EBONY Magazine Oct/Nov 2018 Cover Stars: Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Kamala Harris, and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms
A new wave of Democrats is standing firm in its opposition to the worst of Trump’s America. In an EBONY exclusive, on the eve of the 2018 midterm elections, three popular African-American elected officials—U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris of New Jersey and California, respectively, and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta—share personal stories about their unique paths to politics and open up about what they hope their own legacies will be.
Photographs by Shayan Asgharnia, Creative Direction by Courtney Walter, Production by Bianca Grey, Styling by Yashua Simmons, Grooming by Lisa Pope
COOKING THE RESULTS
Sen. Kamala Harris may increasingly look like a presidential hopeful, but it’s the preparation of Sunday family dinners that helps the popular politician find her true center
by Melissa Knowles
For many Democrats and African-Americans alike, 2020 just can’t come soon enough. It’s not merely about a “Dump Trump” sentiment but also about the deep hope for new and improved policies that impact Black lives. The reason some African-Americans are fervently looking to the future is because of the promise of progressive politicians such as Sen. Kamala Harris, 52, of California.
Elected in 2017 after serving as California attorney general since 2011, the junior senator is only the third woman to represent her state, but as a multiethnic Black woman—Jamaican and Indian—she is a first. Today, the political rumor mill is mumbling—loudly—about Harris as a potential Democratic presidential candidate (something the senator hasn’t directly confirmed but hasn’t exactly shut down, either). It wouldn’t be hard to imagine Harris as the first woman president; she’s built for a fight and she’s been winning tough elections since her Howard University days. Yet in addition to her deep commitment to criminal justice reform and her undeniable political chops, there’s also the matter of her, well, pork chops. Harris may be a servant of the people, but she is just as much a family woman—one whose happy place is simply in the kitchen. Although she won’t say precisely what the future holds for her politically, the boastful cook will definitely let you know her collard greens are better than yours.
EBONY: Let’s start at the beginning. Why politics?
Sen. Harris: Well, it’s kind of a long road to getting here. My parents were very active in the Civil Rights Movement, in Berkeley, in Oakland, California, in the ’60s. So I grew up around a lot of activism—people marching and shouting for justice—so I think, certainly, the spirit was always in me at a young age to want to be involved and to participate in fighting for the best of what we can be. The first office I ever ran for was when I was a freshman at Howard University. I ran for liberal arts student council to represent my class. It was a very difficult race, but I won! During [those] college years, we were out marching on the Capitol mall against apartheid, and fighting for equality and fairness. I [eventually] went to law school, inspired by Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston and Constance Baker Motley, and then decided to go into the DA’s office because I thought [maybe] there’s a way to impact these systems from the inside as well as from the outside—and I knew what was broken about the criminal justice system.
EBONY: So this leads to district attorney . . .
Harris: Eventually, I ran for district attorney . . . and during that time I spearheaded one of the first re-entry initiatives of a major DA’s office in the country that I named “Back on Track.” It got an award from the United States Department of Justice for being an example of innovation and creativity in law enforcement, and it was a program that was all about focusing on getting jobs and support to former offenders so that they could reunify with their families and re-enter the community in a way they could be productive. That led to wanting to do it statewide, so I ran for attorney general of California, and I became the first Black woman attorney general of the state—of any state, as an elected—and then I went on to run for the Senate.
EBONY: Wow. You make it sound easy, but there must be many hurdles. What’s been the biggest challenge for you so far in just trying to stick to your agenda?
Harris: Well, you know, in the Senate, every day, every night I go to sleep figuring out what my schedule will be for the following day, and by the morning when I rise very early, usually there has been some tweet or something that has happened that presents a new focus for that day I might not have planned for, so it can be challenging to stick to the agenda. But I’ll tell you, we have to stay focused—and I do stay focused. A couple of the things I’ve worked on that I’m most proud of, or one, is a bill. I’m trying to do what we can to reform the cash bail system in the United States, so I’m working across party lines, actually with [Republican] Rand Paul from Kentucky, to say that we should basically remove cash bail so people can get out while they’re pending trial, and it won’t be a function of how much money they have in their back pocket. Instead, we should have risk assessment systems. And I’ll tell you, the facts are that Black defendants are more likely than White defendants to be detained before trial, and they are less likely to be able to post bail. The data show us that Black men pay 35 percent more bail than White men when they do post bail, so it’s a real issue about not only reform of the criminal justice system but economic justice—it’s a racial justice issue. Another one of my most recent bills that I’m most proud of—that in the midst of all that’s been going on we were able to get out—is a bill dealing with rent and paying the rent. There’s some really not surprising but startling statistics about it. Basically, the bill is this: If a renter is paying more than 30 percent of their income in rent plus utility, then they’ll get a tax credit, which will help supplement their income. And here’s the data: In 2017, Black renters could afford less than one-third of the rentals that White or Asian renters could afford, according to Zillow.
EBONY: Yes, that is startling.
Harris: Right, so my focus has been on a number of things, including economic issues, and obviously, these issues affect all working people in the United States, regardless of their race. But as we know, when we look at the huge disparities based on race in terms of income and wealth in this country, it has a very major impact on Black families.
EBONY: So how do you get your message to people of all incomes in the Black community?
Harris: In a variety of [ways]. I speak at churches, I’m speaking to you. Our whole social media thing. I give a lot of speeches, and I do a lot of town halls, and frankly, I’ve been traveling around the country to support my colleagues in the Senate for the 2018 election cycle. I speak about all these issues wherever I go, be it in Detroit or Milwaukee or Atlanta.
EBONY: And how do you want people to reach out to you? Are you hoping that people will reach out to you via social media?
Harris: I do, I do want that. I find that it’s one of the most available mediums for people to communicate and to do it in real time. I really enjoy receiving emails also.
EBONY: And you regularly read those?
Harris: I read them quite regularly. I don’t read all of them, so I don’t want to misrepresent that because in between reading them, [I’m reading] my briefing books on the Supreme Court nominee and everything else. But I do ask that my team give me good coverage of what is coming in so that I have a sense of how folks are thinking and what they’re thinking about.
EBONY: I read this quote that you have on your Facebook page; it’s from your mother. Forgive me if I mispronounce her name, Dr. Shamayla Harris?
Harris: The ‘y’ is silent.
EBONY: OK, excuse me. “You may be the first to do many things, but make sure you’re not the last.” Why is that your favorite quote?
Harris: Well, it’s one of the sayings by which I live. You know, I’ve been many firsts, and I will tell you that I have not been able to accomplish anything without the help and support of other people, who have lifted me up, who have mentored me, who have supported me every step of my career. And so there’s that, which is the point that none of us would be where we are if it weren’t for other people who believed in us and invested in us, you know? None of us got here on our own. There’s a responsibility that comes with that to make sure that when we break down a door or break a barrier that we leave it open for others to walk through. There’s another thing that I say to a lot of people, particularly to those I mentor, which is, you’re gonna be the only one like you in many rooms, but you have to remember there are a whole lot of us who are in that room with you, supporting you and encouraging you and wanting you to stand up in that room and speak out in that room. And so it’s also about understanding that we come with people, and we have a responsibility to lift up others as we have been lifted.
EBONY: What is your definition of “woke?” That’s a colloquialism that you hear thrown around a lot, especially among younger people.
Harris: It’s about being alert, it’s about being informed and it’s about being active.
EBONY: Black people have emerged as the highest-voting demographic in the country, but why do you think that our influence and that power that we possess is so often overlooked?
Harris: I thought you were gonna say, “Why is it so powerful?”
EBONY: If you want to talk about that . . .
Harris: I do. You know, it actually gets back to the definition of being woke. I think that part of being woke is also [about] speaking truth. There’s a whole speech that I’ve been giving for almost the last year about the importance of speaking truth—and you know, Black people speak truth. We really don’t have the luxury of not speaking truth, or engaging in fiction, because the world will not allow us to engage in fiction. And so I see that as being part of our strength, and knowing then that we don’t have the luxury of time to be able to engage in things that are frivolous or not important. It’s that kind of perspective on life and on time and the use of time and resources that I think makes us really powerful. But there are still huge disparities in terms of our access to opportunity, our access to power, our access to wealth, and there’s no question that has to be addressed and confronted. The beautiful thing about it is that when Black women are in the room—speaking not only our own truth but the truth about who we are as a country and the things that are universal in terms of priorities—the world is a better place.
EBONY: Who are you outside of politics?
Harris: I am a wife and a mother and an auntie and an incredible cook. Where am I outside of politics? I would say in my kitchen.
EBONY: What’s your most requested dish?
Harris: Oh, I have so many; honestly, I really do. I mean, my family loves it when I make—I’ll tell you because I actually have a bet with [North Carolina political leader] Rev. Bishop Barber about who makes the best collard greens. And we have yet to have our cookoff, but I know I’m gonna win! I make all kinds of things. There’s a Bolognese that I make that I cook for four, five hours. The other night I did some really wonderful pork chops. It depends. I recently did this really lovely mushroom lasagna . . . I could go on and on.
EBONY: That’s wonderful. How did you get into cooking?
Harris: My mother was a great cook, all the women in my family have been really good cooks, so I just grew up at their apron.
EBONY: Would you say cooking is your escape, or is there something that you do when you’re like, “I need a minute?”
Harris: Cooking is my escape; there’s no question. I am a complete human being no matter what I have going on; I have cooked Sunday family dinner. When I don’t, that’s when I feel like I have no control over my life, and that’s not a good feeling.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ, is a humanitarian, vegan and a promoter of love; he’s bringing the Senate’s sexy back with a new kind of power—power of the people
by Melissa Knowles
Public service was nothing less than a calling for Cory Booker. As a young superscholar—a bachelor’s and a master’s from Stanford University; a Rhodes Scholar, with a graduate degree from Oxford in 1994; a J.D. from Yale Law School in 1997—he could have likely gone in any direction with his career. But serving forgotten communities was never optional for the senator whose words today about love are so poignant that he begins to sound like a preacher.
Booker traces his interest in public service to his teenage years, citing a need to uphold what he viewed as a lack of equality for all. Years ago, he consciously sought out the struggling Newark community where he resides and has his Senate office; it is a place that sits below the poverty line but gave him his political wings. In 1998, when neighbors asked him to rise to the occasion, the young servant leader won a seat on the Newark City Council. He served for six years, eventually becoming the city’s mayor in 2006. In 2013, in a special election to fill Frank Lautenberg’s seat, Booker was elected to the U.S. Senate. Known for the same humanitarian passion he had as a local politician, today the senator is pushing for bipartisan progress, all the while declaring, “Tolerance should be the floor in America and love should be the ceiling.”
EBONY: You are a popular name in American politics, Sen. Booker. What initially made you go down the road of public service?
SEN. Booker: My life as a teenager was focused on America. We all swear and take an oath to a nation of liberty and justice for all. That just didn’t seem real to me. We still have a nation with so much inequality, and every child in America doesn’t get an equal shot. As a young man, I started doing [organizing] work in cities and fell in love with the work. From California, I continued to East Harlem and became a nonprofit leader. My hero was a man named Geoffrey Canada, who started the Harlem Children Zone . . . [he showed me] that you got to be connected to the people that you serve. So I moved to Newark, New Jersey. Newark had so many great neighborhoods but I wanted to find one struggling, so I moved into a very tough neighborhood on the south end of Martin Luther King Boulevard. There, I encountered some of the greatest American heroes. I always say I got my B.A. from Stanford and Ph.D. from the streets of Newark.
I started working and fighting against slumlords and feeling like I’d found my life purpose, and I was a part of this community struggling for the American dream.
It was those early heroes who basically said to me that City Hall was not working and that it was very corrupt; and before I knew it, I was the candidate to run for City Council in Newark, New Jersey.
EBONY: The community propelled you, it seems.
Booker: So I am proud and I still live in that neighborhood. I’m the only United States senator that lives in an inner city—a community rich with spirit and wealth of character that has so much value and potential but is below the poverty line. According to the census, about $14K per household. It is a majority-Black and brown community. Right behind my desk in my Senate office is a map of the Central Ward of Newark. The first people to ever really adopt me and give me a chance. The first people to put me into politics, and I feel blessed. I get to wake up in my home and have neighbors and friends who will never let me forget why I got into office. I fight for people who are not getting a fair shot in this country.
EBONY: You recently sponsored a bill advocating for detained immigrants. What is driving your work now?
Booker: Look, America needs to understand that seeing children separated from their parents everywhere in our country, parents being taken away from their kids who are being deported and who are no threat to the country—people are afraid to go to the police and report crimes. I know. I travel around the country. Visited a pregnant woman from Missouri, she was not getting medical care. I’ve been to East Texas seeing law-abiding people seeking asylum turned away from our country.
I passionately believe in human dignity. We should be the nation setting the example for how we treat the most precious resource on the planet Earth. Much of my legislation has been about affirming dignity, potential and human worth.
With my legislation, I try to do two things: expand economic opportunity for working people and combat injustice in our country. That sort of drives my work on a daily basis.
EBONY: Where do you feel you’ve had impact, moved the needle?
Booker: The Dignity Act [co-sponsored with Sen. Kamala Harris] addresses the crisis of women incarcerated. We called out injustice on a federal level, and now the Dignity Act is passing legislation in 12 states. This is calling out injustice and creating change from coast to coast—our Dignity Act is going to become law. I’ve partnered with Tim Scott [a Republican]; two elected African-Americans in the United States Senate at the same time. We have to figure out ways to invest in lower income communities, so we just created the Investment Opportunity Act—better tax treatment for people who invest in poor areas of our country. I believe all of us have power. Alice Walker said the most common way people give up their power is to not realize they have it in the first place. Our history as a country screams the truth.
We are a nation perpetually giving testimony achieving the impossible. So there is a fact: I walk on the Senate floor and [there had only been] four elected African-American senators in the history of our country . . . [before] President Barack Obama was elected; that to me is a testimony. My ancestors kept pressing forward for civil rights, and I feel a sense of obligation to try everyday to pay that blessing forward.
EBONY: You are an advocate for bipartisanship. What are the challenges and where are you finding success?
Booker: At the end of the day, our nation is a declaration of independence. We must mutually pledge our lives, fortunes and sacred honor. We can’t become a country of tribalism: “I hate you because you look different or even think different.” We have to find that common ground. It doesn’t mean we don’t stand our ground. The hard work is reaching out, engaging and understanding that person across the aisle. We may have two parties but we share one destiny, so I am working every day to find out where we can stand together. We live in a nation where, regardless of where you live, your race or political party—we all have a tremendous amount of common pain. What we need now is for leaders to re-establish a sense of common purpose.
I rejoice when I’m able to make breakthroughs and pass legislation with everybody from Ted Cruz to Tim Scott. I really pride myself—even in the past with Newark, I took on disagreements with Chris Christie, but he and I found so much common ground.
EBONY: So let’s switch gears a bit away from politics. Senator, we hear you are vegan. When and why did you choose the vegan path?
Booker: I was a football player at Stanford and a varsity basketball player at Oxford. I was just exploring what would give me the highest performing diet. So [I went] three months of not eating meat and my body felt so great; I became a vegetarian in 1992. Now you see professional football players vegans. For me, it began: How can I get my body to function the best, how can I get the most energy? I went from vegetarian to vegan. And I love my lifestyle. What we eat is one of the most intimate decisions we make. We don’t need people preaching to us. Everybody has to make their own decision and find their own path. I found mine, and I’m happy that I did.
EBONY: That was an interesting post on Instagram; that picture outside the coffee shop. Why did you post that?
Booker: Because above all, I try to create a more beloved community. Tolerance is in such a cynical state. Tolerance should be the floor in America and love should be the ceiling. And tolerance, I couldn’t care less. Love tears [barriers] down. Love understands we need each other and we can work together creating communities better. If you look at my Twitter feed and you see hecklers, trolls yelling at me, I often respond: “I love you.” I post things on kindness all the time on Twitter. Love is not an easy word but hard. A great writer once said, “Justice is what loves looks like in public.’”
EBONY: You talk a lot about love.
Booker: Love is sacrifice. Love is struggle. Love is hard. Love demands justice. Love demands accountability. We are called to be a society of love.
I just want to see us get to that beloved community King called us to be. Where there is a pathway for all children and everybody overcomes fear. Everyone has health care, housing. That is a beloved community—when you see the value in everybody. That’s what we should aspire for in this country. Not hatred. Not degrading other people but elevating our nation to be one of light, of hope, promise and love. What is patriotism? Patriotism is a love of country, but you cannot love your country unless you love your fellow member in it.
EBONY: Ultimately, what will be your legacy?
Booker: I want our legacy to be something 300 years from now; people won’t remember my name. I want it to be understood. I try to make the lives of others better. I contribute to the evolution of our nation. To the evolution of humanity toward a greater love. I just want to live a life that gives honor to that tradition in America so the generation who can’t remember my name, their lives are a little bit better.
STARTED FROM THE BOTTOM
The second Black woman to become Mayor of Atlanta is living the dream and embodying the spirit of progressive change
by Melissa Knowles
Call her Keisha; don’t worry, the Atlanta homegirl welcomes it. Friends, neighbors, even strangers recognize ATL’s native daughter and newest mayor as a familiar face they don’t have to use formalities with—she’s one of them. Mayor Bottoms has already made a huge impact on the world city—in her first 100 days, she began major reforms bolstering public education, taking on criminal justice reform via the elimination of cash bail, and facing down Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Bottoms also announced a $9 million citywide plan to expand affordable housing opportunities in reaction to the city’s massive gentrification.
Her life of public service came about from a fearless determination to be a part of the change she wanted to see in her community. As a member of Delta Sigma Theta, Inc. and an HBCU grad (FAMU and Georgia State), Bottoms is no stranger to the concerns of Black people. The mother of four, wife and woman who finds her joy cooking Southern soul food staples for her family used her profound understanding of the inequalities and inefficiency of the justice system to position herself as the candidate to take Atlanta into a more equitable future.
EBONY: What led you to pursue a life of public service?
Mayor Bottoms: I really consider myself an accidental elected official. I was a magistrate judge, and I really had an “up or out” moment. I knew that I either wanted to move to a higher level on the bench or I wanted to do something completely different. In 2008, I ran for a seat on superior court. I challenged an incumbent; really not the traditional route, but I didn’t think he was doing a great job. That took me to community meetings all over the county, and the following year, when the person who had represented my district for over 32 years decided not to run for office—the week of qualifying—I had one of these, ‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid to fail?’ moments. So I ran for City Council, and eight years later, here I am, mayor of Atlanta.
EBONY: And making history doing so: You’re only the second Black female mayor of a major city. What does that mean to you? Do you feel it as a burden or a certain duty to uphold?
Bottoms: I really haven’t thought of it in either category. I think because it speaks to who Atlanta raised me to be. Atlanta is this city where I grew up, where you really could see and believe that you could do anything that you wanted to do, and there was nothing that would stop you as a woman or an African-American. Obviously, it’s important for the representation, for little girls especially, little Black girls all over this country. But it really is just about being a good mayor.
EBONY: Black women have emerged as the highest voting demographic in the country. Why do you think our influence as Black women and power that we possess is so often overlooked?
Bottoms: That’s really a question for the ages. Black women, in so many ways, have had to lead and keep it together, expecting nothing in return, and when nobody has ever really acknowledged our power . . . I think it’s fantastic that we are being recognized and celebrated in this space, but I’ve said many times before, we’ve been leading for generations. I think collectively, we are now recognizing and acknowledging our power, because there’s a greater mass of people who are recognizing it and acknowledging it, but it really is nothing new.
EBONY: You refused to, well, let’s say this: You took the city jails out of ICE’s jurisdiction. Why did you feel it was necessary to do that?
Bottoms: Above everything else, I’m a mom, and to watch children being separated from their parents really made me give a lot of thought to what our role was from the city of Atlanta’s perspective. So we have temporarily ended our relationship with ICE . . . because I wanted to make sure that in this confusion of all that was happening with family separation that we were not somehow being complicit. And it’s a $7 million infusion into our general fund budget each year, so it is a significant stance that we’ve taken. But when it comes to families and our moral responsibility, I don’t think there’s a price tag that can be placed on that.
EBONY: What do you find most challenging day to day about your job?
Bottoms: Navigating the noise. There are always very loud voices attempting to influence the agenda. Some of the best advice I got during the campaign was to run that race with horse blinders on. There’ll always be distractions, but the challenge is to stay focused on our vision for Atlanta, and that is to create a very equitable and compassionate city.
EBONY: Where are you making the most progress so far?
Bottoms: We mentioned criminal justice reform; also for the first time in our city’s budget, we allocated $100,000 toward support of HIV/AIDS services. So we’re making progress, but there’s still so much work to be done. We still have a significant way to go as it relates to education. We’ve already turned over nearly 50 properties to the Atlanta Public Schools that were deeded in the name of the city. Part of that was to press a reset button with our relationship with the public schools, and to let the public know that we want to be great partners. We used to have a conversation about racial equity—and certainly that’s still a conversation nationwide—it really is a socioeconomic conversation now. That is our biggest task as we experience this great redevelopment and revitalization of our city, making sure that it’s a place that everybody can still call home.
EBONY: Who would you say has inspired you the most in your political endeavors?
Bottoms: President Obama and Maynard Jackson. Maynard Jackson is the first mayor that I remember as a child. When I went around knocking on doors for City Council, people would say, ‘You’re doing it the Maynard Jackson way.’ He really had a way of connecting with community, sometimes pushing a 10,000-pound boulder uphill, but he was the best example of selfless leadership and he paid a tremendous personal price for making sure that, especially, African-Americans in underserved communities were represented. And then, of course, President Obama. Just the way that he was able to balance being president and still have a healthy and whole family, and to leave office with his reputation, his integrity and so much to show for what he did for our country—[something] any elected official who values family can only hope to achieve.
EBONY: You’ve got four kids. School is about to start. You’re a wife and you’re the mayor of a major city. How do you balance all of that?
Bottoms: It takes a village, and I’m very fortunate that I have an incredibly loving and supportive husband, and my mother lives about less than two miles away. It’s a tremendous help to have this village of friends who fill in for me and make sure, ‘Hey, don’t forget today is such and such day at the school,’ even down to their teachers, who remind me to sign up for parent-teacher conferences. I’m very grateful for that. Having been a part of a tight village growing up when my mother was working two jobs and going to school at night, to see it in a different form, it’s interesting that people are standing in the gap for my kids, too—and that allows me to do what I do on behalf of the city of Atlanta.
EBONY: In The Atlanta Journal Constitution, there’s an article where you talked about some of your father’s struggles and how that propelled you in some ways. Can you speak to that?
Bottoms: During the campaign was really the first time I talked publicly about my dad’s issues. He was an entertainer; his name was Major Lance. He was a Grammy-nominated artist known worldwide and just a really wonderful, good-hearted man. At 8, I learned that sometimes good people make bad decisions. When my dad’s records stopped selling, he struggled financially and with addiction, and he made the decision to sell drugs. I came home from school and saw him being taken away in handcuffs. Everything about my family changed in that moment. I went from going to ballet on Saturdays to visiting my dad in prison across the state each weekend. My grandparents were really the stability in our family, very humble people who hadn’t finished high school but just worked really hard every day. My grandmother used to always tell me how things worked; you keep praying and you keep standing and you keep pushing and you can get to the other side. There’s really something to be said for being resilient. I think that’s probably the best trait that I have;
YOUNG, GIFTED (CONSERVATIVE, REPUBLICAN) AND BLACK
OP-ED A rising millennial GOP strategist opens up about the oft-questioned motivation of African-Americans on the other side of the political spectrum
by Shermichael Singleton
Nestled in the 2016 text The Loneliness of the Black Republican is a telling quote from Mary Edmonds, a member of the New Central Ward Young Republicans in the 1960s: “It is time that someone in our party convinced us that the GOP is really interested in Negroes,” she said. I would venture to say that for a great majority of African-Americans today, the sentiment is still exactly the same.
While the call from Black America for Republicans to do better remains, there are still African-Americans who are conservative and choose to be members of the Republican Party—and I happen to be one of them.
We’re a minority within a minority.
We are a minority by virtue of our ethnicity and a minority because of our party affiliation. A 2012 survey from the American National Election Studies (ANES) found that 90 percent of African-Americans identify as Democrats. However, when it comes to the souls of Black folk and how we truly feel about social and economic matters, it’s complicated. In the same survey, ANES reported that 47 percent of us identify as liberal and 45 percent of us identify as conservative.
In reality, among Black conservative Republicans, you will find as much diversity in thought as there is among African-Americans who are liberal and Democrats. Black Republicans are often misunderstood, maligned and, worse, stereotyped as folk who, simply put, don’t love us. Well, in my case, nothing could be further from the truth.
Frankly, it’s the notion of diversity in thought among African-Americans that I think should be explored and better understood. Like many African-Americans, I am deeply concerned with conserving our institutions, our culture and our shared aspirations—being a Republican doesn’t change that. But when analyzing how to ensure these precious elements of our community and push toward progress, it’s the conservative principals of family, prudence, order and discipline that speak to me as most critical. Without these ideals, we suffer.
We cannot demand or fight for Black progress without structure, and in my view, we are weakened as a result of our internal communal struggles—we must get the breakdown of our families and our economic priorities in check. In too many ways we are a deeply fractured group, and as a Black conservative, that is my greatest concern. I fight for us to be whole. As British conservative philosopher Sir Roger Scruton once said, “The conservative is the one who understands his own society from within and loves and defends it.”
The vitality and preservation of the nuclear family are essential for our community. “Broken” families—where single mothers are too often burdened with the sole responsibility of being both mother and father, provider and nurturer—adds fuel to the age-old tactic, going all the way back to slavery, to divide and conquer us; man from woman, rich from poor. Though it is arguably by design, there are a multitude of external factors that negatively impact our lives. If we continue having children out of wedlock and the high number of Black men absent from the home, we cannot and will not win. Today, we see the negative result of single-parent homes in many of our young boys who turn into men who are essentially lost and without direction. Unfortunately, this reality has become cyclical for many within our community—a continuous, generational negative loop—making the very notion of progress seem impossible. This is why it’s so important that we regroup and re-emphasize the importance of a proper family structure.
We are also facing economic problems that liberal philosophies and practices have not duly confronted. The Center for Progress reported a stunning statistic: In 2016, the median wealth for Black families was $17,600, compared with White families’ median wealth of $171,000. Creating and building wealth to pass on to future generations has been practically impossible for most African-Americans, and for years liberal polices have done little to directly address that. Without wealth, you can’t afford college, you can’t buy a home, you can’t get out of debt and, most important, you can’t have influence. Let’s face it, America was built on having economic influence and superiority.
But let me be clear: I am critical of the political process at large. For a Black person in America, there is no perfect choice in our two-party system. From my vantage point, one party wishes to ignore the past while using dog whistles to attract those who hold views representing the worst of humanity; and the other party, despite purporting to recognize the continued struggles of Black people, does so only when it’s beneficial to them.
I have continued to be a Republican because conservative values are our best hope, and I believe it is important for African-Americans to have a voice and influence in both political parties. Yes, I’ll be the first to admit that the GOP has been negligent in its duties as a major political party to properly target and address the legitimate concerns of African-Americans—from criminal justice reform to education. Yet, I remain a Republican because representation matters, and in a two-party system one party won’t always be in charge.
In my calculation, it’s far too risky to wait out a party’s control versus making efforts to change it from within, regardless how daunting the task may be. Do I expect African-Americans to wholesale start voting Republican? Absolutely not. It may be the party of Lincoln, but as Edmonds admonished years ago, Republicans still have a lot to show Black people to prove they have our best interests at heart.
Still, myself and other conservative Black people—though few—are representing from within. I deeply believe that African-Americans, like every other group in this country, must play a competitive role and exert influence in both political parties. Neither the left nor the right should be able to take our vote for granted—it’s a political disadvantage that must change. It’s my hope that the efforts of a new wave of Black Republicans create the difference we seek as we work to spread the message of a conservative philosophy that at once feels familiar to our community, and also helps lead us out of the vicious cycle of social and economic despair. While my views may be different, don’t assume the worst about all Black Republicans because, though I see a different path to freedom, my love for our people is unwavering.
Shermichael Singleton is a Washington, D.C.-based GOP strategist and a conservative writer and commentator. Follow him @Shermichael_.