Since his campaign, Donald Trump has routinely claimed that he has a strong relationship with African Americans — despite all the evidence indicating he does not.
A lackluster showing among African Americans at the polls in 2016 and consistently low approval ratings haven’t diminished Trump’s confidence. Most recently, President Trump has seized on an endorsement from rapper and producer Kanye West to “prove” he was right all along. While speaking at the National Rifle Association’s annual convention last week, the president credited West with doubling his support among African Americans (citing a flawed Reuters poll of black men).
In heaping praise on the rapper, Trump became only the latest Republican president to attempt to use black celebrities to reach African American voters. Since at least the 1960s, Republicans have courted black entertainers, musicians and athletes as political surrogates to “speak” to and for black communities.
But rather than using celebrity to encourage genuine dialogues with black communities, all too often this approach has been a one-way street, focused purely on symbolism. Past presidents like Richard Nixon have used black celebrities as a shield against accusations of racism and racial indifference, while also using entertainers’ endorsements as evidence of widespread black support and an excuse to ignore African Americans’ most pressing criticisms and concerns. Unsurprisingly, the political whims of “black celebrities” — absent substantive policy — has meant little to black voters. And for black celebrities from Wilt Chamberlain to Sammy Davis Jr. to Kanye West, the backlash has been fierce.
Nixon perfected the modern strategy of using black celebrities while playing down their substantive policy concerns. Republicans had deployed black athletes and entertainers as campaign surrogates for decades, but it wasn’t until the 1968 presidential contest that the tensions brewing around race, celebrity and the GOP exploded.
That was the year that baseball legend Jackie Robinson (who had aggressively campaigned for Nixon in 1960) quit the Republican Party. In nominating Nixon for president in 1968, Robinson argued, the GOP had sent an explicit message to African Americans telling “the black man to go to hell.” Robinson insisted that Nixon was a racist, whose coded demands for law and order and embrace of Southern segregationists would ultimately place African American lives in danger. Robinson’s anger accurately reflected the opinions of a majority of black voters in 1968, most of whom viewed Nixon in an unfavorable light.
Nixon countered Robinson’s criticism by deploying a sports star of his own: Wilt Chamberlain. It was Chamberlain, for instance, who persuaded outraged African Americans to reluctantly let Nixon enter Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral. And it was Chamberlain, who in interviews, speeches and campaign publicity events, testified that Nixon couldn’t possibly be racist, given their friendship.
But despite Chamberlain’s claims that he had enlightened some of the most ardent black skeptics, his presence did little to boost Nixon’s standing among African Americans in 1968 — 10 percent of black voters cast ballots for the Republican. Instead, African Americans struggled to make sense of Chamberlain’s endorsement, labeling the basketball star politically naive, a racial “sellout” and an out-of-touch elitist, disconnected from black communities and the black freedom struggle.
Four years later, a shrewder, savvier Nixon again turned to the symbolism of black celebrity endorsements, building a powerhouse celebrity operation designed to deploy athletes, actors, musicians and entertainers to boost his reelection prospects.
Black members of the Nixon White House worked diligently to cultivate relationships with black celebrities like Sammy Davis Jr. and James Brown. Invitations to these prominent figures became an opportunity for the president to publicize his alleged commitment to civil rights and his program of black capitalism. Nixon and his black appointees hosted glamorous fundraisers and lavish galas with the aim of publicizing the president’s black star power.
This effort produced endorsements from the likes of football star-turned-actor Jim Brown and civil rights icon Betty Shabazz. Jazz musician Lionel Hampton once went so far as to perform his original single “We Need Nixon,” featuring dance moves by the “black Nixonettes.” And who could forget the infamous moment, captured by photojournalists and reporters alike, where Davis spontaneously hugged Nixon at a carefully orchestrated celebrity youth rally in 1972?
But though Nixon had no shortage of high-powered black celebrities extolling his virtues, his outreach to African Americans was fatally flawed, as it relied almost exclusively upon public relations and superficial rhetoric rather than policies and actions. By 1972, Nixon had accumulated a record on race and civil rights that vacillated wildly, regularly producing explicitly hostile policies harmful to black communities. His Election Day results among African Americans reflected this record, revealing a truism: Star power alone couldn’t deliver black votes. Only 13 percent of black ballots went Nixon’s way in an election where nearly half of the black electorate did not vote.
Politically ineffective though it was, Nixon’s celebrity strategy did have consequences for his black celebrity surrogates. James Brown, in particular, was hit hard. Black organizations threatened boycotts of his concerts, arguing that black dollars shouldn’t be funding anything tied to Nixon. At a Baltimore concert, 500 black picketers marched with signs that read “James Brown: A Bought Brother.” Inside a nearly empty arena, Brown performed to the sounds of boos and hecklers. The pushback was so bad that Brown began to hold news conferences and “corner chats” with fans and antagonists alike explaining his decision to endorse Nixon and insisting he wasn’t “selling out.” Eventually, he announced that despite his endorsement, he wouldn’t be donating any money to Nixon’s reelection bid.
Sammy Davis Jr., initially attracted to the power and prestige of the presidency, reached out to Nixon with the aim of getting support for several economic and social initiatives. Davis was also thrilled when Nixon welcomed him into the White House, providing him with a level of access that previous Democratic presidents had denied. His 1972 endorsement of Nixon, therefore, was no surprise, but it still came as a unwelcome shock to African Americans across the nation.
And like Brown, Davis paid a steep price for this uncritical support. Record stores refused to carry his music, while readers of Ebony and Jet described Davis with contempt and disgust. “Seeing Sammy Davis, Jr. grinning at Nixon” was “sickening” wrote one reader. Black celebrities like Davis were either ignorant “that Nixon has done more to degrade Black people than any other President” or were “SICK.” Black audiences at an Operation PUSH event in Chicago booed and heckled the singer, despite the pleading of the organization’s leader, Jesse Jackson.
The anger toward Davis made at least one thing perfectly clear: No amount of photo-ops could overcome the reality that black voters loathed Nixon and his policies.
The experience of supporting Nixon left Davis so bitter, so wounded, that it turned him off symbolic politics. Later, he rejected requests from Frank Sinatra and Ronald Reagan to endorse the latter man’s 1980 presidential campaign. “No! No way,” he told Ebony magazine when asked about the potential endorsement. “And you can tell everybody that. You’d have to be a fool, you’d have to be crazy to think I’m going to let somebody humdinger me into that.”
Nixon may have been the first Republican to lay down the modern blueprint for using black celebrity as a replacement for substantive outreach to black communities, but he certainly wasn’t the last. And now, Trump is repeating the mistake.
Instead of listening to black communities and shifting his policies, rhetoric and behavior (which might lead to tangible results), Trump is pointing to his relationship with black celebrities — like Kanye West — as a flimsy means of portraying himself as a champion of black interests. But we know that superficial appeals to black celebrity, rather than focusing on what black communities need, end up driving Republicans and black voters even further apart.
Indeed, black voters see through these efforts, often viewing Trump and the black celebrities who endorse him as fundamentally dishonest because of their refusal to acknowledge the president’s history of racial hostilities, continued racial antagonisms and, most significantly, his administration’s lack of policies that positively affect African American lives. For many black voters, Trump’s embrace of West simply reads as an attempt to inoculate himself against charges of indifference to African Americans while ignoring urgent policy criticisms from black communities. After all, what better way to evade accountability while reassuring your supporters that you couldn’t possibly be a racist, than to point to the endorsement of the famous Mr. West?
In a moment like this one, about the only thing that Trump’s embrace of West guarantees is that the rapper’s popularity among African Americans will take a hit.