Black Elephants in the Room by Corey D. Fields • University of California Press • 2016 • 296 pages • $29.95
Many writers have pointed out that Donald Trump’s shocking electoral victory was less the result of a pro-worker insurgency than of the manipulation of white anxieties about demographic change, the diverse movement that elected Obama, and the rising middle classes in China and Mexico. In their desire to play down the influence of white identity politics on the election, some people on the center-left call attention to the significant bump in the number of African Americans (particularly men) who voted for Donald Trump compared to Mitt Romney. Per early exit polling, Donald Trump did win a notably higher percentage of the African-American vote than Mitt Romney did in 2012. If Donald Trump’s victory in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other states was primarily a consequence of a backlash against perceptions of white victimization and American decline, they say, why did so many African-American and Latino voters prefer him over Hillary Clinton?
In America, there is not one but rather multiple competing narratives within communities of color about the significance of racial identity in relation to electoral politics. In his Black Elephants in the Room, Corey D. Fields uncovers surprising strains of black conservative activism within the Republican Party. Fields’s book could be a Rosetta Stone of sorts for predicting how Trump’s populist message of white male injury in the post-civil rights era might appeal to a small but notable segment of right-leaning activists within communities of color.
Progressives have become overly confident about the potential of our nation’s changing racial diversity to lead to an insuperable New American Majority voting bloc. Our overconfidence is reflected in the imbalance in attention and resources spent on cross-racial coalition-building and year-round social-justice campaigning in communities of color compared to electoral turnout and mobilization. Right-wing organizing efforts, including those rooted in anti-black racism, do energize significantly more people of color than many on the center-left realize and provide Republicans with a smokescreen to undermine racial equity in America and threaten the traditionally large margin of support for Democratic candidates among racial minorities.
The default response in progressive circles has been to merely label such detractors “race traitors.” However, the term “race traitor” loses its meaning in a context where the meaning and significance of race are fluid. If we successfully defend our communities from racism and build a lasting progressive future, historians will likely point to our historic pivot toward deeper alliances: alliances based on shared values of racial inclusion and social progress rather than on phenotype alone.
Black Elephants opens with a forensic examination of how African-American partisan support migrated over time from Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party to the Democrats. The country witnessed two dramatic reversals in African-American and white political behavior in the mid-twentieth century that realigned party politics. The African-American exodus from Lincoln’s party started with the New Deal coalition of the 1930s, built primarily around economic rather than civil rights concerns during the Great Depression. Black voters’ transition from the GOP to the Democratic Party of course accelerated once the Democrats came to fully embrace a national civil rights agenda out of pragmatic rather than moral concerns in the 1960s. This is the pattern that remains in place today.
Republicans like to claim that this switch in party loyalty happened because millions of black voters were conned by liberals. But sociologists like Doug McAdam express a different theory about the historic realignment between the two parties in other texts; the power of the civil rights movement and its segregationist opposition (represented in the person of 1964 Republican candidate Barry Goldwater) flipped American party politics on its head. The reverberations from that moment in American political history continue to shape our party politics. Despite receiving more support than the previous Republican nominee, Trump still lost the African-American vote to Hillary Clinton, garnering 8 percent to her whopping 89 percent.
Black Elephants does not speculate about why some African Americans have remained in the Republican Party despite its opposition to the New Deal and to racial justice. Nevertheless, Fields, an assistant professor of sociology at Stanford, does invite readers to enter the minds of rebel black conservatives who could play a small but mighty role in the era of Trumpism. The book introduces readers to two oppositional approaches to black right-wing politics inside the GOP. First, there are colorblind black Republicans, who deny that race is much of a factor in American life anymore; second are black conservatives who acknowledge racial problems but blame them on liberals.
Colorblind black Republicans fit the mold of black conservatism the center-left has come to deride: individualistic, contemptuous toward claims of racial discrimination, and highly favored by the white leadership of the GOP. Fields describes how colorblind black conservatives leverage their skin color to gain access to top party leadership positions while at the same time evangelizing before mainly white audiences that “race doesn’t matter.” For example, Fields describes a speech given at a Republican conference by Adam Nelson, a black Republican activist, in which he assailed historical complaints of “black victimhood.” Fields notes how Nelson “embodied color-blind African-American Republican’s efforts to claim a black identity while simultaneously downplaying its importance.”
A key insight of the book is that, of the two kinds of black activists within the GOP, these race-neutral black conservatives are given greater visibility within the national party. For their acquiescence, black Republicans who present themselves as colorblind are more likely to become household names, like Clarence Thomas, Condoleezza Rice, and others. Even by the low standards of right-wing African Americans, the GOP’s strict guardianship over their party’s legacy of white identity politics seems unfair to black Republicans who have proven their fidelity to conservative values but are denied promotion for the appearance of being “too black.” So much for equal opportunity, or at least that part of it.
The other type of black conservative activism described in the book is the one we on the center-left are less familiar with. It’s an approach that weaves together pro-black racial identity and reactionary politics. Fields has an entire chapter, “Black Power Through Conservative Principles,” that demonstrates how some black Republican activists pursue conservative social policy outcomes through a rhetoric of collective racial uplift that intersects with themes of black nationalism like economic self-determination. Fields interviews an African-American Republican called Jeffrey who argues that “when taxes are lower there is more money to invest back into the community.” And wonders: “How can you support black business if you’re losing half of your paycheck to taxes?”
Black conservatives in this tradition acknowledge that while race and racism may exist, it’s not conservatives but white liberals and their welfare state who are to blame. The pro-black conservatives Fields interviews believe New Deal or Great Society styled government intervention is detrimental to African-American progress. While both colorblind and race-conscious black Republicans attack the “welfare state,” the latter link their opposition to that state to black self-determination and empowerment, according to Fields. “You know why I love school vouchers? Because they give black parents control over their kids’ schools. It puts black parents in charge of black kids. Not some white person from the school board who doesn’t have any idea of what black children in black communities need,” says Steve, another activist. Whereas a colorblind black Republican activist might also favor conservative K-12 policy, black Republican activists like Steve believe these conservative means have racial ends.
Again, the reasons why some black voters supported Donald Trump are likely complex. Some share of that support may have come from race-conscious black voters who lean conservative and voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 but revolted against white Democrat Hillary Clinton. Hillary infamously supported Bill Clinton’s crime legislation in the 1990s and once referred to black teenagers as “superpredators.” Liberals and progressives are more familiar with pro-black messaging connected to left-leaning causes and candidates, but such messages can in fact have a persuasive conservative twist, as in the case of law and order rhetoric appealing to inner cities beset by violence. As mentioned before, despite their alignment with colorblind conservatives around disdain for activist government and social justice, race-conscious black Republicans face opposition from Republican leaders, who perhaps worry that acknowledging the existence of race might force them also to acknowledge racial inequality. Black Republicans who are “out” about their collective identity as African Americans are often given the cold shoulder and frequently experience resistance from white leaders in the establishment GOP.
After reading Black Elephants, I came away convinced that Trump’s blend of racial populism and nationalism appealed to both colorblind black and pro-black conservatives. Trump’s anti-black rhetoric kills two birds with one stone, because narratives of black dysfunction and pathologies of immorality, criminality, and government dependence are widely shared by black Republicans. Many black conservatives agree with white nationalists that something is fundamentally wrong with black people, especially working-class and poor black women, that can be fixed only through radical social change and the destruction of the “nanny state.”
Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again” is alluring for African Americans who think blacks were better off in the 1950s, when traditionally conservative family values and respect for authority were the norm. It would be a mistake to believe only self-identified black Republicans hold these beliefs. Popular culture, especially rap music, reinforces problematic, hard-right themes of individualism and masculinity that are widely celebrated and seldom challenged. Donald Trump’s off-the-record bragging that he could “grab [women] by the pussy” could easily have been the title of a recent rap album. Many black churches are deeply divided on conservative interpretations and applications of the bible on other religions, on gender, and on sexuality. Right around the new year, controversy erupted when a black gospel preacher, Kim Burrell, railed against the “perverted homosexual spirit,” leading to a widespread debate inside black churches.
Despite its title, Black Elephants is about more than just African Americans inside the Republican Party. For the center-left, the book also raises questions about the relationship between racial identity and political behavior more broadly, including support for progressive causes. While there may be broad unity among African Americans or Latinos for criminal justice or immigration reform, our skin colors or countries of origin are in no way proxies for support for progressive policies more generally, such as fair housing policy, dignity for low-wage workers, or reproductive justice. While Fields does not directly address the left-leaning side of the aisle, he does stress that current understandings of racial identity in American politics are generally overly simplistic. It is also worth noting that the problems of criminal justice and immigration are systemic and do not exist on islands of their own; they cannot be addressed independent of the threats facing our social safety net, workers’ rights, or gender equality, among others.
And as our country becomes more multicultural and diverse, narratives about race will continue to evolve over time, perhaps in unexpected ways. For example, a conversation has already emerged concerning what is meant by the category of “Hispanic” as a distinct ethnicity or race and how it relates to white or black identity. The Asian-American, Chicano, Native, and women’s movements of the last century each drew moral courage and strategy from the transformational leadership of black social justice luminaries like Martin Luther King Jr. But what happens if the black leadership of communities of color turn for inspiration to the ultra-right instead? The debate over the fate of public education, as mentioned earlier, is an area where African-American support is divided, with many favoring conservative solutions like vouchers.
In the future, therefore, single-issue black (or Latino) electoral engagement during presidential election cycles will be necessary but should not be considered sufficient. More resources are needed right now for year-round investment in black-led social justice efforts that are multi-issue and that bridge the gap between organizing, story-telling, and cultural change. Organizations like California Calls, the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina, and the national Advancement Project are just a few examples. If we want to transform the Obama coalition from solely an electoral one into a powerful force for lasting change we will need to both cultivate social justice leadership in black communities and ensure ongoing civic education about where the struggles of African Americans converge with the struggles of other disenfranchised groups. While racial identity itself is not a proxy for progressive social policy solidarity across difference is.
The lines of delineation in the coming period have been drawn between those of us, including many black Americans, who believe the advancement of people’s rights has gone too far, and those of us who believe it hasn’t gone far enough. “Make America Great Again” only emerges as a winning campaign slogan in a country woefully undereducated about our country’s history of racial oppression and of the importance of the episodic lurches forward we’ve made together toward greater justice and dignity. By leaving the task of telling and re-telling our shared histories to academic historians of the center-left, our social justice movements and our political institutions are in no way prepared to compete with the conservative language of political correctness or reverse racism, which have mainstream appeal even in some communities of color.
Politicians and organizations of the center-left have become adept at poll-tested messaging and communications but not at crafting a wholly alternative narrative. We on the center-left need to do a better job of infusing our political discourse with our own counter-language. As we maneuver to defend vulnerable communities from attack under a Trump Administration, we must counter the conservative movement’s myth of white victimization and of American decline with shared narratives large enough to hold our diversity; narratives that tell us who we were, who we are, and who we could be. As Toni Morrison tells us, “narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created.”