“He’s one of the good ones!”
If I heard it once from racist friends and family members growing up white in Georgia during the end of Jim Crow, I heard it a hundred times. There were some variations in wording, but the idea was very clear and consistent: Partly in an unsuccessful attempt to absolve themselves from racism (particularly when overt white supremacism went out of fashion) and partly to underline disdain for the alleged characteristics of most Black people, plenty of white folks in my neck of the woods (and doubtless elsewhere) went out of their way to express admiration for select members of a race they despised. These favored few were thought to exhibit traits antithetical to prevailing racist stereotypes; most of all, that included the refusal to acknowledge white privilege as merited.
I thought about that old meme when reading the fascinating FiveThirtyEight article by Hakeem Jefferson and Michael Tesler examining the attitude of white racists towards Black Republicans at a time when both white racial resentments and Black GOP candidacies (including newly elected Virginia Lieutenant Governor Winsome Sears) are growing.
Is the willingness of people who exhibit all the indicia of white racism to support Black candidates so long as they are Republicans reflect a more enlightened attitude that we might normally assume, as conservative media often assert? Not necessarily, say Jefferson and Tesler:
[I]n the 2016 Republican presidential primary…Ben Carson made a bid to become the GOP’s first African American presidential nominee. Support for Carson was positively correlated with the belief that Black Americans have too much influence on U.S. politics, according to data from Washington University in St. Louis’s American Panel Survey (TAPS) in late 2015….
You can see a similar pattern in the January 2016 American National Election Studies Pilot Study. Carson received more favorable evaluations among the sizable minority (40 percent) of overtly prejudiced whites who agreed with the racist stereotype that “most African Americans are more violent than most whites.” This group rated Carson significantly more favorably on a 0-100 scale than the white moderate Republican presidential candidate, Jeb Bush (52 to 39, respectively). Then-candidate Donald Trump was the only politician in the survey who was rated higher than Carson among overtly prejudiced whites.
Carson, of course, stridently opposed the agenda associated with Black Democrats and the civil rights legacy they represented. Indeed, the most distinctive part of his message (other than his biography as a distinguished surgeon and motivational writer and speaker) was a relentless assault on “political correctness” as a threat to the very existence of America and its freedoms. He gave Republicans who resented Black demands for racial justice a way to have their cake and eat it too. He was, to white racists, “one of the good ones.” This isn’t unusual among today’s Black Republicans, who are often fiery MAGA culture warriors, as distinguished from more traditional Black conservatives like South Carolina’s Tim Scott (much less the Black liberal Republicans of the increasingly distant past, like Ed Brooke, who in 1966 became the first Black senator in either party since Reconstruction).
The more Black Republicans embrace the same candidates and causes as white racists, the more they become not just acceptable but even preferable to other GOP candidates:
Their embrace of the Republican Party and its conservative ideology help assure racially prejudiced whites that, unlike Black Democrats, they are not in the business of carrying water for their own racial group. Instead, they are viewed as distinct from other Black elites. If Blackness is viewed as intertwined with a kind of racial liberalism that is antagonistic to the interests of white Americans, Black Republicans’ partisan and ideological commitments allay concerns that they are for “them,” not “us.”
Plus a white voter who supports a Black candidate can’t really be racist, right? (Wrong).
We will see a very interesting test of the quandary of Black Republicans next year in Georgia, when Black Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock will most likely face football legend and first-time candidate Herschel Walker. As pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, Warnock literally stands at the epicenter of the progressive Black civil rights movement. More to the point, he represents the claim — very offensive to many white conservatives who now regard themselves as victims of discrimination— that the civil rights movement did not end in perfect success decades ago. He is a solidly liberal Democrat who has on occasion been outspoken about racism.
Walker, on the other hand, will almost certainly be regarded as the epitome of “one of the good ones” by racially biased white Georgians, and not just because won the Heisman Trophy and led the University of Georgia Bulldogs to their last national championship in the 1980s. Dating back to college, Walker was a notably reserved and modest personality known to consider a position in the FBI as desirable as one in the NFL. He was also heroically self-sacrificing, playing most of the 1981 national championship game with a dislocated shoulder, and once extracting a motorist from a demolished car he happened upon during an early-morning run. His conservative views weren’t a recent contrivance, and his long and close relationship with Donald Trump (his first employer as owner of the New Jersey Generals of the USFL) made him a MAGA-before-MAGA friend of the 45th president, who talked him into the Senate race. Even his admitted struggle with mental illness has a strongly positive connotation to conservatives since he claims to have mastered his condition via a combination of religious faith and sheer self-mastery.
Barring an unexpected turn in the 2022 campaign, it’s very unlikely Herschel Walker will lose a significant number of white Republican votes due to racism. The bigger question is whether he will get a significant number of Black votes at all in a contest against Raphael Warnock. You now have to go back a good ways to identify any Black Republican who has shown genuine biracial appeal. And that’s unlikely to change unless the GOP rids itself of its current reputation as a cozy home for white identity politics.