Herman Cain, Allen West and the Black GOP’s Low Hopes

As the GOP primary unfolds, the antics of the party's two leading African Americans seem farcical. But there's a long history of black conservatism in American politics.

By Shani O. Hilton Sep 22, 2011

With President Obama still polling strong among black voters, the GOP’s Bush-era hopes of making inroads among African Americans seem like distant absurdities. But two black Republicans have nonetheless been making waves on the national stage recently–with outlandish antics that make it hard to remember there’s a long tradition of black political conservatism in the U.S. GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain and Florida Rep. Allen West appear to be following similar scripts. Both have accused black Americans of staying on a "Democratic Plantation" (and West has compared himself to Harriet Tubman, leading blacks off said plantation). Both have also publicly complained about members of the Congressional Black Caucus accusing the Tea Party of racism. West, in fact, is a member of both the CBC and its ideological polar opposite: The Tea Party Caucus. "As long as there’s been black politics, there’s been black conservatism," says William Jelani Cobb, a professor of history and Africana studies at Rutgers University. In the post-slavery 19th century, blacks began to find their political feet, and clear strains of black political thought developed. Social conservatism–partly informed by religion, the era, and a desire to prove that blacks were just as moral as white people–grew into what many African Americans still subscribe to today: Church, marriage, and family. Economic conservatism, preached and practiced by Booker T. Washington, was another strain. Many blacks were what Cobb calls "acolytes of capitalism." These conservatives believed that financial power would either eventually develop into social power, or that it would obviate the need for social power. One such conservative who preceded Washington was Isaiah Montgomery, who founded the black Mississippi town of Mound Bayou in 1887. Montgomery was a black state senator who voted to disenfranchise the state’s black citizens in 1890. "It was a booming, well-established, clean, well-resourced town," Cobb says. "Montgomery was able to carve out that niche for himself and get resources because he vehemently rejected black voting rights in Mississippi." Despite the obvious problems with Montgomery’s strategy–removing blacks from the political process–his end goal was one that benefited a group of black Americans. In the 1940s, though, Cobb says there was a shift to black conservatives fighting for power by supporting "international conservatism," or vocal anti-Communism. Edith Sampson, a black Illinois state attorney took issue with Soviet claims that life in the U.S. for blacks was bad, and argued, "…[T]he record shows that the Negro has advanced further in this period than any similar group in the entire world. You here get considerable misinformation about American Negroes and hear little or nothing that is constructive." Sampson was appointed the first black (alternate) delegate to the United Nations by President Harry S. Truman for her trouble. Today, many black conservatives are fighting battles over ideology, and how to get their ideas heard and implemented. Thanks, perhaps, to people like Sampson, one major point of contention is when to talk about black issues and when to talk about conservative issues. "A lot of black conservatives talk about the church and right to life and abortion," says Lenny McAllister, a black conservative commentator and radio host. "But that doesn’t relate to a 17-year-old in a broken home and a bad school system." And on the national level, black Republicans are lacking, he says. "Herman Cain doesn’t speak very much about black issues on the campaign trail," and neither does Allen West, who, McAllister says, could be more vocal since he’s already in office. This lack of interest in discussing black issues like economics and health care and unemployment and racial discrimination may simply be because Cain and West believe that black people can’t be converted. "There’s a plurality, if not a majority of black folks who are socially conservative," Cobb says, but they’re practically unreachable for conservatives because of the political shift that happened during the civil rights era. "People who were in the Republican party were stuck with the label of being anti-civil rights. At that point, Republicans became stigmatized in the black community." McAllister, however, believes young black people just aren’t being adequately targeted by conservatives. He would like to see less discussion of social conservative totems like abortion. Economics and education, he says, are two issues that should be flogged more. "If you want to shrink government," he says, referring to that cornerstone of conservatism, "you have to create opportunities." Basics, like putting grocery stores in food deserts would be good for the community and allow young people to get jobs that pay enough so that they can get the education necessary to move into higher paying fields. "School choice, we don’t trumpet the way we should," McAllister adds. "There are schools so bad nobody wants to be there, including the teachers and the staff–so why would the kids?" Though President Obama enjoys incredibly high levels of support among blacks, McAllister argues he’s actually been good for the black conservative movement: "He’s the epitome of what blacks have been getting from Democrats." Maybe that’s one place West and CBC big wigs like Maxine Waters can agree. Like many others who care about racial justice, Waters recently complained about the president’s steadfast refusal to even talk about the dramatic racial disparity in unemployment rates. "We’re supportive of the president, but we getting tired, y’all. Getting tired," she told a Detroit town hall meeting during the August congressional recess. Waters’ fatigue no doubt mirrors that of many black voters, but it’ll take much more than West and Cain for the GOP to make Republican converts out if it.