What attracts young African-Americans to the GOP?
By Joyce Jones
(Photo: Chelsi P. Henry)
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part feature on young African-American conservatives.
It’s not easy to be a young, Black Republican. Friends and family often give them the side eye, and some people who don’t know them at all consider them to be traitors. They also don’t have the same access to a tightly interwoven network of professional contacts and connections as their counterparts in the Democratic Party, which the vast majority of African-American elected officials is affiliated.
So, what’s the attraction?
For many it’s a combination of history and good old-fashioned conservative values. The GOP, they argue, is the party that emancipated Blacks from slavery, gave them the right to vote and provided other opportunities toward independence.
“Many of those moderate Republicans at that time stood on principles, such as getting a good education, the importance of liberty and having smaller government — but a need for government,” political consultant Shermichael Singleton told BET.com. “They stood on principles of being responsible and understanding how critical it was that individuals made their own way without others telling them this is what you have to do or this is the only way, and the importance of the family and how critical it is in formulating a good society and community.”
Those were the principles with which he was raised, Singleton added, and as he grew older, he realized they are more aligned with the GOP’s, even though he may not agree with Republicans on every issue.
But this is not to say that he doesn’t still have much in common with African-Americans. Singleton often finds himself having to remind those of his generation, who see him as some sort of alien, that they have a lot in common.
“They’re like, ‘Oh, man, you’re a Republican. You probably listen to different music or act a little differently,’” he said. “I like BET and watch 106 & Park when I can. Just because I’m a Republican, I don’t try to change who I am or not recognize certain aspects of my culture.”
Chelsi P. Henry, 25, is a rising star within the GOP. She was a Florida delegate at the Republican National Convention in 2012 and spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2013. Currently a cabinet aide to her state’s chief financial officer, the Jacksonville native also served in an elective position as a Soil and Water Conservation supervisor.
Black Democrats have for years expressed both concern for and curiosity about Henry’s political affiliation. Still, she was taken aback when, during her first year at Florida Coastal School of Law, others “literally referred to me as the Black Republican.” She was at the time running for office and it was the last thing she expected from people of her own race.
Even more hurtful was the fact that many African-Americans said they would not vote for her, even though she was not running for a partisan position.
“It’s just something I’ve learned to accept,” she said. “But at the end of the day I’m not going to allow others to change me and what I feel.”
Interestingly, it was a Democrat, then-Georgia state Rep. Kasim Reed, who piqued Andrew Lee’s interest in politics. “But it was in college that I started figuring out what I really believe in,” Lee, who works for an educational trade association, told BET.com.
While a student at Furman University, Lee was an active member of the campus conservative group and the NAACP. The initial attraction to the GOP was its conservative principles. He also didn’t think that African-Americans, “who are traditionally conservative at our core,” were being well served by Democratic lawmakers.
But becoming a Republican, Lee, 27, says, “made sense to me, even though I knew it wouldn’t be easy.” His family didn’t really understand his political choices but have been supportive, and the former Capitol Hill staffer admits to enjoying a good debate with his Democratic friends who give him a hard time.
Lee believes that in time, more African-Americans will give the Republican Party a more serious look.
“I think that increasingly a lot of Black folks feel their vote is being taken for granted and that Democrats have a monopoly,” he said. “But the Republican Party doesn’t always do a good job of offering an alternative. That’s half the battle.”