Black Conservatives: Beyond the Plantation

Black Conservatives: Beyond the Plantation

FREE AT LAST?: In ‘Runaway Slave,’ pastor and activist C.L. Bryant and other African American conservatives reject liberal politics and ask whether big government entitlements are a new form of slavery.

The title of the new film Runaway Slave might lead some to dismiss it as just another dramatization of a commonly rehearsed chapter of black history in America. But when one discovers that the film is actually a documentary about a politically liberal African American pastor’s conversion into the conservative political movement, the title suddenly takes on a much more provocative tone. On one level, Reverend C.L. Bryant’s Runaway Slave is a coming-of-age narrative about his shift from being a pastor and NAACP Chapter President to being a prominent defender of small government, free markets, and personal responsibility. On another level, however, it is a clear rebuke of what the filmmakers perceive as the black community’s enslavement to the Democratic Party and progressive politics. Bryant wants us to understand that the black community is not a political monolith, and that our moral and economic concerns might be better addressed by the Republican Party’s conservative platform.

A press release for the movie leaves no doubt about the film’s point of view. After announcing that the movie comes to us “from the creators of Tea Party: The Documentary Film,” it goes on to describe the film’s general premise:

Rev. Bryant takes viewers on an historic journey across America that traces the footsteps of runaway slaves who escaped to freedom along routes that became known as the Underground Railroad. But in the film, he also travels a “new underground railroad” upon which Black Conservatives are speaking out against big government policies which have established a “new plantation” where “overseers” like the NAACP and so-called “civil rights” leaders keep the Black community 95 percent beholden to one political party.

And interviews from such noted conservative figures as Glenn Beck, Herman Cain, Star Parker, and the late Andrew Breitbart help the film draw clear ideological lines in the sand. Fans of 2016: Obama’s America, another controversial conservative documentary released this year, will find much here to “amen” to as well.

The great achievement of Runaway Slave is its geographically and ideologically diverse portrait of black conservatism. Bryant talks with financial conservatives like Marvin Rodgers, a Rock Hill, South Carolina, an aspiring politician who emphasizes the “pocketbook politics” of supporting small businesses and encouraging entrepreneurship. He speaks with academics like the economist Thomas Sowell, conservative school-reform advocates, right-to-life activists, and small business owners. Interestingly, everyone but the Wall Street and country club conservatives are present. Their omission is noteworthy — precious few black conservatives are a part of the proverbial 1 percent. Nevertheless, by interviewing grassroots activists and organizations in nearly every region of the country, Bryant convincingly demonstrates that black conservatism is a national thread within the African American political tradition.

The film sets forth a conventionally conservative view of government: lower taxes; less government regulation; strong defense of property rights. Additionally, participants construe the government as a presumptuous behemoth that presents itself as the “Daddy,” “Slave Master,” and “God” of American citizens. In this framework, reducing the size of the public sector becomes an article of faith, not simply a political position.

Two dynamics merit mentioning here. First, deep appreciation for our nation’s originating documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, etc. — sits alongside profound disappointment with the current state of government. If our origins are laudable and our contemporary moment is lamentable, as the movie claims, then we must conclude that we lost our national footing somewhere along the way. The documentary avoids conceptual clarity about how this moment of decline happened, when it happened, and who is responsible for it. Progressives and Socialists — two distinct traditions which are conflated in the film — are blamed for leading America astray, but the accusation is too vague to persuade anyone who is not already a true believer.

Secondly, the attacks on government are general — there is no exploration of the merits and demerits of Social Security, Medicare, and the GI Bill, for instance, programs that are popular across the political spectrum. Instead, the viewer encounters Government as a monstrosity that overtaxes, overregulates, and overreaches at every turn.

Runaway Slave is also noteworthy for its conservative form of American civil religion. Many Americans are familiar with more progressive forms of civil religion — Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial or Abraham Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address, for example. But there is another side to American exceptionalism. U.S. congressman Allen West of Florida alludes to this tradition when citing Matthew 5 to position America as “a city set on a hill.” America, in this view, is the country where you reap what you sow. A land where hard work, education, and the hand of Providence guides families upward on the ladder of social mobility. It’s not difficult to see how many of these cultural values have become inseparable from the American brand of Christianity.

After watching the documentary, the viewer is left to wonder: what distinguishes conservative visions of government from the liberal visions? Reverend Bryant is not endorsing a libertarian or anarchist view of society. Despite his impassioned pleas about escaping from the plantation, there is no sign that he wants to destroy the master’s house. That is to say, Runaway Slave does not explicitly or implicitly advocate dismantling our social insurance system, ending subsidies to large agribusiness corporations, or stopping the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps).

Generally speaking, political realities temper the policy visions of liberals and conservatives. Bryant documents a deep commitment to liberty within the American political tradition. Rightly so. But there is little — if any — mention of our political tradition of equality, a complementary thread in our tapestry. The argument of the film would be strengthened if it directly addressed, for instance, the policy trade-offs that Presidents Nixon (expanding food stamps, starting the Environmental Protection Agency) and Bush (Medicare prescription drug program, comprehensive immigration reform proposal) made between liberty and equality. That oversight notwithstanding, Runaway Slave is one of the most expansive treatments of black conservatism currently available, and is therefore worth watching and discussing.

View the theatrical trailer below, and visit the Runaway Slave website for information on where to see the film in your area.

Will Black Voters Stay Home on Election Day?

Will Black Voters Stay Home on Election Day?

Faced with a Democratic candidate who supports same-sex marriage and a Republican candidate with a dubious religous affliation, will Black voters sit out this year’s presidential election. A wave of news reports over the past few weeks have raised that question.

“Some black clergy see no good presidential choice between a Mormon candidate and one who supports same-sex marriage, so they are telling their flocks to stay home on Election Day,” observed a widely circulated Associated Press report. It continues: “The pastors say their congregants are asking how a true Christian could back same-sex marriage, as President Barack Obama did in May. As for Republican Mitt Romney, the first Mormon nominee from a major party, congregants are questioning the theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its former ban on men of African descent in the priesthood.”

A separate report from NPR’s All Things Considered homed in on African American Christians in the all-important swing state of Ohio. In the Youngstown area, where Obama won the majority of Black votes handily in 2008, reporter Allison Keyes spoke to parishioners at Friendship Baptist Church about their mixed feelings regarding the election. “I’m really in prayer as to what to do, whether to vote,” said Betty Washington. “I’ve never not voted. But it’s very disheartening to me to hear some of the things that are going on.” She worries about President Obama’s support of same-sex marriage. Brian Hughes is conflicted about the president’s gay marriage stance as well, but as an employee at the local GM plant, he gives Obama credit for saving hundreds of jobs in the area. Friendship’s pastor Julius Davis believes Preisdent Obama is undermining the impact of Christian churches. He adds, “If I were to vote today, I’d vote for Romney.”

In the Associated Press report, the Rev. George Nelson Jr., senior pastor of Grace Fellowship Baptist Church in Brenham, Texas, registered dissatisfaction with Obama’s gay marriage decision, but appeared even more put off by the prospect of voting for Romney, whose religion is looked upon as a cult in his Southern Baptist circles.

The Rev. Floyd James of Greater Rock Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago wonders why Romney’s religous affiliation hasn’t been put under the same scrutiny as that of Obama’s church during the 2008 campaign. “Obama was supposed to answer for the things that Rev. Wright said,” remarked Floyd. “Yet here’s a guy (Romney) who was a leader in his own church that has that kind of history, and he isn’t held to some kind of account? I have a problem with that.”

Will lingering ambivalence about both candidates keep Black voters away from the polls come November 6? A recent survey suggested Mitt Romney might receive less than 1 percent of the Black vote, but with tight races in key states, Barack Obama still needs every bit of the Black support he received in 2008. If Black Christians who supported him last time stay away, will that leave an opening for Romney to prevail?

Let us know what you think in the comments section below.

The Trouble with Voter ID Laws

The Trouble with Voter ID Laws

As Election Day draws near, one of the most hotly contested battles isn’t just over the economy or foreign policy; it’s over the fundamental right to vote itself. This year we have seen an upsurge in voting-related laws being proposed and passed. As is too often the case, these new laws disproportionately work against people of color, as well as low-income populations.

Christians have a legacy of electing leaders, and we have a responsibility to protect this right for all our sisters and brothers. The early church decided that it would be good for them to “choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn responsibility over to them” (Acts 6:3). Indeed, we are to “select capable men from all the people — men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain — and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens” (Exodus 18:21). When we exercise the right to vote, we participate in a history passed down to us from both our political and spiritual forebears.

But this year, new laws seek to selectively impair voting capacity of a subset of the population by reducing polling hours and by requiring photo IDs. Some estimates suggest that in Pennsylvania, for instance, 9 percent of registered voters do not own a driver’s license and that nationwide these percentages could add up to approximately 22 million otherwise legally eligible voters being disenfranchised at the polls this year. Yet there have only been ten instances of in-person voter fraud in the nation since the year 2000. Ten.

What’s Wrong with Showing an ID?

One may wonder why obtaining a simple driver’s license is such a big deal. Doesn’t everybody need one anyway? But as it is less common to drive in urban settings, these populations are less likely to need driver’s licenses. And car ownership itself is a privilege of economic status that many of us in the middle-class strata take for granted. In fact, most other interactions that require a driver’s license are also habits of privilege (cashing a check, making purchase returns, renting a car, boarding a flight). Alternative forms of photo ID (like passports, government IDs, and college IDs) are also upper-middle-class documents.

It’s true that some types of non-driver’s-license photo ID are available for free, but they often require documentation like birth certificates and Social Security cards that can cost a significant amount of time and/or money to obtain. A simple task that is supposedly a right of citizenship quickly becomes a multi-day bureaucratic saga that requires energy and time away from work, often when one can’t afford either.

Those that use public transportation are especially burdened when original documentation, photo ID, registration, and actual voting all happen in different locations with restricted hours of operation. And in the meantime, local taxes that fund such public services are voted down by those least likely to need those services.

Homelessness makes the situation all the more difficult. It becomes almost impossible to establish residency, provide a mailing address, or show proof of identification. Yet a mailing address is often necessary to receive voter ID cards that individuals have to show on Election Day (regardless of photo ID requirements). All the while, those with the privilege of ease of access to voting can influence policies on housing, welfare, and social services, to the exclusion of those whom the policies actually affect.

Injecting Race Into the Race

In addition, these issues are conflated with race. Nationally, more than one million black residents and half-million Latinos live more than 10 miles away from locations issuing valid photo IDs. In Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, driver’s license offices “that are open more than twice a week are located largely away from rural black populations.”

Legislation has also targeted such options as early voting for individuals who aren’t able to make it to their polling places on Election Day. In the process of overturning these laws, some compelling stories have come to light (this court case in particular), but often at the expense of privacy and dignity. Ohio State Representative Alicia Reese notes, “Citizens have come up to me asking why, as a voter, have I been called lazy? Why, as a voter, have I been called a criminal because I want to go vote? As a voter, why are they making it more difficult because I work two shifts and I want to get to the board of elections to vote but I don’t want to lose my job in the process? Why in Ohio is the vote under attack?”

What is more, the proponents of these laws seem to be well aware of the laws’ nuanced and biased consequences, allowing the swirl of myths and fear mongering from a select few to confuse their motives. Pennsylvania State Representative Mike Turzai exclaimed that the new voter ID law “is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania — done.”

In a recent case regarding their voter ID law, the state of Texas argued that “poverty is not a protected classification under the Constitution,” and if “minority voters are disproportionately indigent,” they are nevertheless not being racially discriminated against. But a lack of intent to discriminate does not ensure a lack of discrimination. Indeed, a national survey demonstrated a correlation between those supporting Voter ID laws and those harboring negative attitudes toward people of color, which wasn’t simply explained by party affiliation.

It’s important to note that many proponents of voter ID laws are not intentionally trying to be discriminatory on the basis of class or race. But when we view the world from only one perspective, we tend to forget that the prevailing system favors the privileged in our country. Those that support voter ID laws are often the same folks who equate poverty with laziness, and blackness with criminal behavior, without ever digging into a deeper understanding of the subtle, often subconscious biases that we all maintain.

Troubling Consequences

It is ironic that as we send troops overseas to “defend freedom and democracy” abroad, we create ways to hinder our own democratic process at home. Shouldn’t we laud an increase in voter turnout rather than trying to suppress it? Shouldn’t we want more citizens to become engaged in electoral proceedings, not fewer? How does decreased participation enhance the democratic process?

Perhaps there is a fear that by allowing more voting opportunities the “wrong” policies will be enacted. But if one’s policies are good and righteous, won’t they appeal to the majority of voters? We must remember that “righteousness exalts a nation, but sin condemns any people” (Proverbs 14:34).

If voter ID laws were purely about preventing voter fraud, the entire country would benefit from this added security. But if one political party makes gains from voter suppression, what does it say about that party’s platform? Clearly not that it is formed with the benefit all citizens in mind.

What does it say if one has to silence the voice of the people in order to win a seat in government? Could this be a sign that one’s policies are no longer benefiting the majority of one’s constituents? In some cases, I think it might. But rather than adjust their policies or “sell” voters on their positions, some politicians seek to increase the barriers to voting for their opponents.

A Troubled History at the Polls

Discrimination and intimidation at the polls is nothing new. Our country’s voting history is fraught with poll taxes, literacy requirements, racial gerrymandering, and voter intimidation (all of which were legal in our lifetime — or at least our parents’). Indeed, as I describe, many of these injustices are still practiced in one form or another today.

Both modern and historic laws use carefully coded language to allow for legal discrimination, without ever explicitly mentioning race. When poll taxes were legally in use, they often came with a grandfather clause that allowed citizens whose ancestors had voted in the years before the civil war (you know … before the abolition of slavery) to forgo the tax.

The implications for such a legacy are profound. Years of disenfranchisement leads to a foundation of legal precedent and accumulated power that perpetuate disparity and injustice. It’s no coincidence that that the Senate is still 96 percent white. As Christians, we know God says to “choose some wise, understanding and respected men from each of your tribes, and I will set them over you” (Deuteronomy 1:13), but some groups are still embarrassingly absent from our leadership.

What effects might this disparity have on controversial or racially veiled legislation moving forward? Even assuming no intentional prejudice, surely we can’t presume that homogeneous legislatures have full understanding of the needs of their constituents of color.

The Truth About Voter Fraud

As Christian voters we have an obligation to “discern for ourselves what is right; let us learn together what is good” (Job 34:4). It’s true that there are cases in which voter fraud has been a problem, but these cases most often occur in the context of absentee voting, a scenario that is not at all helped by the requirement of a photo ID at the polls.

While some of the new legislation has been struck down, others remain up for debate and it’s important to inform ourselves about the effects of the legislation. If you haven’t registered for this year’s election, do so. And educate yourself about the ID requirements in your state. If you’re already registered and ready to go, help some who aren’t in that same position. On Election Day, join with other believers to unite around the communion table as a way of practicing our common bond in Christ amid our theological, political, and denominational differences. And on that day, consider giving of your time to make sure every citizen can cast a vote safely and legally.

What do you think of voter ID laws? Share your view in the comments section below.

What the Democrats Won’t Tell You

What the Democrats Won’t Tell You

NO LOOKING BACK: Democratic delegates and supporters waved “Forward” placards at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Sept. 4, the first day of the 2012 Democratic National Convention. (Photo: Robyn Beck/Newscom)

The contrast in diversity was striking on the screen.

The sea of red, yellow, white, black, and brown faces at the Democratic convention in Charlotte last night compared to the sea of white with black and brown specks at the Republican event last week in Tampa. It’s like watching color TV vs. black and white.

But is it really?

Nowadays we talk about red (Republican) and blue (Democratic) as code for conservative and liberal, but as the Democrats take their turn this week and re-nominate the first African American POTUS, I wonder how many black Democrats know their party’s history is much redder than the GOP when it comes to black people and other minorities. In fact, the DNC’s founding fathers would be red with rage that Barack Obama is the party’s leader.

You certainly wouldn’t know this by viewing the DNC’s website on your computer. The opening paragraph of the African American section reads:

“For decades, Democrats have stood with the African American community in the struggle for equality and the enduring struggle to perfect our nation itself.”

Really?

The section about the party’s history reeks with campaign spin:

“For more than 200 years, our party has led the fight for civil rights, health care, Social Security, workers’ rights, and women’s rights. We are the party of Barack Obama, John F. Kennedy, FDR, and the countless everyday Americans who work each day to build a more perfect union.”

This is followed by a timeline with the entry being 1920.

C’mon now. Your official founding date is 1792, making the Democrats the nation’s oldest political party, yet your timeline begins in 1920? Is it because you are also the party of President Andrew Jackson that promoted the bloody takeover of Indian lands and the expansion of slavery? Is it because you are the party of President Andrew Johnson, the Confederate who during Reconstruction championed laws leading to Jim Crow that re-shackled black freedom for decades after the Civil War?

I was reared in a Democratic household in Brooklyn, New York, to parents who were union loyalists. My initial DNC history reached only as far as FDR and the New Deal. But as I came of voting age I sought the backstory for myself. In a word, it is racist.

The party of Obama had for centuries championed a laundry list of oppressive policies that have led to the tragic disparities and the areas of health, wealth, education, housing, and incarceration rates that continue to plague the African American community today. However, that revelation then didn’t stop me from voting my interest such as, helping David Dinkins to become New York’s first black mayor in 1990.

The truth before 1920 and after is easily accessible via several legit Web sites. Of course Republicans pointed this out themselves in 2008, no doubt as a way of throwing stones at then-Sen. Obama’s magical run for the White House.

What’s curious is why the DNC doesn’t openly embrace its full history — that the party that once championed slavery has produced the nation’s first African American president. Wouldn’t that show how far the party has led nation, though there’s still a ways to go? Wouldn’t that illustrate “change we can believe in,” and progress “forward?” Wouldn’t that show respect for blacks, a constituency that is supposed to be highly valued?  DNC leadership obviously decided on the history revision. Where are the black Democratic leaders on this? Where are the whites who are supposed to be progressive?

For me, it shows that both parties share a common problematic history on the issue of race. One doesn’t want to hear about it, while the other doesn’t want to talk about it. This hasn’t changed much over the years. People have just switched sides and traded names.

Real change would be seeing a sea of colorful faces at both conventions, and two parties focused on meaningful policies rather than spin. I don’t expect it to happen in my lifetime, though.

But then again, I said the same about a black man becoming President of the United States.

The GOP’s Multi-Racial Convention Stage

The GOP’s Multi-Racial Convention Stage

IN LIVING COLOR: Republican congressional candidate and Saratoga Spring, Utah, mayor Mia Love addressed the second session of the Republican National Convention on Tuesday night in Tampa, Florida. She was among several leaders of color to take the stage. (Photo: Mike Segar/Newscom)

The stage of the Republican National Convention that concluded in Tampa last night was a lot more colorful than the floor, at least when it came to skin color (and Clint Eastwood’s odd performance). With speeches by African Americans, Indian Americans, and Hispanic Americans, one might have thought the GOP was the party of color. But, Baratunde Thurston, author of How to Be Black, was in Tampa reporting for WNYC and Yahoo News, and decided to count how many black people were actually in attendance. He curated his count under the Twitter hastag #negrospotting. (That apparently got conservative fire-brand Michelle Malkin fired up.) His last count, reported this morning, was 238 African Americans among the 5,000+ attendees.

Condoleezza Rice

The high point among speakers of color, at least according to an unscientific survey of my journalist-heavy Twitter feed, was former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who gave a hard-hitting foreign policy speech Wednesday night. Even those who didn’t care for the substance of Rice’s speech conceded that her delivery was impressive, perhaps even presidential. “When the world looks to America, they look to us because we are the most successful political and economic experiment in human history. That is the true basis of ‘American Exceptionalism,'” said Rice. “The essence of America — that which really unites us — is not ethnicity, or nationality or religion — it is an idea — and what an idea it is: That you can come from humble circumstances and do great things.”

Artur Davis

Former Democratic Representative from Alabama Artur Davis said we should have known better than to have been seduced by the hype surrounding Barack Obama back in 2008. “Do you know why so many of us believed?” said the former Obama supporter. “We led with our hearts and our dreams that we could be more inclusive than America had ever been, and no candidate had ever spoken so beautifully. But dreams meet daybreak: the jobless know what I mean, so do the families who wonder how this Administration could wreck a recovery for three years and counting. So many of those high-flown words have faded.”

Jeb Bush

Jeb Bush, the one-time Florida Governor whose wife is Mexican American, defended his brother George W. Bush’s record and talked passionately about educating children of color. “We need to set high standards for students and teachers and provide students and their parents the choices they deserve. The first step is a simple one. We must stop pre-judging children based on their race, ethnicity or household income,” said Bush. He then highlighted what he said are Florida’s achievements in improving academic performance, particularly for students of color. “Here in Florida in 1999, we were at the bottom of the nation in education. For the last decade, this state has been on a path of reform,” he said. Among African-American students, Florida is ranked fourth in the nation for academic improvement, among low-income students, the state is third, among students with disabilities, it is first, and, among Latino students, “the gains were so big, they required a new metric,” Bush said.

Susana Martinez

New Mexico Governor and former Democrat Susana Martinez delivered a rousing speech noting her own ethnic “first.” “As the first Hispanic female governor in history, little girls often come up to me in the grocery store or the mall. They look and point, and when they get the courage, they ask ‘Are you Susana?’ and they run up and give me a hug,” said Martinez. “It’s in moments like these when I’m reminded that we each pave a path. And for me, it’s about paving a path for those little girls to follow. No more barriers.”

Mia Love

Up-and-coming U.S. Congressional candidate and mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah, Mia Love called President Obama’s version of America “a divided one — pitting us against each other based on our income level, gender, and social status.” She said the story of the American Dream is one “of human struggle” that has “been told for over 200 years with small steps and giant leaps; from a woman on a bus to a man with a dream; and the bravery of the greatest generation, to the entrepreneurs of today.” Love, like Mitt Romney, is also a Mormon.

Nikki Haley

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley defended her state’s controversial immigration law, calling it “innovative.” Said Haley, “We said in South Carolina that if you have to show a picture ID to buy Sudafed and you have to show a picture ID to set foot on an airplane, then you should have to show a picture ID to protect one of the most valuable, most central, most sacred rights we are blessed with in America — the right to vote. And what happened? President Obama stopped us.”

Throwing Peanuts and Racial Slurs

On the convention floor, meanwhile, a couple delegates made headlines for throwing peanuts at a black CNN camerawoman and saying, “This is what we feed animals.” Patricia Carroll, the camerawoman, was reticent about the incident, telling Journal-isms it could have happened anywhere, including the Democratic convention, but she was not surprised it happened in Tampa. “This is Florida, and I’m from the Deep South,” she said. “You come to places like this, you can count the black people on your hand. They see us doing things they don’t think I should do.”

BeBe Winans’s “Bipartisan” Gospel Moment

Even PBS’s news anchors seemed to enjoy gospel singer BeBe Winans’s stirring rendition of “America, America.” Winans, who performed on the final night, told Essence magazine that he saw his reportedly unpaid participation in the convention as a display of bipartisanship. He was not unaware of how controversial it would be for him to sing there, he said. “The RNC realized this was something that could work to their advantage and I realized there is a master plan here,” remarked Winans. “And so my message to them and to the world is that we are all Americans before we are a part of any political party. It’s so simple and yet we make it so difficult.”

True. But, of course, by definition political conventions are neither the time nor place for bipartisanship. Rather, they are an occasion for creating a narrative for what each party believes America should truly be. And this party clearly wanted to be perceived as embracing a multi-racial future. The questions is: were voters convinced?

The Nominees

Oh, and in case you were wondering, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney accepted the Republican nomination for president and Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan agreed to be his VP, if the people so choose.

Update 9/2: Baratunde Thurston clarified his post: “The final final count is in, and I spotted 238 Negroes during the RNC, 239 if I count seeing my own reflection in various mirrors and windows. I estimated no more than 60 of those to be authenticated GOP delegates or party members. It turns out the actual number of black delegates was 46.”

What do you think?

What were the high and low points of the GOP Convention?