An Arkansas radio ad diverted media attention away from the Trump White House for a few hours last week.
“[Rep.] French Hill and the Republicans know that it’s dangerous to change the presumption of innocence to a presumption of guilt, especially for black men,” a black woman’s voice proclaims. “If the Democrats can do that to a white justice of the Supreme Court with no evidence, no corroboration, and all of her witnesses — including her best friend — say it didn’t happen, what will happen to our husbands, our fathers, our sons, when a white girl lies on them?”
“Girl, white Democrats will be lynching black folk again,” another black woman replies.
Brett Kavanaugh was not lynched, of course — on the contrary, he was confirmed to the Supreme Court, a body whose rulings have historically granted cover to racist vigilantism like lynchings. Nor did he face a legal presumption of guilt. He was being interviewed for a job promotion, not undergoing a criminal trial. The sexual-assault allegations that delayed his ascension posed no actual threat to his freedom, let alone his life.
Congressman Hill, who represents Little Rock and it surrounding suburbs in the U.S. House of Representatives, denied responsibility for the ad Thursday, calling it “outrageous” and tweeting, “There’s no place in Arkansas for this nonsense.” Yet time and again, nonsense — and false equivalences about American racism in particular — has been central to conservatives’ efforts to win more black votes for Republicans. That is why these efforts have not worked.
This is especially apparent when black conservatives are the movement’s ambassadors. Behind Thursday’s ad was a North Carolina–based super-PAC called Black Americans for the President’s Agenda, whose co-founder and treasurer, Vernon Robinson, formerly raised millions of dollars to draft Ben Carson to run for president in 2016. In his own failed campaigns for elected office, Robinson has inveighed against “illegal aliens and homosexuals.” Like other black conservatives, he seems to believe that most black people are stupid.
There are substantive reasons why black voters have become one of the Democrats’ most loyal voting blocs. Over the past half-century, the GOP has transformed itself from the party of Lincoln to the party of anti–Civil Rights Movement backlash, voter suppression, and open obstruction against the first black president’s policy agenda. But rather than confronting this reality in good faith and trying to reshape the Republican Party accordingly, high-profile black conservatives have resorted to drawing outlandish historical parallels to argue that black Democrats are brainwashed chumps.
Spokespersons ranging from pundit and strategist Candace Owens to traveling minstrel show Diamond and Silk and rapper Kanye West have adopted the tea party’s “Democrat plantation” frame — equating black support for Democrats with centuries of chattel slavery. For conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, affirmative action is comparable to Jim Crow segregation — one of countless forms of bigotry shrouded in “straight-faced representations that discrimination [helps] minorities.” For Robinson, the Kavanaugh hearings presaged a possible revival of the lynching era — a time when thousands of black people were being executed in public by their white neighbors, their bodies often incinerated, hanged from trees, and left to rot.
The joke has mostly been on conservatives. Generally speaking, black people are savvy enough to recognize that there are many ways in which today’s realities mirror Jim Crow, but rich white people being unfairly persecuted is not one of them.
That is not to say there is no form of conservatism that appeals to black people. Black conservatism has a long history in the United States, and strains of it run through many black communities. Nationalism-tinged bootstraps rhetoric touting self-reliance and entrepreneurship as paths to black liberation has found proponents from Booker T. Washington to Jim Brown. Bill Cosby’s respectability politics formed the basis of a national tour. Religious conservatism — including its resident malignant tumor, homophobia — has found a home in many black churches. Several factors explain why this has not translated into more black Republican votes. NPR’s Gene Demby reports that social pressure to vote Democratic plays a role — as it does in any community where one-party loyalty persists — but that generally, the Republican Party is “organized around white interests” in ways that leave many black conservatives cold.
But another likely reason is that black Republican pitchmen are often loyalist scolds floundering to explain why other black people don’t vote like them while refusing to indict white Republicans for decades of racism. The Southern Strategy was not a fluke. That the party’s base is roughly 90 percent white is a feature, not a bug. The election of Donald Trump, who marshaled suburban soccer moms and avowed white nationalists alike to his cause, culminated decades of Republican appeals to white grievance causes — from affirmative action to welfare to movements for police accountability and beyond.
In this context, it’s hard to read pitches like the one Vernon Robinson made in Arkansas as anything but disingenuous. That even the white Republican congressman it was intended to endorse recoiled from it suggests it seemed in poor taste to him — even if he could not clearly articulate why. Hill referred to the ad as “outrageous” in his disavowal. But his outrage should stem less from objecting to the ad’s pitch than that it’s one of the few pitches Republicans can come up with to entice black voters. The alternative is to keep black people from voting altogether while advancing white interests at their expense. And why stop? The tactic has worked wonders so far.