Black Elephants in the Room: The Unexpected Politics of African American Republicans

Image of Black Elephants in the Room: The Unexpected Politics of African American Republicans (George Gund Foundation Book in African American Studies)
Release Date: 
October 17, 2016
University of California Press
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The 2016 presidential campaign cycle has proven to be the most unpredictable and volatile in modern history. Pundits and pollsters alike struggle to make sense of a largely unfamiliar electorate due in large part to the allure of non traditional candidates on both ends of the political spectrum. 

The last two presidential elections have produced two prominent African American Republicans vying for the White House. Neither Herman Cain nor Dr. Ben Carson would eventually extend their campaigns deep into the primary season. But both are the result of modest Republican inroads into communities of color to expand their party, recruit candidates, and shrug off the lingering and pernicious effects of Nixon’s Southern Strategy. Still, of the 43 African American Members of the House of Representatives, only two are Republican. Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina, is one of only two blacks in the Senate, and the only African American any party has elected from the South since 1880. 

To be black and Republican in Washington is often viewed as antithetical to the African American experience. Thankfully, Stanford Sociologist Corey D. Fields delves into the experiences of Black conservatives in his book Black Elephants in the Room: The Unexpected Politics of African American Republicans.  

Fields argues that Black Republicans are typically no less committed to their racial identity than their Democratic peers but struggle to balance those convictions with the modern Republican Party platform and leadership.

In the early years of Reconstruction, the party of Lincoln seemed a reasonable haven for black political engagement. Eventually, Republican efforts to regain electoral dominance in the early 20th century pushed blacks to the margins, while Democratic Presidents from FDR (the New Deal), Truman (integration of the Armed Forces), and LBJ (Civil Rights Act, War on Poverty) cultivated African American voters to bring about the Democratic coalition politics we see today. Fields takes us through this time period, agnostic on specific policies, but drawing an important connection to the association of policy, party politics and voter engagement. 

But the real value of this book, via ethnographic research, is the articulation of a conflict between notions of African American shared fate and Republican rhetoric that advances race-neutrality and more inclusive American themes. Fields’ subjects want to exemplify less the “sellout” and more the conservative politics reflective of an older social, cultural and political tradition in these communities -especially those centered in the Black church. While his research sees little difference between Black Republicans and Democrats, Fields uncovers a racial isolation that hinders even the most mundane political conversations in the workplace or among social networks

The conclusions drawn are pretty straightforward. Among them, fields encourages political analysts to rethink notions of how one “perform[s] blackness” as a type of authenticity test. White conservatives bear much of the burden though if there is a sincere desire to increase membership, recruit candidates and mainstream the concerns of African Americans within and outside of the political infrastructure?  

As a sociologist Fields is adept and understanding how racial identities are formed or influenced by affiliations, and this cross sectional analysis provides an important snapshot. There may be interesting scholarly synergies between the black leadership models researchers like Eddie Glaude and Andra Gillespie offer. They argue separately that black leadership typologies transitioned from a post-civil rights framework to a market-based model, exemplified by younger leaders like Senator Cory Booker and President Obama. 

Fields could extend his analysis by looking at how notions of black conservatism and identity politics exist among a younger cohort of voter that eschews political affiliations at an increasing rate. He could also consider that since the 1970s, African American income at the upper levels have increased substantially, potentially nurturing an income/class-based conservatism where the social and political interactions may differ.