a time of growing precarity and vulnerability for many white households, we argue that they become the idealized subjects of the marketized and militarized nation, continually testifying to its exceptional qualities at a time of crisis. For West, Scott, and Love, race not only stands in as an ethical and redemptive subjectivity that works to reinforce and naturalize a host of ideas central to modern conservatism; it also symbolizes a kind of outsider status with which many white conservatives have come to identify.
From this perspective, the rise in the number of people of color within the GOP is not simply a tactical measure or an instrumental maneuver to expand the party’s electoral share among voters of color. Nor is it only window dressing intended to disavow and distract from the party’s long-standing hostility toward racial justice. West, Love, and Scott all defeated white conservative opponents to win election in districts dominated by white conservative voters. These figures instead exemplify more profound changes in the ways race is being deployed within dominant modes of neoliberal governance and electoral politics and in the shaping of popular consent under conditions of growing precarity and crisis. As we explain, these developments, nurtured by Democrats and Republicans alike, can be traced to the uneven trajectory and incorporation of Black social movements since the early 1970s, in which symbols of Blackness have become increasingly unmoored from their radical and oppositional legacies.
“Think Your Way Out of Poverty”: The Rise of Senator Tim Scott
The First Congressional District in South Carolina hugs the southern coast of the Palmetto state, including the tidal and barrier sea islands of Charleston, Colleton, and Beaufort Counties. Historically, it has extended from the Santee River south to the Georgia border, incorporating much of the city of Charleston. During Reconstruction, newly enfranchised Black voters in the district elected to four consecutive terms freedman Joseph H. Rainey, the first African American to serve in the House.
The Republican Party’s relationship to racial politics in the South has a complex history. The party emerged in the 1850s as a distinctly antislavery formation. Its candidate barely won a four-way contest in the presidential election of 1860, but afterward it prosecuted the Civil War, became the party of Black emancipation, and then became the party of Reconstruction. Rainey championed many of the landmark civil rights laws of the Reconstruction period before losing his seat in 1878 to a Confederate Civil War veteran. Reactionary forces in the South and North aligned to defeat the project of Reconstruction, and by 1877 the party slowly abandoned its commitment to full Black citizenship.
By 1896, with Black voters effectively disenfranchised across the state, the district elected a series of white Democratic representatives, whose hostility to civil rights and anti-discrimination politics was unbroken. In the 1930s Black loyalty to the Republican Party eroded quickly in favor of the Democratic New Deal. It was not that Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the national party offered anything distinct in the way of a substantive Black political program, such as the promotion of anti-lynching legislation or an end to Jim Crow rule in the South. But facing forms of economic exploitation and poverty, African Americans had much more to gain economically from the Democrats than the Republicans. Roosevelt won 71 percent of the Black vote in 1936.
From the 1960s through the 1980s the modern Republican Party reinvented itself by mobilizing and extending a critique of state power as a way of constructing white opposition to Black freedom. The GOP during this time—a span Joseph Lowndes has described as the “Goldwater to Atwater” period—built its electoral fortunes against Blackness by making appeals (both explicit and coded) to white racial identity and interests. The racialized markers of the modern Republican Party—the Southern Strategy, the Silent Majority, Nixon’s demands for “law and order,” Reagan’s “welfare queens,” and George H. W. Bush’s “Willie Horton” campaign—all turned on constructing figures of Black failure and threat to mobilize a cross-class alliance of white voters. Following the lead of prominent segregationist politicians like South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, white voters in the former Confederate states, who had voted Democratic since the end of the Civil War, began shifting party allegiance to the GOP in the late 1960s.
The first Republican to represent South Carolina’s First District since Reconstruction was elected in 1981. From 1987 to 1995 the people’s choice was Republican Arthur Ravenel Jr., a proud member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. At a 2000 rally to defend the raising of the Confederate flag at the state capitol, Ravenel referred to the NAACP as the “National Association for Retarded People.” The district’s electorate in 2010 was more than 75 percent white, with a large concentration of conservative-leaning voters almost guaranteed to elect a representative from the GOP.
When the seat became vacant in 2010 (and the district redrawn to include the northern section of the coast), two prominent Republicans attached to towering figures within the state’s political history emerged as the leading contenders: former prosecutor and Charleston County Council member Paul Thurmond, son of the late Strom Thurmond; and Carroll Campbell III, the son of former governor Carroll Campbell II, a long-standing client of the Republican strategist Lee Atwater, the notorious architect of the 1988 “Willie Horton” presidential campaign advertisements for George H. W. Bush. Both Thurmond and Campbell identified with the nascent Tea Party and promised to undo the Affordable Care Act, reduce taxes, shrink the federal government, and generally oppose the Obama administration at every turn. With the district still dominated by white Republican voters in a solidly conservative state, Campbell or Thurmond seemed assured of winning the seat.
The district’s voters, however, overwhelmingly rejected Campbell and Thurmond in favor of businessman Tim Scott, making him the state’s first African American Republican elected to Congress since George W. Murray left office in 1897. Scott finished first in the nine-candidate Republican primary before trouncing Thurmond in the runoff, winning a majority in every county in the district. Scott’s electoral support only continued to grow. Two years later Governor Nikki Haley appointed Scott to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Jim DeMint, who resigned to assume the presidency of the conservative Heritage Foundation. Scott was at the time the only African American in the Senate. Two years later he defeated numerous white challengers in the Republican Primary and cruised to an easy reelection, and in 2014 he won the largest share of the vote of any statewide candidate running in a two-party contested race. In both the primary and general elections, Scott’s support has been strongest in white rural counties and among the state’s most conservative voters; his electoral base in this sense is nearly identical to that of President Trump.
Scott’s conservative credentials are indeed unimpeachable. A devout evangelical Christian, in the mid-1990s as a member of the Charleston County Council he helped lead an effort to post the Ten Commandments outside the council chambers, personally hanging the document to ensure the body and all speakers adhered to its moral absolutes. In 1996 he had served as honorary co-chairman of Strom Thurmond’s final Senate campaign.
Elected to the South Carolina General Assembly in 2008, Scott was staunchly anti-union, introducing a bill to make the state’s right-to-work status a cornerstone of its business recruitment strategy. He became an instant favorite among Tea Party and anti-tax groups. In the 2010 Republican primary, Scott won the endorsement of conservative opinion leaders nationally, including former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, DeMint, and Sarah Palin, who described him as a “pro-life, pro-2nd Amendment, pro-development, Commonsense Conservative.” As a member of Congress, he supported calls to impeach President Obama and proposed a bill to make entire families ineligible for food stamps if one member participated in a labor strike.
In the 2014 election, in which both Scott and incumbent Republican senator Lindsey Graham were up for reelection, a study concluded that while the two senators’ bases of electoral support were nearly identical, “one of the few differences was that Tea Party backers and racial conservatives were significantly more supportive of Scott.” Indeed, a simple experiment conducted within a South Carolina poll in 2014 found that when Scott was presented to voters through a frame of race (e.g., as “United States Senator Tim Scott, the first African American Senator from South Carolina since Reconstruction”) it increased the likelihood among all voters, including self-identified white conservatives, of viewing him more positively compared to when he was introduced through a Tea Party frame (i.e., as “United States Senator and Tea Party favorite Tim Scott”). The results suggest that Scott’s Blackness made him more appealing to white conservative voters.
A 2015 study based on surveys conducted in 2006, 2010, and 2012 that examined conservative support for Republican candidates of color for governor and the U.S. Senate found that “white conservatives are either more supportive of minority Republicans or just as likely to vote for a minority as they are a white Republican.” To be clear, neither study identified or suggested an attenuation in broader racialized attitudes or policy preferences among such conservative voters. That is, they are no less likely to be skeptical of claims about widespread racial discrimination and bias or supportive of affirmative action programs. Yet the same voters hostile to civil rights and anti-discrimination policies energetically support an African American as their standard-bearer. The study’s authors concluded that a growing number of conservatives of color should be able to “win Republican primaries and have a strong chance of winning the general-election contest, if the political setting is favorable (e.g., a red state).”
In Scott’s case, his success in the general election did not depend on Black voters. An exit poll found that African American support for Scott in 2014 was only 15 percent, the lowest level of any group identified in the survey. Scott has consistently earned an F on the NAACP’s annual legislative scorecard, and he even voted to delay funding of a legal settlement in favor of Black farmers who had suffered years of discrimination in lending by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
After his election to Congress in 2010, Scott announced he would not be joining the Congressional Black Caucus as his “campaign was not about race,” rehearsing one of the core shibboleths of color-blind conservatism. He explained that the “relevance of me being black is really, fortunately, irrelevant.” He suggested in another interview that at the dozens of Tea Party rallies he has attended and addressed he had yet to encounter a “racist comment” or a “person who approaches me from a racist perspective.” Instead, he contended, “the basis of the Tea Party has nothing to do with race. It has to do with an economic recovery. It has to do with limiting the role of our government in our lives. It has to do with free markets.” This is a message eagerly repeated by his supporters, who understand their embrace of Scott as evidence of their color-blind commitments, as well as some commentators, who suggest that Scott’s election reveals that “ideology trumps race” for white southern conservatives.
In late 2017, Scott stood next to President Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan during the signing ceremony for the GOP’s tax plan—a significant cut to the tax liabilities facing the nation’s wealthiest households and corporations. As the ceremony began, a Huffington Post blogger named Andy Ostroy tweeted, “What a shocker . . . there’s ONE black person there and sure enough they have him standing right next to the mic like a manipulated prop. Way to go @SenatorTimScott.” Scott here was charged with being a token offered to give the GOP’s overwhelmingly white and male leadership some nominal cover. But Scott’s reply to Ostroy on Twitter after the press conference offered a different account: “Uh probably because I helped write the bill for the past year, have multiple provisions included, got multiple Senators on board over the last week and have worked on tax reform my entire time in Congress. But if you’d rather just see my skin color, pls feel free.”
Ostroy’s reaction to Scott’s presence on the podium spoke to the dominant expectation (at least among liberals) of the role race might play within contemporary conservatism—that is, as prop or distraction. Yet while Ostroy’s accusation was erroneous (Scott had indeed worked behind the scenes for months on the legislation), the notion that race plays no role in Scott’s public life is equally flawed.
Across his career it is important to note the ways in which Scott’s racial identity has remained central to the narratives fashioned to voters in general and his white supporters in particular. The story lines used to introduce him to voters and audiences have linked his Blackness to his conservative commitments in particular ways. Scott makes visible rather than obscures his Black racial identity. In a speech to the 2013 South Carolina Tea Party Convention, Scott opened his comments by mimicking a deep baritone call associated with a Black preacher, declaring, “It’s Sunday morning, hah!” He told the crowd he “grew up wanting to be a preacher, but God made me a politician.” Scott’s comments to conservative audiences, like West’s, are riddled with Black southern vernacular. During his 2013 address to CPAC, Scott said that as a teenager he shared a car with his mother because “we were po’. Not poor, p-o-o-r, but p-o. Just po’.”
And also like West, Scott chronicles his embrace of conservative ideals as an extension of his childhood experiences. He told CPAC: “I think back to my young days, growing up in a single parent household, I think about the tough times that my mother, who worked 16-hour days—she went to work all day long—came home and when my grades were bad, she would just, pull out the switch. Because my mama loved me a lot, and sometimes she believed that love comes at the end of a switch. And she proved it to me.”
As a teenager Scott struggled in high school, nearly dropping out, until he had the “blessing of meeting a conservative Republican who became my mentor. A guy named John Moniz. He was a Chick-Fil-A operator. And John started teaching me some of the most valuable lessons I ever learned. He taught me that having a job is a good thing, but creating jobs is a far better thing. If you have an income, that’s a good thing, but if you create a profit, you can do the most amazing things. . . . That was part of my path to becoming a red-blooded conservative. Because he taught me, how to think my way out of poverty. And my mother taught me discipline and that combination made such a huge impact on where I am today.”
These anecdotes about growing up in a single-parent household, about the lessons from his mother’s switch, and receiving guidance as a wayward teenager from a conservative mentor to “think his way out of poverty” have been the bread and butter of Scott’s stump speeches. The themes of individual uplift through an unswerving work ethic, self-discipline grounded in familial (and maternal) bonds, and an unrestrained belief in the market’s ability to turn paupers into princes are hallmarks of Scott’s political narrative. In many ways they are grounded in a long history of Black political ideals, extending from the early days of Reconstruction to much of the recent discourse from the Obama White House. As Lester Spence has demonstrated, these narratives have played an outsize role more recently in some Black evangelical formations, connecting a “prosperity gospel” to a broader political orientation that internalizes neoliberal logics and aspirations and explains conditions such as poverty and debt as the consequences of a “mindset.”
But there is an important distinction and transformation to note when these themes are sounded by Scott. Self-help narratives within Black political thought have almost exclusively been addressed to Black publics, often as an answer to crises of poverty, struggle, and vulnerability. They are Black self-help politics. The call to “do for yourself” rather than waiting for society and government to ameliorate your pain, as sounded by Booker T. Washington, Black conservatives like Clarence Thomas and Shelby Steele, cultural figures like Bill Cosby, and liberal centrists like Barack Obama and Cory Booker, have been meant to address the alleged flaws and pathologies of Black life, culture, and values.
Scott, by contrast, mobilizes these ideals to a base of supporters that is overwhelmingly white. His story is for them; his experiences are of a piece with theirs. His example is not meant to inspire or shame African Americans. He does not generally talk about issues like welfare, crime, and family formation in racialized terms. And though Scott’s policy commitments are antithetical to the material interests of the large majority of African Americans, his rise does not generally follow the well-known pattern of “modern-day Republicans [that] have deployed blacks to undermine black interests.” That is not his immediate imperative.
When Scott does talk about his relationship to Black communities, he strikes a different tone. During a 2012 Associated Press interview, he argued that conservatives had to emphasize the benefits and opportunities of capitalism to “people who come from neighborhoods like I came from and simply sell them on the fact that this country is a place where you can rise to any level.” He told a reporter after his 2010 election that while he was reluctant to be the “race man” of the GOP, if he were asked to carry a message to Black Democratic voters it would be “Faith in God. . . . School choice and vouchers. And private enterprise. I want people to know that the American Dream is still alive and well, and I’m living proof.” He told a Politico reporter that “God made me black on purpose. For a specific reason. It has helped me to help others who have been locked out of opportunity in many ways.”
Indeed, in other contexts, including three interrelated speeches he gave on the Senate floor in the wake of the police killings of Philando Castile in Minneapolis and Walter Scott in South Carolina in 2015, Scott spoke passionately about the humiliations of racial profiling and stereotyping. He faced no visible backlash from his base of white conservative supporters. The same year, after white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, including state senator Clementa Pinckney, a senior pastor at the church, Scott wept as he read the names of the victims on the Senate floor.
To the extent that Scott’s electoral base largely mirrors that of the most conservative members of the GOP, we can reasonably conclude that the same political commitments and values of Trump voters, as established across numerous survey-based data sets described in chapter 2, also apply to backers of Scott: support for restrictionist immigration policies, an antipathy toward increases in racial and ethnic diversity and cultural pluralism, and a perception that whiteness itself has become an object of discrimination, disadvantage, and social stigma. Yet these same voters have elevated Scott to the most influential legislative body in the nation, where he enjoys strong favorability ratings from South Carolina voters in general and his conservative base in particular.
Of Patriots and Pioneers: Mia Love’s America
On August 28, 2012, as the remnants of Hurricane Isaac swirled through downtown Tampa Bay, the thirty-seven-year-old mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah, took to the stage at the Tampa Bay Times Forum at the Republican National Convention. The four-minute speaking slot afforded to Mia Love, scheduled in the midst of more than fifty speakers at the opening day of the convention, was hardly esteemed. The convention hall was restless and noisy as a video introducing Love to the audience began. Looking directly in the camera, Love recalled a conversation with her father as he was dropping her off for her first day at college. “He looked at me very seriously and he said ‘Mia, your mother and I have done everything to get you where you are right now. We’ve never taken a handout. We have worked hard for everything we have had through personal responsibility. You will not be a burden to society. You will give back.’” After the video introduces her as a mother of three young children, a public official, and committed spouse, she continues: “If I could describe freedom in one word, it would be agency. The ability to make decisions. The ability to reap the benefits of those decisions, or suffer the consequences. . . . What makes America great, is that we are free. Free to work, free to live. Free to choose. And free to fail.”
Love’s parents emigrated from Haiti in 1973 during the maelstrom of political upheaval that followed the death of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Love was born in Brooklyn two years later. After graduating from college she converted to Mormonism and moved to Salt Lake City to be closer to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). She eventually married Jason Love, a white LDS member, and in 2003 won her first office, a city council seat in Saratoga Springs, a small suburb of about twenty thousand people on the outskirts of Salt Lake City. In 2012 she defeated two white state representatives, Stephen Sandstrom and Carl Wimmer, to win the Republican nomination for the newly created Fourth Congressional District. The district, covering some of Salt Lake City and its suburbs, is nearly 85 percent white and less than 2 percent Black.
As the video ended and Love took the stage at the RNC, the crowd grew quiet. Love’s speech made no mention of welfare dependency or attacks on affirmative action; there was no finger-wagging at the inner city. Instead, her experience as a Black immigrant was celebrated as exemplifying the ideals of individual uplift and American exceptionalism. “My parents immigrated to the U.S. with ten dollars in their pocket, believing that the America they had heard about really did exist. When times got tough, they didn’t look to Washington, they looked within,” Love told the audience. “So the America I came to know was centered in personal responsibility and filled with the American dream.” Here again, Love’s Blackness is deployed as commensurate with, rather than a negation of, the producerist ethic. “The America I know is grounded in the determination found in patriots and pioneers, in small business owners with big ideas, in the farmers who work in the beauty of our landscape, in our heroic military and Olympians. It’s in every child who looks at the seemingly impossible and says, ‘I can do that.’ That is the America I know!”
The convention hall erupted in applause. Love’s campaign reportedly raised some $100,000 in donations in the twenty-four hours following the speech. Love narrowly lost the 2012 election to Democratic congressman Jim Matheson, but she regrouped in 2014 to win both the Republican primary in a landslide, capturing 78 percent of the vote, and the general election, taking a seat from the Democrats and becoming the first Haitian American as well as the first African American Republican woman to serve in Congress. (She was reelected by a comfortable margin in 2016.) Like Scott, Love described her campaign and election as a color-blind triumph, telling CNN shortly after the 2014 election that “this has nothing to do with race. Understand that Utahans have made a statement that they are not interested in dividing Americans based on race or gender. . . . Race and gender had nothing to do with it. Principles had everything to do with it.”
Love’s biography and narrative differ in important ways from those of Scott and West. Her membership in the LDS, a church that had significant restrictions on Black leadership and membership until 1978, plays an important role in her public identity. And in her stump speech she ties her immigrant roots to her deep identification with the nation and its Horatio Alger mythology wedded to an articulation of “compassionate conservatism” that stresses a privatized mutuality and personal generosity. At a 2015 address to CPAC she explained, “My challenge to the conservative movement is for us to be the group that promotes the ideas and the opportunities where people can come to this country legally like my parents did with ten dollars in their pocket and live their version of the American dream.”
She continually recites her father’s belief in the nation’s promise—and his status as a legally authorized migrant—to narrate her faith in the market and the just role it plays in rewarding winners and punishing losers. If West regularly sounds notes appealing to military might and a masculinized nationalism, Love offers a conservatism that stresses upward mobility and altruism: “We’ve lifted ourselves up. And made sure that we gave opportunity to anyone that was in need. Given the opportunity we helped the neighbor, we helped the struggling student, parent or friend.” This was not an Ayn Rand–animated testimony to the virtues of selfishness, but a story of family uplift and communalism. “We must advance the conservative principles that have lifted more people out of poverty, fueled more freedom and driven more dreams than any set of principles in the history of the world. . . . Imagine a single mother who is trapped in poverty by big government programs that prevent her from taking opportunities and proving that she can rise to the occasion. I believe that that mother can, and will rise—if she is given the opportunity to do so.”
While Love did not attend the 2016 RNC, choosing to campaign in her district rather than be present for Trump’s nomination, her conservative bona fides are unimpeachable. She has the enthusiastic backing of most Tea Party groups and has spoken openly about dismantling the Department of Education, the Department of Energy, and most income-support programs. Endorsed by the National Rifle Association, she is an ardent defender of gun rights and holds a permit to carry a concealed weapon. She has addressed the March for Life and is a firm opponent of abortion rights and same-sex marriage. She backs the return of public lands in Utah from the federal government to state and local control, a cause dear to militia and patriot groups.
In 2018, a far-right group that had supported Roy Moore’s failed candidacy for the Senate in Alabama attempted to raise money to encourage Love to run for the Utah Senate seat vacated by Orrin Hatch, in order to keep the seat away from Mitt Romney.
There are a number of paradoxes to note here. On the one hand, for the period from Goldwater to Atwater it is nearly impossible to imagine an ultra-conservative group mobilizing to elect a Black woman in order to oust a white conservative figure like Romney. By Reagan’s election in 1980, race had fully hardened as a key electoral factor dividing Republicans from Democrats. Reagan ran against “welfare queens” and for “states’ rights”—a racial strategy that won him white votes across regions and socioeconomic statuses. Black politicians, cultural representations of Blackness, and Black uplift stories could not easily stand in for the embattled white producerist bloc, the Silent Majority, or the “forgotten man” during this period. Blackness, at a symbolic level, stood in opposition to those values, constituted by dependence, indolence, and excess. Yet today, figures like Love, West, and Scott can assume commanding positions in the white conservative imaginary. What historical developments and conditions made these forms of incorporation possible?
The Protean Character of Blackness in the Post–Civil Rights Era
The conditions favorable to the emergence of contemporary Black conservatives like West, Love, and Scott have been many decades in the making. In a 1979 article titled “Black Particularity Reconsidered” in the journal Telos, the political scientist Adolph Reed describes a series of transitions in the 1970s that helped create such conditions of possibility. In Reed’s account, between the mid-1950s and the early 1970s there was “almost constant political motion among blacks” that was both mass-based, rooted in demands for redistribution, and oppositional to many forms of elite authority. We can think here of the rich histories of Black trade unionism, Black internationalism, Black women’s grassroots organizing, and the collective mobilizations and self-organization among students, consumers, voters, prisoners, and others that constituted such mass action. This tradition was focused on a broad redistribution of resources, rights, and power rooted in democratic participation.
Reed argues that beginning in the early 1970s, as the first wave of Black leaders and managers became nominally integrated into systems of governance and power, racialized antagonisms became increasingly depoliticized. They shifted toward contests over elite administrative authority rather than a fundamental restructuring of power or resources or a broadened sense of popular democracy.
Reed points to a convergence between the administrative and ideological needs of late-twentieth-century consumer-oriented capitalism and its bureaucratic rationalities and the elite brokerage models of Black political participation and leadership, within both its civil rights and Black Power articulations. This “new mode of administered domination” necessitated the incorporation of Blackness within an increasingly bureaucratized and repressive society that Herbert Marcuse had described in 1964 in his one-dimensionality thesis. Here, forms of elite brokerage politics, exemplified in the rise of hundreds of Black elected officials and administrators, tended “to capitulate to the predominant logic of domination” and were commensurate with the intensification of consumption. Within an increasingly “homogenized American life,” symbolic forms of Black incorporation lent prevailing modes of administrative domination an ethical legitimacy and pluralistic connotation. Business and state elites did not directly compel or force these new forms of incorporation; they were the effects of mass-based mobilizations and demands. At the same time, Reed argues, this new Black managerial stratum “stabilized and coordinated the adjustment of the black population to social policy imperatives formulated outside the black community.”
We can see these efforts to incorporate narratives of Black uplift within prevailing structures of power within Nixon’s presidential campaigns of 1968 and 1972 and in his administration more broadly. At the same time he was addressing the Silent Majority and summoning the specter of Black lawlessness, Nixon recruited a number of Black politicos to his campaign and later gave them presidential appointments. These included Massachusetts senator Edward Brooke, Michigan GOP vice chair Earl Kennedy, Black Power Conference secretary Nathan Wright, Republican Minorities Group leader Clarence Townes, and civil rights advocate Arthur Fletcher. The jazz singer Ethel Ennis sang the National Anthem at Nixon’s 1972 reinauguration (drawing a poetic rebuke from June Jordan); the ceremony also included Lionel Hampton and Jackie Robinson. Nixon hoped to win over Black voters on issues of education, safe neighborhoods, and entrepreneurship. He explicitly wedded the notion of Black Power to Black capitalism, and on the campaign trail he spoke about African Americans wanting “a piece of the action.” The campaign took out a series of advertisements in Jet magazine that suggested an intimacy with Black culture. As political communications scholar Carole Bell wrote regarding the photographs in the ads, “There is also something familiar about the visual language of the portraits as well—perhaps reminiscent of the great African-American photographer Gordon Parks’ work.”
It was through developments like these, Reed suggests, that the Nixon “blackonomics” strategy was readily able to co-opt and neutralize much of the rebellious tendency of 1960s Black activism. Black “liberation” quickly turned into Black “equity,” and the “black elite broadened its administrative control by uncritically assuming the legitimacy of the social context within which that elite operated. Black control was by no means equivalent to democratization.” Under these conditions, and “having internalized the predominant elite-pluralist model of organization of black life,” Black politics increasingly lost both its mass-based character and its capacity to develop critical perspectives about the modes of domination within which it had been integrated.
Reed contends that “internal critique could not go beyond banal symbols of ‘blackness,’” as “Black Power itself construed racial politics within the ideological universe through which the containment of the black population was mediated.” These “banal symbols” stood in for and displaced long traditions of oppositional politics rooted within Black publics. Increasingly, Blackness represented a kind of “otherness” that bureaucratic capitalism needed to demonstrate was not one-dimensional, unitary, and rigid but dynamic, polyglot, soulful, and lively. As Cedric Johnson similarly notes, “insurgent demands for black indigenous control converged with liberal reform initiatives to produce a moderate black political regime and incorporate radical dissent into conventional political channels.”
Today, the obsession with certain aesthetic markers of Black cultural production and particularity—in fashion, music, and entertainment—are largely divorced from any oppositional politics or practice. We can witness, following Reed, the presence of “otherness” without insurgence or dissent and “a propagation of a model of politics which reinforce[s] over-simplification, the reduction of ideals to banalized objects of immediate consumption.” Thus Reed concludes that “opposition increasingly becomes a spectacle in a society organized around reduction of all existence to a series of spectacles.”
Narratives of post-1960s declension like this one tend to miss or dismiss many critical historical developments. As Roderick Ferguson has argued, the 1970s and 1980s were also a period in which queer of color– and women of color–led social formations and analytics developed in important ways. They were also a formative period for work around reproductive rights, sex- and gender-based violence, welfare rights, and the politics of intimacy and sexuality more generally. In addition, we must take seriously the intensification of state and non-state violence and repression targeting a broad range of Black insurgent formations across this period.
Yet Reed’s broader point about the pluralization and stratification of Black political life during this time and the convergence of corporate-administrative imperatives with the interests of some Black elites requires a serious engagement, and it is a dynamic chronicled by a range of other scholars. Stuart Hall details a similar process in his account of “the end of the innocent notion of the essential black subject” and the weakening of the assumption that race will “guarantee the effectivity of any cultural practice.” Like Reed, Hall urges a “recognition of the extraordinary diversity of subjective positions, social experiences and cultural identities which compose the category ‘black,’” that forces one to plunge “headlong into the maelstrom of a continuously contingent, unguaranteed, political argument and debate: a critical politics, a politics of criticism.”
As Black political elites increasingly became enfolded in the politics of administration and management, and representations of Blackness became unmoored from practices of mass mobilization and demands for the downward distribution of resources, new avenues opened up for mainstream Republicans and Democrats alike to incorporate some registers of Black particularity, subjectivity, and interests into their increasingly conservative political projects. Actors from across the political spectrum became free to reconfigure the aims of civil rights to advance agendas alien to those of the Black freedom movement of the mid-twentieth century and to link the possibilities of Black uplift to conservative policies.
Within the GOP, one example of these dynamics can be traced through the career of former professional football player and Republican congressman Jack Kemp. A hard economic conservative, his co-sponsored Kemp–Roth tax cut on personal income in 1981 was responsible for drastically expanding economic inequality. Yet anticipating the narratives of West and Love, Kemp sought to tie Black advancement to free-market commitments. As George H. W. Bush’s secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, he pushed for programs to allow residents of public housing to purchase their own units, for vouchers that would allow poor people to send their children to private schools, and most famously for “enterprise zones” that would give tax incentives to businesses located in inner cities. Convinced that Republicans could foster Black prosperity through conservative means, he met frequently with Black leaders in cities like Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. These policies never fulfilled their stated aspirations or attracted any substantive support among Black voters, but they demonstrate a continuity of attempts within the Republican Party to incorporate some Black presence even as it consolidated its base among conservative white voters through a politics of racial demonization.
In the 1990s, both parties sought to expand their base of white votes through racial demonization on positions related to welfare, immigration, crime, the rollback of affirmative action and bilingual education, militarization and Islamophobia, and anti-discrimination law and policy. Precisely because of the success of these efforts, in the current moment racial politics can no longer be harnessed in the same way to mobilize white voters. Indeed, as the attacks on welfare, affirmative action, and anti-poverty programs in general accelerated in the 1990s, accompanied by a dramatic upturn in Black and brown incarceration rates, the imperative to directly demonize Black and brown subjects shifted. That is, the conservative transformation of the state had succeeded so fully and anti-Blackness had been so thoroughly incorporated into state governance that conservatives were freed to expand various modes of Black incorporation without fear of losing white votes.
In 2000, Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush campaigned on “compassionate conservatism”—a politics that sought to focus positively on the needs of the poor and people of color by connecting small-government and free-market conservative principles to civil rights goals. At the culmination of his party nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in 2000, he described visiting a juvenile jail in Marlin, Texas, where “one young man, about 15, raised his hand and asked a haunting question: ‘What do you think of me?’” Bush reported, “He seemed to be asking, like many Americans who struggle . . . ‘Is there hope for me? Do I have a chance?’ And, frankly, ‘Do you, a white man in a suit, really care what happens to me?’” Bush then went on to describe the philosophy at the heart of compassionate conservatism. “Big government is not the answer. But the alternative to bureaucracy is not indifference. It is to put conservative values and conservative ideas into the thick of the fight for justice and opportunity.” Throughout his presidency, Bush returned to this philosophy. Speaking at the national convention of the NAACP in 2006 he celebrated the organization’s commitment to the “blessings of liberty and opportunity” and framed a market-based notion of freedom. “Most of your forefathers,” he said, “came in chains as property of other people. Today their children and grandchildren have the opportunity to own their own property.”
The Republican embrace of neoliberal multiculturalism continued to develop after the Bush years, moving from its prior association with “compassionate conservatism” to the mainstream of conservatism itself. But whereas compassionate conservatism was an ideology aligned at some level with the aims of the civil rights movement, the emphasis now increasingly moved toward narratives of the struggle and triumph of individuals of color as pure affirmation of the marketplace.
It is important to note that the incorporations of Blackness pursued by Republicans in many ways followed a similar process that developed within the Democratic Party, which venerated a type of civil rights universalism even as it pursued policies that widened racial hierarchies. Bill Clinton, for one important example, built his national career on the Democratic Leadership Council strategy of appealing to white reaction. In a moment of violent spectacle early in his 1992 bid for the Democratic nomination for president, Clinton flew to Little Rock on the eve of the New Hampshire primary to personally oversee the death-row execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a mentally disabled Black man. That same election year he scolded rapper Sister Souljah and snubbed Jesse Jackson at the Rainbow Coalition annual convention. Clinton signed historic national anti-crime legislation, contributing greatly to the rise of the modern carceral state, and furthered the dismantling of the U.S. welfare system. These legislative acts, like his campaign actions, were meant to stanch the hemorrhaging of white voters to the GOP.
Yet Clinton evinced another, seemingly opposite political strategy throughout, which was to demonstrate an ease and facility with Black America. This Clinton was often seen on the golf course with his friend Vernon Jordan, a Revlon executive. He spoke frankly about racism. On a historic trip to Africa, he apologized for slavery. And famously, during his impeachment for lying about an extramarital affair with a White House intern, Toni Morrison called him “our first black president.”
While seemingly in contradiction, these two sides to Clinton demonstrate a deeper shift in the main currents of elite U.S. politics that can be seen at work in both parties: a cultural celebration of Black America that performs moral authority, a narrative of overcoming, and a commitment to individual freedom that is increasingly delinked from the historic imperatives of racial justice and material redistribution; and an anti-statist, pro-market, and anti-egalitarian politics that produces profound racial inequality. As Michelle Alexander explained in a 2016 article in The Nation, “Clinton mastered the art of sending mixed cultural messages, appealing to African Americans by belting out ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ in black churches, while at the same time signaling to poor and working-class whites that he was willing to be tougher on black communities than Republicans had been.”
The synthesis of these forces was nowhere more visible than at a Rose Garden press conference in 1996 where Clinton signed the legislation eviscerating federally funded welfare programs and replacing a major pillar of state-sponsored income support with various “workfare” and even marriage-promotion programs. Clinton signed the bill flanked by two Black women who had been recipients of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program he was abolishing, their appearance suggesting that he was ending the program in their name and in their interests. In his short remarks at the bill’s signing, he neither mentioned their names nor described their experiences. Their sole purpose was to serve as a symbolic backdrop.
By Obama’s election in 2008, the bipartisan project to dismantle welfare, abolish affirmative action and school desegregation, weaken anti-discrimination protections, militarize immigration policy, and fully realize the prison–industrial complex had largely been completed. Coupled with the long-term decline of antiracist social movements, these developments shifted the terrain of contemporary racial politics. Obama’s 2008 campaign traded continually on the cultural significance of his Blackness as a symbol of civil rights achievement specifically and of American exceptionalism more generally. From his victory speech following the Iowa caucuses where he insisted that “they said this day would never come” to the Democratic National Committee’s declaration of “I Have a Dream Day” on the day of his nomination in Denver, the Obama campaign suggestively associated the candidate with civil rights achievements in powerful ways without making substantive links to policy prescriptions aimed at the advancement of the Black freedom struggle.
When we situate the ascent of Alan West, Mia Love, Tim Scott, and other contemporary conservatives of color within this longer history, their appeal to a deeply conservative base of white voters no longer seems so peculiar. Like Obama and Booker, they frame their narratives of Black uplift and the legacies of civil rights in the same terms of American exceptionalism, market freedoms, and anti-statism that ironically once animated an explicitly racist political discourse.
In addition, Blackness still often embodies and expresses excess and danger in this discourse. Consider Michelle Obama’s speech to the graduating class of Martin Luther King Jr. Preparatory High School in Chicago in 2015, in which she described “the story of that quiet majority of good folks—families like mine and young people like all of you who face real challenges but make good choices every single day.” Like the Silent Majority, this “quiet majority of good folks,” defined by their cultural attributes, upright decisions, and moral values, is implicitly constructed in contrast to an immoral and lawless racially coded other, whose poor choices and diminished values make them culpable in their own degradation. Black incorporation here offers a reformulation and modest desegregation in the membership of a racially stratified populace while still retaining its core elements: long-standing articulations of American cultural superiority, valorization of individual freedoms, and the denigration of bad subjects.
On a Tuesday morning in early December 2017, hundreds of scholars and staffers at the Heritage Foundation were addressed for the first time by their newly appointed president. Seven months earlier, the foundation’s twenty-two-member board had unanimously called for the resignation of Jim DeMint, the former South Carolina senator and Tea Party favorite whose appointment in 2013 as Heritage president was viewed as an effort to put the prestigious think tank closer in touch with the grassroots conservative mobilizations that were sweeping the nation. But after four years, the board and others within the foundation became increasingly concerned that DeMint was both mismanaging the organization and neglecting its long-standing focus on conservative intellectual development and policy formation.
Following a months-long search, the foundation’s board turned to one of its own to right the ship. Kay Coles James had been a significant player in the conservative movement for decades. In the early 1990s she served as senior vice president of the conservative Christian Family Research Council, and in the late 1990s she was a dean at Regent University, an evangelical institution founded by Pat Robertson that has trained hundreds of conservative political leaders. She also held appointments in the presidential administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, and under George W. Bush she directed the Office of Personnel Management. The Bush administration would come to employ more than 150 Regent University graduates during her tenure. Together with former Reagan staffer Ed Meese, she led Trump’s transition team for three major federal administrative offices.
James had also been a trustee of the Heritage Foundation since 2005 and was chairing the search for the new president. She was, in this sense, the consummate insider’s candidate, the grownup brought in to restore order and recommit Heritage to its mission. In a statement released to Heritage supporters at the time of her appointment, James promised: “You have my commitment: Heritage is safe with me. I’m in awe of this treasure you’ve built, and I pledge to you that I will protect it and grow it with the greatest care possible.”
James, the preeminent conservative movement builder, is also a Black woman. And like West, Love, and Scott, she does not deploy her racialized and gendered experiences to counsel Black people to behave differently, but instead seeks to assert the deep resonance between conservative ideals and Black well-being. A graduate of the historically Black Hampton University, she also founded and presides over the Gloucester Institute, an organization that trains young Black leaders in conservative ideals through fellowships, trainings, and other leadership-development programs. As a Heritage trustee she wrote a commentary for the foundation’s website, The Daily Signal, titled “I’m an African-American Woman: Here’s My Advice to Conservatives Wooing My Community.” Suggesting that a commitment to Black well-being and a commitment to “social justice” should be central to conservative politics, she insists: “It’s not OK that black kids aren’t getting the very best education possible. It’s not OK that black adults are out of work and unable to pursue their dreams. It’s not OK that black families are homeless. It’s not OK that black seniors live in fear for what tomorrow may bring. And it’s not OK that so many consultants and pundits would rather play politics than help save my people.” She told Heritage employees when her appointment was announced that “these problems can be found everywhere that liberalism has left its devastating mark. In inner cities. In Appalachia. In the Rust Belt. And in far too many white, brown, and black communities from coast to coast.”
James also draws on her experiences facing discrimination growing up in segregated neighborhoods and schools in Richmond, Virginia, to bolster her credentials as a fighter for conservative causes. She told Heritage employees on her first day about her experiences walking down the hall in integrated school as classmates kicked her, called her names, and stuck her with pins. “It turned me into a fighter,” she said, a commitment she would use to guide the foundation.
In an interview two months later on Breitbart Radio, following her appearance at the 2018 CPAC, she explained why she had no hesitation in going to college campuses and other perceived bastions of liberalism and winning over students to the principles and commitments of conservative ideas. “Growing up as a black conservative, pro-life, evangelical . . . I know what it feels like to be ostracized . . . [and] to have people hate you because of your positions and what you believe. So I’m truly not intimidated by any of that.” At a time when many conservatives imagine themselves bravely defying the scorn of liberal and centrist elites, narratives like James’s become a generative source of identification and assurance.
Kay Coles James’s ascent to the one of the most important and prestigious positions in the conservative movement demonstrates many of the central ideas explored in this chapter. At a time of growing precarity and vulnerability for many white households, figures like James, Love, West, and Scott become the idealized subjects of the marketized and militarized nation, continually testifying to its exceptional qualities at a time of crisis. They exemplify important changes in the ways race is being deployed within dominant modes of neoliberal governance and electoral politics, as well as the shaping of popular consent under conditions of growing precarity. As we will see in the next chapter, these forms of racial incorporation have even moved beyond the GOP and conservative think tanks to the shoals of the far right.