Black Republicans raise their profile, focus on character

The Kansas City StarJanuary 16, 2012 

The isolation of being African-American and Republican rang clear to Sam Bain when he joined a group of about 100 other sign-waving protesters at a 2010 speech by President Barack Obama at Ohio State University.

“I was called a sellout, a racist, and one person even came right up to me and called me a house Negro. And they were black people. I was being attacked for being a black Republican,” he said.

But Bain stood his ground.

“It didn’t faze me,” said the 23-year-old senior at Wright State University in Ohio. “I’m not one to follow the herd. I’m not going to vote for a man just because he is black. I don’t agree with Obama’s policies. I judge a man by his policies and the content of his character, not the color of his skin. That’s what Martin Luther King Jr. would say.”

His is the same mantra touted by black Republicans who have become more vocal in recent years.

One example is the election of Allen West, a Florida Republican and an outspoken member of the tea party, who was elected to the House of Representatives in 2010.

Also businessman Herman Cain, who launched a bid for the Republican nomination for president before suspending his campaign last month.

As the nation reflects on the 83rd birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., young, black Republicans refer to the slain civil rights leader’s national call for diversity, equality and tolerance to support their right to espouse their political views, albeit conservative and counter to the traditional voices of the predominantly liberal, Democratic black community.

The GOP has a fractured history among African-Americans. For decades, many African-Americans identified themselves as Republican because it was the party of President Lincoln, who signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

However, that changed by the late 1920s, when African-Americans leaders locally and nationally affiliated with the Democratic Party. That new political muscle would soon propel Franklin Roosevelt into the White House.

By the mid-1960s, more African-Americans identified themselves as Democrats.

Some young, black Republicans maintain there has always been a fair number of African-Americans sharing strong conservative views: belief in fiscal responsibility, limiting government and pulling oneself out of poor circumstance.

But because being identified as a black Republican wasn’t popular in their community and because their families may have traditionally voted Democratic, they hid their desire to connect with the Republican Party.

“I have had conversations with black people who leaned forward and whispered to me that either they were Republican or they voted Republican, like it is some terrible secret,” said Bev Randles, 39, an attorney and vocal Republican who lives in Kansas City, North.

Vinciane Ngonsi, a 23-year-old Truman State senior, said she, too, has been ridiculed when her African-American peers who are Democrats find out she’s not one of them.

“I’ve been called ‘Uncle Tom,’ and told I’m not really black,” said Ngonsi, who was born in Cameroon but grew up in Lee’s Summit. In the 2008 presidential election, 95 percent of African-Americans voted for Obama.

“So if you are a young, black Republican, you are totally and completely eccentric,” said David A. Bositis, a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C.

“The base of the Republican Party is Southern, white and conservative,” he said. “I suppose it is a kind of rebellion.”

“They (black Republicans) certainly are individuals, because among black people, they are not the norm,” he said. “They are way out on the tail.”

Carson Ross, mayor of Blue Springs and a former member of the Missouri House of Representatives, said he has been a Republican for decades.

When he first got to Jefferson City as a state representative, people just assumed he was a Democrat, Ross, 65, said.

“But why shouldn’t black people have voice throughout the political system?” he said. “Why should black people be the only ones to put all their eggs in one basket?”

Gwen Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, said she, too, believes it is important that different political views are represented, regardless of the party affiliation.

“African-Americans, Latinos and other minorities should be represented at the table,” she said. “That is imperative. Whether I agree with their political agenda or not, I would most certainly want them at the table.”

Bain, co-chairman of the Ohio Branch of the Federation of College Republicans, said he’s seeing more young African-Americans pull up to the Republican side of the table. He and other outspoken black Republicans, such as Omar Davis, say that as time draws us further away from the civil rights era, more young African-Americans are willing to share conservative views.

“A lot of us didn’t experience the discrimination because of the color of our skin that our parents may have,” said Davis, a 37-year-old Jefferson City attorney.

“As we move further away from that paradigm, I believe we will see more young black people voting Republican,” Davis said.

Bain has noticed an increase in the number of African-American Republicans at Conservative Political Action Conferences each year.

Aaron Sewell, 23, grew up in Kansas City but now lives in Jefferson City, where he is a legislative assistant for Rep. Myron Neth, a Liberty Republican.

He said he thinks that a lot of Americans, and specifically African-Americans, vote Democratic because it is how their parents voted.

“My parents taught me to work hard, trust God, lean on God, believe in myself, and I took that message and identified with the Republican Party more.”

Bain grew up in a Republican household in Dayton, Ohio. The former Bush administration intern recalls riding in his mother’s car, a child on the way home from school, listening to Rush Limbaugh.

“I think that if you talk to a lot of black voters though, you’ll actually find that many of them tilt more conservative on social issues like pro-life and pro-marriage. I think the Republicans can connect with the black community on those issues. But I think the reason more African-Americans don’t vote Republican is because they really don’t know what Republicans stand for.”

That may be so, said Randles, whose parents grew up in “Klan-ridden Mississippi,” and in the 1960s moved to Missouri, where she was raised.

“The GOP was and has always been about economic freedom, free to think one’s own mind and to carry one’s own beliefs forward; free to succeed and free to fail. That is who the Republican Party is,” Randles said.

Other black Republicans such as Michael Steele, the first African-American to serve as chairman of the Republican National Committee, have touted GOP support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

That’s information that Randles said is often lost on other African-Americans.

Despite Obama’s election as the first black president, Randles and others said race didn’t change their Republican views — or compel them to vote for him.

“Throughout the 2008 campaign cycle, we were repeatedly told that America would not elect a black man president, that the country was still racist and backward,” Randles said. “Barack Obama’s election disproved that. In that sense, I felt an odd sense of pride in America for showing the world who we are.”

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