Politics & Policy

Black Conservatives See an Opportunity for Growth in 2016

Ben Carson in South Carolina, September 18, 2016 (Sean Rayford/Getty)

Editor’s Note: This story quoted as fact CJ Pearson’s claim that he was blocked by President Obama on Twitter. Pearson’s claim has subsequently been called into doubt by multiple other media outlets and the White House. NR regrets the error.

On September 23 at 2:00 p.m., President Barack Obama blocked 13-year-old C. J. Pearson on Twitter.

“I consider it a badge of honor,” Pearson says, his Georgia drawl clear.

Pearson is a Republican, an African-American, and, though he’s barely a teenager, the national chairman of Teens for Ted, a group backing Ted Cruz for president in 2016. He’s gained a massive social-media following with what he describes as “fiercely conservative” commentary on issues from ISIS to free speech, and the national press is starting to take notice. He appeared on Fox News’s Hannity Tuesday to condemn Obama for his “disgusting” use of Ahmed Mohammed — the 14-year-old Muslim falsely accused of bringing a homemade bomb to his Texas high school — as a “political prop.” His goal is to speak at the Republican National Convention next summer.

An issue of chief concern to Pearson is what he calls the “horrible state” of black America. According to the Pew Research Center, the poverty rate has increased from 25.8 percent in 2009, at the onset of Obama’s presidency, to 27.2 percent in 2013. Labor force participation is at its lowest level since 2007, per the Center for Economic and Policy Research. And Federal Reserve reports show that between 2010 and 2013, the net worth of black households plummeted 34 percent. Obama, Pearson says, “was supposed to be a savior for the black community. But he’s failed us.”

Pearson and many other black conservatives see the 2016 presidential election as a critical moment for Republicans to make inroads with the black community, which they say has grown increasingly skeptical of Democratic leadership after eight years of the Obama administration. Among the GOP candidates, Ben Carson has been most aggressive in courting black voters, stumping in urban, traditionally Democratic areas where they predominate, and where most Republicans wouldn’t think to campaign. He’s hoping to succeed where previous black GOP contenders such as Alan Keyes and Herman Cain have failed. And he’s giving black conservatives reason for optimism.

“The votes are there,” Pearson says. “It’s time for Republicans to start going into inner cities and black communities and [trying] to communicate our ideas.”

Carson is trying to do just that. While most other GOP candidates are busy setting up shop in Iowa and New Hampshire, he has held roundtable discussions in places such as Ferguson, Mo., and Detroit, Mich., and town-hall meetings at historically black colleges such as Howard University. Though Carson is not the first African American to run in the Republican primary, he communicates his life story with a genial conviction that’s won him broad support. His frank discussions of his faith have helped him connect with voters, and craft a campaign that many black conservatives believe will bolster their coalition.

For Richard Ivory, founder of Hip Hop Republican, a Manhattan-based blog dedicated to producing political content for minority audiences, Carson’s efforts have proven “very effective” in showcasing “how a black person can navigate the Republican political structure.” Carson’s candidacy, Ivory says, constitutes a “turning point” for the GOP.

*      *      *

Earlier this month, Carson traveled to Ferguson, Mo., where the current national conversation on race and law enforcement began on August 9, 2014. Alongside Mayor James Knowles, Carson toured the St. Louis suburb to talk with locals about their experiences in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death. He also visited the spot where 18-year-old Brown was killed by police officer Darren Wilson.

In a roundtable discussion after the tour, Carson became emotional as he related a conversation he had with a woman who lost her business during the riots. “She’s a mother of three sons. She was talking about how every day, when her sons went out, she worried about what would happen to them,” he said. He also said that many locals, in response to Black Lives Matter activists’ calls for Justice Department oversight of the Ferguson PD, told him that it “was probably more hurtful than helpful to have DOJ involvement.”

Carson is the only presidential candidate — Democrat or Republican — to have visited the city, though Rand Paul traveled there before he announced his campaign and Knowles told the Washington Post he had extended invitations to all the candidates. No prominent Black Lives Matter activists attended Carson’s roundtable discussion, though he has said that he is open to meeting with them.

‘The votes are there,’ Pearson says. ‘It’s time for Republicans to start going into inner cities and black communities and [trying] to communicate our ideas.’

Carson’s approach to racial issues on the campaign trail reflects his own experiences with racism. In his first book, Gifted Hands, he details his initial years as a surgeon at Johns Hopkins, when some patients treated him coldly, and others reacted angrily upon learning they were being treated by a black physician. He recalls a white Johns Hopkins resident from Georgia who “couldn’t seem to accept having a black intern.”

Rather than leave the hospital, he decided to combat racism with superior performance.

“The only pressure I felt,” he wrote, was “a self-imposed obligation to act as a role model for black youngsters. These young folks need to know that the way to escape their often-dismal situations is contained within themselves. They can’t expect other people to do it for them.”

According to Marie Stroughter, co-founder of the group African-American Conservatives, this is the model that black conservatives are looking to follow. “More and more black conservatives are finding their voice in light of this administration,” says Stroughter, an adoptive mother of two and a conservative talk-radio host. “Black Americans are starting to look at Black Lives Matter — the rioting, the looting, none of which has engendered goodwill — and say, ‘Wait a second, this isn’t what Dr. King was about.’”

Stroughter points to non-political figures such as Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, who criticized Black Lives Matter in a press conference last week, as helping to bring black challenges to progressive orthodoxy into the mainstream. And she has nothing but praise for Carson’s efforts to grow the black-conservative base. “Republicans have a big opportunity this election to challenge Democrats for the black vote,” she says. “Dr. Carson’s visibility has been a tremendous boon for that.”

Some, however, are raising concern about the effects of that visibility. Carson’s over-the-top rhetoric — invoking the image of a plantation to describe the allegiance of blacks to the Democratic party, for example — doesn’t help black Americans warm to the GOP, says Crystal Wright, a blogger at ConservativeBlackChick.com.

“GOP candidates, if they’re not careful, could squander a perfect opportunity to distance themselves from this kind of divisive language and instead give a substantive answer to the question: ‘Why should black Americans vote for you?’” Wright says.

She points to education as a pivotal issue for bringing more blacks into the GOP. She cites black voters’ significant support for school choice, recalling the moment last spring when black parents crowded the steps of the State Capitol in Albany, N.Y., to rally for an expansion of charter schools. It’s this kind of passion, Wright says, that Republicans must begin to take advantage of, and that Carson is attempting to tap into.

“Carson has an opportunity message that resonates. His mother didn’t ask the government to help her. She knew the way was education,” she says. “That’s an inclusive message. That’s an inspiring message. That’s where blacks are starting to tune in.”

*      *      *

“I’m not going to vote for someone on the basis of their skin color,” says Don Scoggins. “But I suppose that’s why I’m a Republican in the first place.”

Scoggins, 69, looks up from our sun-dappled seats on Capitol Hill. His face is bright. He relates memories of his childhood in the segregated spaces of Tulsa, Okla., where, as an 11-year-old, he and his father canvassed for Dwight D. Eisenhower. He has remained a conservative ever since, through a master’s-degree program in urban and regional planning at the University of Pittsburgh and his time as an Army Officer in Vietnam. Today, from his home in Prince William County, Va., he remains active in the local Republican Party.

‘I’m glad that Carson is helping people to take more notice. I’m also glad that he’s making black conservatives more willing to speak up.’

He says he’s glad to see younger generations — millennials like C. J. Pearson and Richard Ivory — championing the ideals he’s held close for decades, such as the “mobility of free enterprise” and the “freedom that comes with self-reliance.” But he’s not all that impressed with Ben Carson.

A “pragmatic and business-minded conservative,” Scoggins says he doesn’t have time for “pie-in-the-sky” ideology, preferring candidates who tout a results-oriented approach. Right now, he says he’s looking closely at Jeb Bush, attracted by his record as governor of Florida.

Nevertheless, he says Carson’s candidacy will cause those younger blacks who have begun to question their allegiance to the Democratic party to consider changing course. “I’m glad that Carson is helping people to take more notice,” he says. “I’m also glad that he’s making black conservatives more willing to speak up.”

“Do I think the GOP has done enough to court minority voters? Absolutely not. Do I see that starting to change with this election? Yes,” Scoggins says. “I’ve been so frustrated over the years with the lack of engagement. But these are the principles I believe in. I’ll always fight for people to see that.”

I ask him why.

“I’ve been too busy to be a victim,” he says, and pauses. “I guess you could say that’s my brand of hope.”

— Elaina Plott is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.

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