Wanted: Black Men needed to be buffoons — think Hershel Walker — in exchange for being treated like a King of the Moment and a figurehead greeted by Republican cheers? If interested, please call the GOP.
Perhaps it is too easy to reduce the small but increasing rush of Black male Republicans to an imaginary advertisement for Black buffoonery. Yet such a thought is irresistible for some, considering that a man like Walker is actually the GOP nominee in Tuesday’s tight U.S. Senate runoff race in Georgia. Certainly, that idea has been adopted by many relatives of Kevin Fulton, a litigator in Houston. Fulton is no buffoon; he’s an accomplished professional who carries the lessons from his toughest courtroom cases to holiday family gatherings in his native South Central Los Angeles. But there, the question — Why are you a Republican? — absorbs the atmosphere. The verbal lashings are even worse from Black strangers when he’s canvassing for Republican candidates in Houston’s Black neighborhoods or distributing literature at the polls: “Uncle Tom.” “Sell out.” “Clarence Thomas.”
Fulton chuckles. “I’ve been called it all.”
He’s never been called Malcolm X, but in between slicing the turkey and stuffing on his plate into manageable bites at those holiday dinners, he often repeats the name of his inspiration to become a Republican and sees the faces of aghast relatives. “I wasn’t really a Martin Luther King kind of person,” says Fulton.
As a teenager in the Eighties growing up in South Central Los Angeles, he was a consummate student of Malcolm X and a political junkie. Fulton was also active in the Young Democrats, but he grew unsettled by contradictions between what he read and what he saw among Democrats.
“I would just devour books and recordings of Malcolm X. Even to this day I would still go back and look at some of his videos of his speeches and his interviews, and it was about the Black community taking care of the Black community and getting the government out of those communities. The Republican party is about getting the government out of your business and it kind of followed that line of thinking for me. Malcolm X also had a lot of stuff that he said about liberals, their policies, and how it hurts the Black community… I eventually began to look at liberals kind of suspiciously.”
By his early thirties, he was a registered Republican.
Fulton and his fellow Black male Republicans remain in the minority, but they’re no longer rarified. Black women continue to consistently vote Democratic in the largest numbers of any group, but the percentage of Black men voting blue has slipped in every national election since 2012. Why has this growth persisted, given the rise of Donald Trump in the Party? His takeover of the party over the past decade is the most prominent development in the GOP.
In interviews with Black male Republicans, some overlook the long personal history of anti-Black racism that peppers Trump’s background. Yes, he has arguably done more for white nationalists than any political figure in decades, but some black male voters who have made the switch say subtle anti-black racism lives just as large on the liberal side. Many cited a variety of other reasons for their GOP affinity, most notable was the appeal of the GOP mythology as the party of tough, bootstrap independence. For others, it was disillusionment with Hillary Clinton and the era of former President Barack Obama. And some simply distrust the Democratic Party as a whole, doubting its intentions and viewing it as the haven of those who exist in the realm of self-pity.
IT WAS 10 YEARS AGO when many Democrats cheered an electoral milestone. On November 6, 2012, African Americans, the party’s most loyal demographic, voted in numbers that were proportionately higher than whites for the first time ever, leading to the reelection of Barack Obama over Mitt Romney. In 2012, 66.2 percent of eligible Black voters made it to the polls compared to 64.1 percent of whites, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Peeling away layers of that turnout reveals signs of the Black partisan gender gap. While 96 percent of Black women voted for Obama in 2012, up from 92 percent in 2008, there was a drop in the number of young Black male voters who supported Obama. Overall, 87 percent of Black men voted to reelect the first Black president in 2012 — down from 95 percent in 2008. The number was even lower for Black men between the ages of 18 to 30, with 81 percent voting for Obama.
“Okay, if I’m talking about 18- to 30-year-olds in 2012, then in 2006, 2008 — some of the boys were getting out of college,” says John Taylor, Director of the Black Male Initiative in Atlanta, which focused heavily on turning out Black male voters. “Some of these folks were looking at a downturned economy, they were hoping for some really great stuff to come out of the Obama administration, and it was not the amazing kind of moment that they wanted. I mean Obama was mostly an elected official, some part politician, really kind of like a savvy dude. He had to – he had to play his base, which he did. He wasn’t ‘the Black President,’ he was ‘the American President.’ So I think folks had unrealistic expectations for the first Obama presidency.”
This slight red-ward move among Black male voters held steady in 2016 but grew to 18 percent in 2020, while the number of Black women Trump supporters remained at 6 percent. It is too early for definitive numbers for the gender breakdown in midterms this year, but many exit polls indicate that the gender gap remained among Black voters in many races. For example, in Georgia, 94 percent of Black women voted for Stacey Abrams, while only 86 percent of Black men voted for her, according to AP Votecast. AP Votecast also found that 14 percent of all black voters cast ballots for GOP congressional candidates compared with an overall figure of 8 percent in 2018 and 2020.
“Black men are both Black and they are men,” says Ben Jealous, outgoing President of People for the American Way and former President of the NAACP. “For many white working-class men, the things that primarily matter are getting a good job, looking forward to a better job, having a strategy to make sure that the kids can work or whether or not the kids go to college. The reality is there are a lot of Black men with the same primary concerns. Unfortunately, when you look at Donald Trump, he lies incessantly and successfully to those demographics. He says he cares about coal miners when really all he cares about is coal.”
Through the lens of Jealous, those working-class white men are victims of Republican manipulation. That conclusion is in common company with the classic conclusions of Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas. The perceptions of Jealous (and Frank) live among a flood of ideas, from academic theorists to pop politics pundits, on how various groups of voters are deceived into falling into a partisan lane that does not benefit their interests.
But in partisan politics, it appears that gender — not race — is a larger factor in shaping the partisan lens of a growing number of Black men. They select the popular male choice for a party, the GOP, over the popular race choice: the Democrats. “From many Black male perspectives, the Democratic Party is perceived as weak,” says Charles Cherry, President of 623 Management, an advertising and marketing firm that helps companies reach Black consumers, and former Publisher of Florida Courier and Daytona Times. “And that’s why you’ve got some brothers who appreciate Trump, even as bad as Trump has been.”
Why wouldn’t some black men want to identify with the notions of male strength–no matter how fallacious–in choosing a party? Such a choice helps forge their own mental escapes from the wrath that comes with being part of a demographic group–black men–so heavily vilified in the popularized views of the American mindset. Moreover, when it comes to the perceptions of political parties, Republicans have stolen the reputational space of strength and masculinity while Democrats own the existence as the party that is more sympathetic to those who need help and their nurturers. For James, a law student who asked to be referred to only by a pseudonym out of fear that his political leanings could compromise his future legal career, strength is more appealing — along with GOP approaches aimed at inspiring black enterprise and wealth building.
James saw the red light as a teenager. When he entered a prestigious boarding school as a star basketball player near the end of the Obama era, he discovered a world of views that challenged the diehard democratic perspectives of his family and friends back home in Hollis Queens. He decided his affinity for capitalism was more aligned with the Republican party. He also became captivated by Donald Trump’s style.
However, on a trip home to Queens, he reunited with his friends on the basketball court in Hollis and shared his support for Donald Trump. His friends could not relate to that choice. Outrage flooded the court, as did, James said, insults and accusations of self-hatred.
Ed Muldrow, chairman of the Gwinnett County Republican Party in Georgia, is not surprised to hear about James’ experiences. He says he’s witnessed racism as a Black man in America, but it doesn’t rise to the hatred he’s encountered from other Blacks over his partisan choice. “I’ve been called a racist apologist and all kinds of craziness,” says Muldrow. “I’ve often said Black Republicans need a support group.”
James says he is facing less resistance to partisan choice among blacks today than he did in high school. “You can see with the numbers, more and more Black people are wanting a new approach to politics I guess. We’re feeling like we haven’t gotten enough, like we give the Democratic Party a lot, and we feel like we don’t get enough. A lot of Black people, especially young Black men, I would say, are kind of moving towards that direction.”
EVEN SOME DEMOCRATS BLAME THEIR PARTY for the recent exodus of Black men. They say the party fails to sell its message in ways that motivate African American men, charging that the party refuses to aggressively campaign to Black voters for fear of offending whites. This is the very tactic that has plagued the party’s approach to African American voters ever since the Republican success of the Nixon and Reagan strategies to lure the “silent white majority” into the GOP fold. “The Democratic party is very much tortured by what they view as the prospects of what would happen if they were too explicit in saying what their policies have done for communities of color and Black people in particular,” says Kevin Harris, senior vice president at Mosaic Communications and political consultant with People For the American Way. “I think that is a strategic mistake and I think that we should be bold and aggressive and talk to everybody about what our policy has done and is intended to do for all people and particularly working class people. A lot of those folks who Democrats are worrying about offending aren’t going to go our way anyway.”
Don’t say that to DNC chair Jaime Harrison. While campaigning for US Senate candidate Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin a few days before the election, he fumed at the suggestion that the party was afraid to appeal to its most loyal bases of voters. “It’s hogwash. I don’t know who they are talking about in the Democratic party,” he told Rolling Stone. “As chair of the party who is a Black man, I am not afraid of talking about issues impacting the Black community. We understand the backbone is in the African American community.”
IN CAMDEN, NEW JERSEY, you could not escape political discussions at the dinner table of the Williams family. Dwaine Williams is a former school board member and a devout Republican while his wife, Terry, is a loyal Democrat. “And we’ve stayed married for 36 years,” says Williams.
In many ways, the family perfectly illustrates the Black partisan gender gap. They have three adult children–two girls and a boy–who are now in their twenties. The parents say they let their children decide on their own partisan direction. In 2020, the two daughters voted for Biden, while the son voted for Trump. “More Black men are clearly seeing what I’m seeing, “ says Williams. “I see the Republican Party as symbolically making the statement you have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Everybody has boots.”
The idea of Republican bootstraps versus Democratic handouts is steeped in partisan stereotypes, along with the notion that Republicans are stronger on the economy. Democrats say both are misguided. Yet promoting healthy dosages of independence, bootstrapping, and self-sufficiency is the driving force that led the Williams men and many others to vote Republican, coupled with a disappointment in the conditions in African American communities that are represented in city councils, state legislatures, and congress by liberal Democrats, who fail to deliver. “We’re (Blacks) voting for the same people,” says Fulton, “Even though the policies that they have are clearly not working, the communities are not getting better, they’re not getting healthier.”
Such an argument sends many Black Democrats screaming in horror. “You can’t say that it makes sense to become a Republican at a time when you’ve got Republicans that are literally trying to take your vote away with surgical precision,” says Cliff Allbright, co-founder and Executive Director of the Black Voters Matter Fund. “You have Republicans that are literally suing against student debt cancellation saying that they are doing it because Black people will benefit disproportionately. Trying to take away affirmative action, attacking teaching our history in our school. You could go policy by policy and there is no policy that Republicans support that actually benefits our community. So to say, hey, “we need to look at the other side,” or, hey, ‘both sides are racist.” That’s ignorant….But I’m not going to say that because Biden or Democratic Congress is not meeting everything that I want to see, therefore, I’m gonna go to the other sides that are literally anti-Black. That’s, that’s self-hatred, right? And so none of those arguments make sense.”
THERE WAS A TIME WHEN Reginald Grant, 33, a Houston geography teacher and former marine who completed one tour in Kuwait and one in Afghanistan, embraced the idea that his values were more at home with the GOP. His middle-class upbringing was steeped in self-reliance and allergic to the idea that racism could impair him. In his view, it was his own tenacity — not any kind of fate as a member of a racial group tortured by discrimination — that would determine his destiny. It was a mindset that led him, at 130 pounds, to make it in the marines at age 18. After four years in the military, he enrolled in Texas Southern University, a historically black college where he found himself in the minority as a Republican. His was the voice that challenged liberal professors and he helped reestablish the campus chapter of the College Republicans. “And those professors that didn’t agree with you. They welcomed a challenge. It wasn’t like you had to tiptoe around them.”
However, he did take his first detour from the GOP in 2008 when he was captivated by Barack Obama. “He looked like a rebel,” Grant says. “An outsider like me.” Yet Grant would become one of those Obama-Romney voters, becoming disappointed in Obama’s support for Gay Marriage and “excess” government spending patterns that Grant found wasteful. By 2016, he found himself in Cleveland, Ohio as a delegate cheering at the Republican convention that coronated the Trump-Pence ticket. Two years later, he ran a losing campaign in a GOP primary for a seat in the state legislature. “I’ll be honest. When I was trying to get support within the Black community for the Republican Party, I would use that same line: ‘it’s the Republican Party who pushed for the abolition of slavery…Lincoln was the Republican President. He abolished slavery. That’s who we are…We’re for the liberation of all people.’
“I was just doing the politician thing and knew I was being a little fast and loose with the facts. However, my intentions about what I wanted to do for the community were pure, even though I was being a bit misleading. But even at a point, if you keep telling the same — I call them lies or misinformation, however you want to put it — over time, you start to believe some of the things that you’re saying and you end up getting lost a little bit in those lies, if you keep telling them over and over and over again.”
In 2018, you would often find him with a close-cut military haircut and his cowboy hat, traveling through Houston in his pickup truck. Yet he started to question some of his conservatism on social views, which experienced an upheaval when one of his best buddies from his days as a Marine came out as Gay, which forced him to view that issue differently. He now supports Gay Marriage. Living through Trumpism gradually changed him in other ways; from Trump’s referral to Colin Kaepernick as “a son of a bitch” to hearing fellow republicans denounce the Black Lives Matter Movement to hearing party faithful “celebrate blue lives” in the era of George Floyd to those GOP school board members throughout Texas who criticized Critical Race Theory without any kind of intelligent understanding of black history. “So many of them are a bunch of ignorant, racist people,” says Grant. “I know them…I’ve been in the room with them. I know their line of thinking.”
By 2020, Grant was sporting shoulder-length dreadlocks and arrived at a space where he could no longer stomach being a Republican. Regardless of how many bootstraps party members claim to command, he voted for Joe Biden in 2020.
AT 23, SVANTE MYRICK was the first Black and youngest mayor ever elected in Ithaca, New York. In the middle of his fourth term, his frustration with the rise of Donald Trump led him to leave that job and join People for the American Way, where he has overseen the organization’s effort to increase turnout among Black male voters in 25 states. He would applaud the exit of a man like Grant from the GOP. Yet he fears this potential moment of redefinition, in which the GOP that threatens to dethrone the standing of Donald Trump and elevate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, could lead more Black men to ride the elephant. “Desantis’ racist appeals are better coded than Trump’s —, that is to say, his dog whistle is more finely tuned,” says Myrick. “DeSantis also doesn’t have the same stigma that now comes with Trump. With Trump, there’s an accumulated taboo in the Black community against supporting him that hasn’t been developed for somebody like DeSantis.”
Myrick, who is now incoming president of People for the American Way, also says Trump’s appeal is finally dying. “Part of Trump’s appeal to Black men and to everybody that he actually does appeal to has been that he is supposedly a winner,” says Myrick. “You may not like the things he says, but at least he wins. Well…it’s been three straight election cycles in which he’s been a pretty big loser. For ‘18, ‘20, and 2022. And so I don’t know if he’ll be able to successfully spin that narrative anymore; That he is a winner and therefore you should follow him. I think that a DeSantis would peel off more Black men in 2024 than Trump would. And he doesn’t have the stink of losing on him.”
MANY LIBERAL AND DEMOCRATIC grassroots activists are more shaken by the persistent black gender gap in turnout than the dips in black male support for Democratic candidates. However, in all racial groups, women have higher turnout rates, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. For example, in 2020, 66 percent of all eligible black women voters cast ballots compared to 55 percent of black men. Among whites, 69 percent of women voted compared to 67 percent of men, and among Hispanics, 56 percent of women compared to 51 percent of men voted.
The totals for turnout in this year’s midterms are not yet as comprehensive. Overall, African American turnout may have been lower in the midterms this year than in 2018, according to the early calculations of many cities. For example, black turnout fell 12 percent below the 2018 levels in Milwaukee. This leads to speculation about the impact of that decline on the losing campaign of Democrat Mandela Barnes. He lost to incumbent Ron Johnson, an election-denying Republican, by one percentage point. It is a loss that serves as a microcosmic lesson to Democrats across the country about the danger of losing more black men to the GOP and the importance of turning out its loyal bases.
Barnes was well aware of the importance of the black male vote while campaigning last month. “Any community taken for granted is a community that you’re gonna lose,” he said, on the eve of the election. “For too long, folks have assumed that certain communities will show up to vote for them without actually doing the real work, without showing up. And this campaign has been focused on meeting people where they are. Showing up, talking to everybody, not assuming that anybody is gonna show up.”
His “showing up” wasn’t enough. It’s unclear if the shifting numbers of black male voters going red was a larger factor than the depressed black turnout when it comes to Barnes’ loss in Wisconsin. Probably a bit of both and, either way, the black male vote will claim a spotlight on Tuesday in Georgia and, of course, across the country in 2024.