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Black Republicans, Donald Trump, and America’s “George Floyd moment”

Historian Leah Wright Rigueur explains why Republicans consistently fail to attract Black voters.

US Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) stands onstage while addressing the Republican National Convention at the Mellon Auditorium on August 24, 2020, in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Republican Party began losing the Black vote around 1936. Since then, Republicans have commissioned reports, hired consultants, and spent huge sums of campaign dollars trying to win back Black voters. The project continues today: This year’s Republican National Convention presented a lineup of speakers far more diverse than the Republican Party itself, making the case for the “Party of Lincoln.” A third of African Americans, after all, self-identify as “conservative.” And yet, no Republican presidential candidate has won more than 15 percent of the Black vote since 1964 (many have received well under 10 percent).

Leah Wright Rigueur is a historian and public policy scholar at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican, a remarkable study of the distinctive ideologies woven through the Black conservative and Black Republican traditions. The book traces the history of why Black voters left the GOP and what the Republican Party has tried to do — and what it has refused to do — to win them back.

Rigueur has also spent the past decade teaching classes on racial protests, riots, and how they shaped American politics in the 20th century. We discuss the historical analogues for today’s protest movement, what’s different now than in 1968, the complex relationship between protesters and electoral politics, how these movements can lead to both lasting change and white backlash, and more on The Ezra Klein Show.

An edited excerpt from our conversation follows. The full conversation can be heard on The Ezra Klein Show.

Ezra Klein

I wanted to start with the report Ralph Bunche wrote for the Republican Party way back when. Tell me the context of that report and what it recommended.

Leah Wright Rigueur

At the time, Ralph Bunche is a political scientist, a professor at Howard University. He goes on later to be a career diplomat and wins the Nobel Peace Prize in the 1950s. So he’s a revered figure in Black politics, but also in American politics, particularly in American statesmanship and statecraft. And here he is in the 1940s working with the Republican Party — not out of any kind of affinity for the Republican Party, but more so out of concern for the idea of two-party politics and where Black people fit within that two-party political system.

He’d been really upset about the New Deal. He felt like the New Deal hadn’t gone far enough for Black people and that there had been elements of the New Deal that had essentially been racist. So when the Republican Party reaches out to Ralph Bunche to do some consulting work, asking how to get Black voters to come back into the Republican fold, Bunche agrees. But he agrees only on the condition that when he finishes his final report on this that the report be published in its entirety. And that’s really where things start to get interesting.

Ezra Klein

As some context here, I think people believe that the racial realignment happened around the Civil Rights Act. But for Black voters, it started happening earlier. You point out that Black voters were heavily Republican before the New Deal and then they began to swing Democratic after it. So what happened there? And how does it lead to the Republican Party asking Bunche for his help?

Leah Wright Rigueur

There’s this idea that African Americans leave the Republican Party in the 1960s. To some extent that is true, but the really interesting thing here is that African Americans leave the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, in droves in 1936 during Roosevelt’s second election. And they leave because of the economic impact of the New Deal.

They actually experience the policies, the plans, the procedures, the programs of the New Deal in ways that affect their day-to-day lives. That allows them to overlook that history of discrimination of the Democratic Party and the persistent segregationists that are within the Democratic Party. On top of that, Black voters really are affected by the civil rights activism of Eleanor Roosevelt. And you see a watershed movement.

The Republican Party notices this almost immediately. They start up all different kinds of efforts on how to get Black voters back. In 1939, they reach out to Ralph Bunche because they say, “We have to be able to compete with the New Deal and with the Roosevelt administration. We’re bleeding voters.” You know, Black voters are still affiliating as Republicans, but they’re not voting Republican anymore. So how do we change this?

Ezra Klein

And what does Bunche recommend?

Leah Wright Rigueur

Ralph Bunche gives them this comprehensive report [on] where the New Deal has failed. He essentially says the New Deal hasn’t gone far enough — that the New Deal has had discriminatory practices and policies ingrained even in some of its most effective programs. But he also says the Republican Party has not done enough — that the Republican Party should be going further in its policies, and they can no longer rely on the “spirit of Abraham Lincoln” freeing the slaves to move Black voters.

So he argues in favor of all kinds of policy changes. He says you need to be more effective on health care and calls for universal health care. He says you need to be more effective on Social Security relief, finance, agriculture, labor — all of these different areas. He says there is room for the Republican Party to make inroads among Black voters by speaking to the very issues and needs that Black voters want. He’s also very explicit about the need for these programs and policies to be economic.

When the Republican Party gets this report initially, they widely praise it. They said this exactly what we need. But Bunche put in a caveat saying either you publish the report in full or you don’t publish it at all. So when the Republican Party comes back and says they only want to publish the parts where he attacks the New Deal, Bunche says no: You have to publish the entire thing or not at all.

So they end up not publishing it at all, but bits and pieces end up being leaked to the press, particularly the Black press and the Black media. It comes to be known, particularly as Bunche is making the rounds, talking about the fact that the Republican Party has a blueprint for how to move African Americans back into the party but they’re unwilling to do it.

Ezra Klein

I love this story because it seems to me that it’s been the same question for a long time now: The Republican Party wants to win back Black voters, but what they would like is for there to be an easier way to do it than to have to change their policy agenda to meet the actual economic and social needs of Black voters. They keep looking for a message or an orientation or a messenger. But every time somebody comes to them and says, look, African Americans have a very high uninsurance rate, you need a better idea for what to do about that than the Democrats have, they say no, we want some other way of addressing this.

Leah Wright Rigueur

Absolutely. I think there are a couple takeaways from that Ralph Bunche report. The first is that he says you cannot run with both hare and hound, meaning that the Republican Party has to decide whether it wants to court, say, the dissident white vote of the Democratic Party and rely on racial antagonisms on the backs of Black people — or do you really want Black voters? You cannot seduce both. And in the case of Black voters, economic policy in particular is really, really important.

In the 1970s, we see McNeill and Associates, which is a Black Republican consulting group consulting with the RNC, say virtually the same thing that Ralph Bunche has said in 1939 and 1940. They say we have to find a way to make these ideas palatable or attractive to Black people because right now, Black voters are making a pragmatic vote even in cases where they don’t like Democrats — even in cases where they might be more aligned religiously, spiritually, what have you, with the Republican Party.

They will not choose the Republican Party because, one, they believe Republicans are racist and racially antagonistic, and two, there are no [Republican] policies that they see affecting their day-to-day lives for the better.

It’s the two things that go hand in hand. And all too often we see that Republicans recognize this, but they’re unwilling to make either one of those kind of significant structural changes in order to actually get a significant proportion of the Black vote.