The Enigma of the Black Republican

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In her authorial debut, The Loneliness of the Black Republican, Harvard historian Leah Wright Rigueur meticulously traces the development of black Republican politics from the New Deal era through Ronald Reagan’s presidential ascent in 1980. Rigueur’s book is commendable not just as an authoritative treatise on a group notably neglected by historians, but as a compendium of actionable recommendations for black political engagement. Rigueur’s narrative expertly delivers a close look at the intersection of race and politics within the context of the Republican Party, and provides intimate details of the unwavering African Americans who sought to use the GOP as a vehicle for civil rights.

The enigma of the black Republican has fascinated political observers for decades. Taking at face value the fact that roughly 90 percent of black voters now identify with the Democratic Party, many understandably assume that blackness and GOP affiliation are inherently discordant concepts; yet black Republicans do exist and have been around for almost as long as the GOP itself. In fact, as Rigueur observes, blacks formed strong cultural attachments to the GOP long before the Democrat Party established its apparent hegemony of the black community. Indeed, writer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass once exuberantly declared, “I am a Republican—a black, dyed-in-the-wool Republican—and I never intend to belong to any other party than the party of freedom and progress.” Douglass wasn’t an anomaly. Blacks revered the “Party of Lincoln” as a liberator of black people—that is, until the 1936 presidential election of Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, who seized 70 percent of the black vote.

How should we make sense of the shattered relationship between the black community and the Republican Party? Pundits and scholars of all political stripes have long held that blacks rejected the GOP in favor of Roosevelt’s New Deal liberalism. But this analysis is inadequate. Though the Democrat-led New Deal effort promised socio-economic uplift, it doesn’t sufficiently explain black voters’ increasing distrust of the Republican Party. Rigueur rightly posits that significant ideological shifts emerged in the Republican Party in the 1930s. Republicans started to embrace a colorblind ethos, as prominent black Republican senator Edward Brooke later opined, that prioritized “states’ rights” over civil rights. This shift, as Rigueur explains, exacerbated over time and deepened the chasm between blacks and the GOP.

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