The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the ‘Democratic plantation’ became one of conservatives’ favorite slurs

Since the 1960s, the right has explained away black Democrats by denying them agency.

Conservative commentator Candace Owens speaks at the Turning Point USA Young Women’s Leadership Summit in Dallas on June 16. (Laura Buckman/For The Washington Post)
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In 2017, Candace Owens, then known as the YouTuber Red Pill Black, posted a short video called “How to Escape the Democrat Plantation (an easy guide).” In it, she compared African Americans who were physically enslaved before 1865 to their present-day descendants who, she argued, are mentally enslaved by the Democratic Party. She slammed the unquestionable loyalty that black people hold toward the party, which she argued functions as a plantation, in which people of African descent do the ground level work and receive nothing (or perhaps, just enough) in return. Her efforts eventually spawned the “Blexit” movement, a portmanteau that encouraged black Americans to exit the Democratic Party.

Owens’s videos went viral, quickly spreading her message of mental liberation through conservative conversion. But it is arguably her role in Turning Point USA, a conservative organization active on college campuses, that most effectively spreads her message of the Democratic plantation in 2018. Her social media is inundated with intellectual jousts, especially in videos that show her debating college students and converting attendees to her cause.

How effective have her efforts been? Rapper Kanye West publicly claimed his admiration for “how Candace Owens thinks,” and for a time, the two promoted the notion that black Americans needed to be “free thinkers” who did not submit to the “plantation” mentality.

A closer look at the phrase “Democrat plantation” and the divisions that accompany it, however, make clear much of this rhetoric is shallow and ahistorical. It distorts the current state of the relationship between Democrats and African American voters, and deprives the latter of agency, in part because of a failure to adequately understand the historical comparison that this rhetoric purports to make.

Historian Leah Wright Rigueur, author of “The Loneliness of the Black Republican,” noted that black Republicans criticized the plantation politics of the Democratic Party as early as 1964, inspiring white conservatives to occasionally deploy the phrase to critique liberals. They spread the plantation trope throughout print media in the 1970s and 1980s, eventually helping it gain mainstream attention in the 1990s.

Author and political pundit Armstrong Williams was arguably the most powerful purveyor of the phrase, promoting the notion that the Democratic Party had betrayed black voters for three decades. But the plantation trope was appropriated by others, including a local white columnist and radio host in Denver named Mike Rosen; the Log Cabin Republicans, a conservative LGBT organization; and Louis Farrakhan, who notoriously leveled “fierce jabs” against Bill Clinton in 1996. He claimed the Democratic Party’s leaders failed black Americans and that anyone inclined to support Clinton were “slaves sold out to the Democratic plantation.” Unlike black conservatives, Farrakhan’s solution was a third-party candidate who could deliver on campaign promises through their exclusive commitment to black voters’ collective interests.

Despite Farrakhan’s intervention, the term remained primarily employed by conservatives. It reached its apex with Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012. Black conservatives viewed Obama, the first president of African descent, as an overt threat to their position, as he reflected the GOP’s failure to replicate the diversity of the Democratic voting bloc. In one example from 2011, Republican Rep. Allen West of Florida even likened himself to Harriet Tubman, as he planned to take voters on the “underground railroad” away from the “plantation” to the promised land of the GOP.

Accusations of plantation politics have not slowed in the Trump era. Conservative activist Dinesh D’Souza recently compared the modern “urban” plantations with those of the antebellum rural South. He laid out the framework of this argument in his 2018 book “Death of a Nation.”

Instead of analyzing the primary sources, however, D’Souza relied on the work of historian Kenneth Stampp. He drew his comparisons of the old and new plantations from Stampp’s 1956 work, “The Peculiar Institution.” D’Souza claimed that Stampp listed five tenets of the antebellum plantation complex that also fit the modern “urban plantations run by Democrats,” including lack of familial stability, poor social mobility or educational opportunities, derelict housing, ever-present violence inflicted for social control and an atmosphere of hopelessness and nihilism.

D’Souza asserted that such plantations were reflected in the nation’s inner cities, specifically those with black majorities. He stated in an interview that these impoverished black communities are given just enough to satiate them, exclaiming, “That’s why they remain in misery, and the Democrats are perfectly happy to keep them there, as long as they keep voting 80-90% for the party that’s running the plantation.”

But D’Souza’s reliance on Stampp is deeply problematic as a framework for analyzing modern politics. “The Peculiar Institution” was progressive for its time, dismantling the paternalistic narrative of historian U.B. Phillips, who contended in 1918 that the plantation was a “school” that socialized slaves out of their “backward state of civilization.”

Nonetheless, it missed a few important points about enslaved people that are relevant to the applicability of the comparison D'Souza is making. First, the enslaved people in Stampp’s work were largely devoid of agency, in part because Stampp did not consult the available narratives from former slaves. They were portrayed as pawns who labored from morning to night, and readers did not encounter a useful reflection on how enslaved people created spaces that fostered a love for family, community and spirituality.

By using “The Peculiar Institution” as the basis of his argument, D’Souza makes a fatally flawed presumption that wasn’t true during slavery, much less today: Black people have no agency. As other, more recent works, especially cultural histories, make clear, slaves created communities on their plantations that developed a set of values and innovated as they strove to find joy amid hardship. Enslaved women resisted plantation violence despite their doubly marginalized status. While slavery sought to destroy the souls of black Americans, acting as if they were simply imposed upon, with no capacity for innovation, distorts the history.

Comparisons between chattel slavery and contemporary black politics are deeply flawed, and add little to contemporary understanding. But if conservatives insist upon making them, they must learn the history of slavery and not let a flawed understanding warp their sense of the allegiance between African American voters and the Democratic Party.

Like slaves before them, black voters have agency and are not mindless cogs in the Democratic machine. Modern black voters are actively remolding the Democratic Party’s foundations and forcing candidates to address the systematic inequities that proliferate throughout the United States. Thus, just for the sake of argument, even if Democratic voters were confined to a party “plantation,” they are still fighting to change it. Black Democrats are vigorously challenging its confines and forcing politicians to reflect their interests and needs.

But conservatives would be far wiser to discard the comparison entirely. Not only are such comparisons ahistorical, they are a patronizing attempt to court black voters under the presumption that they are a political monolith. The North American slave system was a uniquely brutal intervention in the history of slavery, and it remains wholly unique among U.S. institutions. As historian Kellie Carter Jackson brilliantly contended, it is not “moral — let alone historically accurate — to hijack the ethics of slavery to create a tortured metaphor on personal responsibility.” The “Democrat plantation” is a nefarious term and reveals far more about the people who wield it than it does about the nature of contemporary politics.