The best black Republican sales pitch I ever heard was from Niger Innis, then the spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, the civil rights-era organization led by his father, Roy Innis. The GOP “is not for rich people,” he said during our conversation at the 2011 Conservative Political Action Conference, “It’s for people who want to be rich.” There are, of course, many working-class Republicans, and many rich black Democrats, but it was a clever way to make a point: Striving black Americans ought to reconsider what the GOP has to offer.
The worst black Republican sales pitch is the one Kanye West just fell for: Turning Point USA spokeswoman Candace Owens’s one-woman revival of the trope that black Americans are slaves on the Democratic Party plantation. It’s shopworn, defies logic, and mainly highlights the shallow politics of those who subscribe to it.
It took off in the tea party era. There was Deneen Borelli’s “Blacklash: How Obama and the Left Are Driving Americans to the Government Plantation”; Star Parker’s “Uncle Sam’s Plantation: How Big Government Enslaves America’s Poor and What We can Do About It”; and the Rev. C.L. Bryant’s film “Runaway Slave.” Back then, he told me, “Government dependency is the plantation that Democrats support.” Then-gadfly, now-Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson referred to Obamacare as the “worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery” — a related form of hyperbole meant to make a slightly different point.
But as the Obama era wound down and the Trump era ramped up, the pejorative characterization lost something. Maybe the absence of a black president took some of the sting out of it; maybe it couldn’t be squared with President-elect Donald Trump’s promise to “take care of everybody” when it came to health care or his repeated promises to bring American jobs back from overseas, rather than take the approach that his Republican predecessors did — encouraging Americans to compete.
In any case, we were almost rid of a riff that essentially cast black voters as dupes.
Owens, though, is breathing new life into the idea. Earlier this month, she tweeted:
Last week, while speaking to an audience at the University of California at Los Angeles, she addressed a group of, apparently, Black Lives Matter protesters by saying:
“Victim mentality is not cool. I don’t know why people like being oppressed. … ‘We’re oppressed! Four-hundred years of slavery! Jim Crow!’ By the way, none of you guys lived through [that]. … Your grandparents did, and it’s embarrassing that you utilize their history. You’re not living through anything right now.”
Shortly after, West, back on Twitter after a long hiatus, chimed in:
Over the weekend, in an interview on Fox News about the UCLA dust-up, Owens said, “The truth is, the numbers are in, okay. Police brutality is not an issue that is facing the black community whatsoever.” But as The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery explained in 2016, The Post’s reporting has found African Americans are killed by police at far higher rates than, for instance, whites. In terms of the impetus for ongoing protest, Columbia University professor John McWhorter, regularly tabbed as outside the black mainstream and a sometimes critic of the Black Lives Matter movement’s approach, has argued that “police violence is not just one of many issues in black America’s take on racism: It is the central one.”
To Owens, though, it’s all of a piece. “The left,” she went on, “wants to strap black people to this idea that they are victims. … They don’t like to see black people that are free thinkers and are independent, and I think that’s what Kanye West and myself represent to the black community, and that makes them very nervous.”
Not so much.
The notion of African Americans as captives is meant to convey that black Republicans are free, while black Democrats, who make up about 90 percent of black voters, are victims of groupthink — which is why the idea appeals so much to West. A defining feature of his career is the degree to which he cherishes, and nurtures, his self-conception as an outside-the-box thinker. His line from the infamous “How, Sway?” interview pretty much captures it: “I am Warhol. I am the number one most impactful artist of our generation. I am Shakespeare in the flesh. Walt Disney. Nike. Google.” He knows he is, rightly, considered a musical genius. The rest of what he does — from promoting his “Derelicte”-esque couture to his rush to embrace Trump — suggests that recognition as a performer and producer was never enough. He seems to want people to see him as special, even ordained. Several days before he tweeted about Owens, West tweeted:
True enough. But when Owens decries the “victim mentality,” she’s signaling her allegiance to an alternative worldview. West, on the other hand, isn’t concerned with the issues driving partisan politics; he craves reification of his self-image. Just five years ago, he released the song “New Slaves,” but a perusal of the lyrics leaves you unclear whether he’s indicting the “victim mentality” against which Owens inveighs or is treading perilously close to engaging in it.
Piggybacking on Owens’s rant, he’s implying: The world can’t yet fathom my genius. And his Achilles’ heel may be that he’s not attuned to the difference.
All of which, of course, is fine. Kanye was, is and always will be Kanye.
And if Owens believes the Democratic platform works to the detriment of black America, she should make that case, issue by issue. She will find more agreement out there than you might suspect. But the implication that the vast majority of black voters are bound to a Democratic Party plantation is a misunderstanding of Politics 101 and an insult to an entire slice of the electorate.
For better or worse, most African Americans support Obamacare: In January, the Kaiser Health Tracking Poll found 82 percent of African American respondents had a favorable view of Obamacare — the most contentious domestic issue during the last Democratic administration.
A 2017 Pew Research Center survey found 62 percent of African American respondents said abortion should be legal “in all/most cases.”
In early 2003, at the start of the Iraq War — not just after it became apparent to nearly everyone that it was a catastrophe — Gallup found 68 percent of African Americans opposed the conflict.
The list goes on, but the point is that with few exceptions — a notable one is school choice — black voter priorities more closely overlay those of Democrats as a whole. When you add in the fact that in recent years, Democrats, generally speaking, have been more supportive than Republicans on African American priorities related to criminal justice restructuring and that the current Republican president was a birther, it only follows that black voters would find themselves in the Democratic camp.
Like every other demographic, African Americans vote their interests, real or perceived. In the context of a two-party system, the fact that black voters overwhelmingly support Democrats isn’t an indicator of groupthink, it’s an indicator of an informed black electorate.
If Owens prefers the GOP platform, then, certainly, she should support it. But as Rolling Stone’s Jamil Smith points out, “Contrarianism is a much lesser goal than iconoclasm, and much easier to achieve.” Calling other people victims, or slaves, isn’t an argument about the proper size and scope of government. It’s not a defense of a foreign-policy doctrine. It’s not an anti-choice argument. And it’s not a coherent (or, for that matter, conservative) explanation for police brutality.
By giving herself bonus points for voting her conscience while attempting to write off most of the black voters who vote theirs, Owens is exempting herself from the hard work of trying to persuade people, black or otherwise, that the policies she favors are the right course for the black community and the country.
And Kanye West fell for it.