The environment inside the Republican Party today is a treacherous moral swamp for African-Americans. No black conservative figure has yet managed to remain in a position of influence inside the GOP while speaking honestly about racial questions.
When an NAACP chairman derided Republican South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott recently as a “ventriloquist’s dummy” he touched a deep nerve. Going all the way back to Reconstruction, black conservatives have fought to justify their emphasis on economic progress against those who sought more direct resistance to injustice.
That is a fine line to walk and it has never been easy. When black leaders allow themselves be used as tokens, they will deserve the suspicion they retain in the black community no matter what other sincere goals or opinions they may hold. This is an unfair dilemma that white political figures seldom face, but history has made it unavoidable.
Black leaders cannot expect to be taken seriously so long as they quietly acquiesce to rhetoric and policies openly hostile to minority communities. For black conservatives, the price of credibility is courage.
Standing in front of a white audience and validating their racist assumptions is a fast track to popularity and political opportunity. Few things thrill a white nationalist more than a black man who agrees with him. Every racist has ‘lots of black friends’ and being one of those black friends offers benefits.
With the GOP in thrall to an ugly Neo-Confederate resurgence, the 2012 Republican Convention featured its lowest percentage of black delegates in modern history. Interestingly, while there were only 46 black delegates, the convention featured eight minority speakers on the main stage alone. Being a black Republican willing to toe the line without question is an outstanding way to gain access to a platform.
It is entirely reasonable to expect that Sen. Scott’s position as a Senator was paid for by his willingness to be used. He has done nothing yet in his career that would be inconsistent with that characterization. Recite the party’s talking points and he gets to be a Senator. Acknowledge the existence of racism in any credible matter and he will be escorted to the exit, where he will be greeted by Colin Powell and Michael Steele.
One of the GOP’s other black friends, former Rep. Allen West, learned that lesson the hard way when he accidentally said something honest about the Trayvon Martin case. He quickly backed down, explained that Martin had it coming because he wasn’t a “respectful young man.” West recognized the value of being a “respectful young man” in the GOP and now he has a nice gig with Fox News.
This dilemma complicates the appeal of black conservatives, making it extremely difficult to communicate a credible, persuasive message without losing access to the political process. To speak honestly about race means being ostracized from the Republican Party. To speak honestly about the role of values and culture in the plight of the black community means being ostracized from the Democratic Party. Black conservatives can accept a humiliatingly subservient role in a Republican Party that wants them to perform like circus animals or sit outside the process, alienated and disempowered.
Not everyone in the black community sees this dilemma. In particular, many black religious fundamentalists do not perceive this problem at all. It is from their ranks that figures like Tim Scott and former Rep. Allen West have emerged. If you believe in a 6000-year-old universe it isn’t so hard to believe that Obama is a Socialist Anti-Christ or that he cheered the attack on the American Consulate in Benghazi.
Black religious fundamentalists feel comfortable walking shoulder to shoulder with Tea Party activists bent on destroying minority voting rights and ending “income redistribution” to black urban moochers in hoodies. They are marching with the far-right far-white in pursuit of higher, apocalyptic goals. If gay marriage is the single greatest threat to civilization then perhaps an alignment with the GOP’s farthest ideological fringe makes sense.
For non-white conservatives with their feet planted firmly in the reality-based community the rhetoric being spewed by Republicans in recent years is more than a little frightening. Some hard-right black evangelicals may have made peace with the Tea Party, but their numbers are very small. That’s why most if not all of the African-Americans at your local Tea Party rally will be speaking onstage.
Whether he likes it or not, Sen. Scott is becoming a national mascot for the efforts of Tea Party Republicans to whitewash the movement’s glaring racism. The dilemma he faces may be unique to black political figures, but as the Republican Party becomes more and more an engine for white nationalism, that burden spreads more broadly to all conservatives, regardless of race.
The same credibility problem faced by black conservatives is becoming a dangerous threat to conservatism at large. If Sen. Scott is a token set up to distract us all from the GOP’s racism, then what is Karl Rove? At what point should all conservatives face the same duty to speak about racism that we justly place on Sen. Scott’s shoulders?
If conservatism is going to survive, conservatives should all take a close look at the dilemma faced by Sen. Scott. The movement badly needs an update to avoid atrophying into a tool of racial and political anachronisms. Conservatism will not survive if it fails to represent something more compelling than the stubborn preservation of white cultural supremacy. A handful of well-placed black friends may obscure the party’s problems, but they are not going to save conservatism from itself.