Vice released a half-hour documentary last week about young black American conservatives. It charts the awakening of a growing cohort of millennials and Generation Z–ers to a notion articulated in the film by Candace Owens, a 29-year-old activist: that “black lives have never, ever, ever mattered to the Democrat party,” but “black votes always have.” Such ahistoricism is common among the film’s subjects. It is true that black votes have been key to recent Democratic electoral successes, but false that this has “always” been the case. On the contrary: Until the 1960s, southern Democrats were segregationists committed to denying black suffrage altogether. Black people stopped voting Republican in large numbers because the GOP opposed civil rights legislation — just as the Democrat-led federal government was taking a more active role in protecting black voting rights.
But neither nuance nor historical perspective is in great supply among those featured in the film. Most define their politics in opposition to a Democratic Party that, they say, has “done nothing” for black people and only retained our support by scaring us and lying to us about the pervasiveness of racism. There is merit to the claim that the party has been a vehicle for anti-black harm — Barack Obama’s public admonishments supported the idea that black disadvantage stems from black irresponsibility, and Bill Clinton’s punitive criminal-justice record speaks for itself. But the persistence of racism in America is beyond doubt, and the solution proposed by the film’s subjects is dubious: not just to abandon the Democratic Party, but to reverse-migrate to the Republicans under Donald Trump. “Are we such punks that we are so scared to try something different?” Owens asks.
The GOP may be “different,” but its disdain for black people is nothing new. Republicans have spent decades suppressing black votes and pursuing social services cuts and “tough on crime” policies as draconian, if not more so, than any cooked up by the Democrats. That Trump has become the party’s standard bearer — a man who sought to ban Muslim immigrants from entering the United States, disparages Mexican and Central American migrants as criminals, and launched his political career by perpetuating the conspiracy theory that Obama was born in Kenya — makes their case even less convincing. But perhaps their greatest challenge is skepticism from other black people. According to several interviewees, not only do their black friends and family refuse to buy what they are selling, they communicate their refusal through insults: “I’ve had people that have known me for seven-to-ten years that have texted me and told me that I have a mental illness,” one man who identifies as a proud “black gay conservative,” says. “A lot of people said that my family was brainwashing me,” adds a woman who was adopted by white people in Colorado. “My sister at one time said [I was a] traitor … to my race,” says another woman.
It is unclear whether this backlash stems from the subjects’ conservatism alone, their support for Trump more specifically, or other tensions with friends and family that the documentary does not explore. But the fact remains that the Republican president to whom they have given fealty said there were “very fine people on both sides” of a rally where white supremacists murdered an anti-racism protester and fought — at times with their fists — to protect a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee while chanting, “Jews will not replace us!” This makes it hard to deny that some degree of internalized anti-blackness fuels black support for Trump. But the real problem is ultimately less nebulous than racial betrayal or brainwashing, if the subjects interviewed for the documentary are any indication. Black conservatism is not fallacious because its adherents are stupid, sick, or brainwashed. It is fallacious because their conception of racism is not much different from that of most white conservatives, marked by delusion and a refusal to reckon honestly with the bigotry that has allowed the GOP to survive all these years, despite its growing unpopularity.
Most of the statements about race and partisan politics made by the report’s subjects crumble under even the slightest interrogation. “The only people that are white that we have allowed around us are white liberals,” one man shouts at the Young Black Leadership Summit, a gathering of young black conservatives in Washington, D.C. “And the only reason that young black men are out here stomping on flags and burning them is because the Democrats never taught them how to love that fucking flag.” It is unclear which epidemic of flag-stomping black men he is referring to. And the notion that what black people “allowed” ever dictated white people’s proximity to us is laughable. But it is also false that only white liberals live near us. More than half of America’s black population resides in the South, whose white population is so reliably conservative that it handed almost the entire region to Republicans in the last five presidential elections. Equally suspect, not to mention condescending, is the implication that young black men could not develop antipathy toward the American flag on our own, after 400 years of slavery and segregation, independent of whatever the Democratic Party “taught them.”
Matters only devolve from here: Antonia Okafor, a black conservative Second Amendment rights advocate and “child of an immigrant from Africa,” as reporter Lee Adams describes her, agrees with Trump’s characterization of African nations as “shithole countries.” “Hearing [my mom] say, ‘Do you think I went to America because I liked Texas or something?’” she says. “It is horrible [in Africa]. There are people, there are Christians being killed by machetes.” When she challenges Adams to name one racist policy championed by Republicans, he quickly points to voter suppression. “If anyone’s disenfranchising minority groups, it’s the Democratic Party,” Okafor shoots back. “Especially right now. When they’re taking our vote for granted because we are the majority, usually, and they can rest comfortably on that, is disenfranchising a whole group.”
Black people comprise 13 percent of the American population and roughly 12 percent of voters in the 2012 and 2016 elections. Assuming all 12 percent backed a Democratic candidate, for them to be “the majority” of Democratic votes would require Hispanic, white, Asian-American, and Native American votes for Democrats combined to be less than that — meaning that, overall, Democrats would win less than 24 percent of the popular vote in most elections (in reality, they have won a plurality or majority in four of the last five). But Okafor’s math is only part of the problem. Vocabulary fails her as well. Voter suppression is an actual phenomenon, not a rhetorical device. Erecting barriers to black suffrage — like voter ID laws, roll purges, and frivolous fraud prosecutions — qualifies. Taking black votes for granted, despite Okafor’s claim to the contrary, does not.
Shekinah Geist, a black conservative social media personality based in Colorado, and her friend, Sierra Jarmon, said they felt that the black student group at their college is hostile to their conservatism. The Vice reporter arranges a meeting for them to discuss their differences. “[Trump is] actually trying to start urban revitalization with Ben Carson,” Geist explains to the group when asked which of the president’s policies she supports. “Wasn’t [Carson] a doctor?” replies one of the student group members. “How is [he] going to help out with housing?” “Because he grew up in extreme poverty,” Jarmon says. The man replies: “I grew up in extreme poverty. I can’t fix houses though.” The conversation ends there. Needless to say, a convincing case for Ben Carson’s viability as secretary of Housing and Urban Development was not built. The two sides had to settle for making nice by attending a school basketball game together.
At no point do any of the conservative subjects entertain the prospect that the Republican Party is fueled by — or even tolerates — racism and white resentment. They insist instead that the Democrats have proven their own bigotry and lack of investment in black well-being and thereby earned black defection, or “Blexit,” as Candace Owens describes it, to the other party. The subjects arrived at this conclusion from disparate origin points — whether it is the woman adopted by white people in Colorado or the first-generation Texan gunslinger with African parents. Their commitment to time-worn conservative delusions around race and aversion to empirical evidence unites them. The idea that Democrats are the real racists echoes Trump deflecting from his own racism by calling Hillary Clinton a bigot. The lie that black voters comprise the majority of Democratic votes and also are having their ballots suppressed by the same party is a contradiction equally worthy of the president, while the notion that Ben Carson’s blackness and poverty qualify him to run a federal housing department relieves the right of any pretenses toward meritocracy. The disproportionate harm Republican policies cause nonwhite communities makes it easy to dismiss black conservatives as brainwashed, sick, or traitorous. But the reality is that the people featured in the Vice report do not need to be brainwashed to be wrong. They just need to be conservative. The rest follows.