Black celebrities from Paul Robeson to Beyoncé have long been active in politics, using their bodies and their platforms to advocate for progressive policies, especially within the realm of race and civil rights. In the closing days of the 2020 election, a number of Black celebrities have channeled this “star” power into presidential endorsements. Figures such as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, LeBron James and John Legend — who joined vice-presidential nominee Kamala D. Harris at her closing campaign rally Monday — have all attempted to use their celebrity status and influence to boost voter turnout and raise money for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign.
But Biden hasn’t been the only presidential candidate to reap the rewards of celebrity recently. Over the past two months, a handful of high-profile Black celebrities — all of them men — have endorsed President Trump or revealed their willingness to work with him should he be reelected. Pointing to Ice Cube’s “Contract with Black America,” 50 Cent’s social tax tirade and Lil Wayne’s photo op and declaration of support for the president, many onlookers have struggled to make sense not only of Trump garnering this kind of support but also of the willingness of Black celebrities to provide it.
The alliances are made all the more surprising given that the president holds nearly a 90 percent disapproval rating among Black voters, while more than 80 percent see him as racist. Black voters dislike Trump not only for his racist policies but also because of their negative experiences under his presidency. The outsize reaction to these partnerships is rooted in a basic sense of betrayal: By endorsing or aligning with Trump, these Black celebrities are explicitly partnering with an administration, and an individual, who has been hostile to Black interests and Black life.
Though Trump’s newfound support from high-profile Black figures has ignited controversy, it’s not a new tactic. What may seem like a last-ditch effort to garner votes by the Trump campaign is in fact a well-worn political strategy designed to shield candidates from accusations of racism, while diverting attention away from individual candidates and their political administrations. In short, the GOP’s Black-celebrity strategy serves to distract the public from the fact that the party has long dismissed the importance of substantive political and policy outreach to Black communities.
Though rare, there’s a long history of Black celebrity endorsements of Republican presidential candidates, dating to the days when voting Republican was not yet taboo in Black communities. In 1936, Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens campaigned for Republican nominee Alf Landon, the governor of Kansas. In the midst of the Great Depression, Owens toured 30 states up and down the East Coast, declaring to more than 30,000 potential Black voters that the GOP candidate would protect economic rights, create more jobs and instill confidence in American businesses. That year, both parties believed that the support of a Black celebrity would help them make inroads among Black voters, but only one party offered to pay Owens, and he sided with the Republicans.
Facing a star-studded Kennedy campaign in 1960, Richard M. Nixon employed baseball legend Jackie Robinson to promote the Republican Party. By some accounts Robinson visited dozens of cities in only a few months, preaching the gospel of two-party competition. Though Nixon lost Robinson’s support soon after the 1960 race, between 1968 and 1972 he gained the support of even more Black celebrities, despite the fact that his rhetoric and record on race and civil rights actually regressed and the Republican Party became more conservative, especially on issues of race. Basketball star Wilt Chamberlain, singer James Brown, football star turned actor Jim Brown, jazz musician Lionel Hampton and perhaps most infamously Sammie Davis Jr., among others, embraced Nixon and the party of the “Southern Strategy.”
The Black celebrities who chose to endorse Nixon — at the height of his unpopularity with Black audiences, no less — did so for tangible, economic benefits. Chamberlain, for instance, received federal funds to support his franchise of Los Angeles diners, while former Pittsburgh Steeler Brady Keys received money to open and franchise his fast-food restaurant all-pro Chicken.
Many also saw their support interwoven with calls for black nationalism. While it may seem paradoxical, given the revolutionary goals of the Black Power movement, celebrities such as Jim Brown uncritically embraced Nixon’s call for “Black Capitalism” as a means of uplifting Black communities. As biographer Dave Zirin said, Brown (and others like him) were more than happy “dealing with the devil or getting their hands dirty,” since “access to resources, not purity, was the greater good in a capitalist society.”
But many of these celebrities had perceptions skewed by the privileges afforded by wealth and stature, combined with government support, about what was achievable for Black entrepreneurs. In their arrogance (or perhaps obliviousness), they mistook individual success for community success and overestimated their ability to influence racially hostile administrations for the better.
While the GOP wooed them with government posts, face time with presidents and other perks, it never came with actual policy commitments to better their communities.
Even politically engaged Black celebrities such as the civil rights leader the Rev. Ralph Abernathy in 1980 and, shockingly, Muhammad Ali in 1984 endorsed Ronald Reagan. By 1991, even at a moment when rappers often found themselves the target of Republican derision, rapper Eazy-E — a registered Republican — enthusiastically showed up at a GOP fundraiser for President George H.W. Bush.
There’s never been a shortage of famous Black entertainers, athletes and leaders willing to lend their support to even the most conservative of Republican presidential candidates. The GOP has cultivated this celebrity operation for clear reasons — it allows the party to reach out to Black voters via surrogates while promoting vague ideas and questionable policies, rather than laying out concrete plans or demonstrating an actual commitment to grappling with systemic inequality and racism.
What is less clear is why so many Black celebrities continue to be willing to work with the GOP, particularly given Republican hostility to civil rights agendas. For some of these celebrities, the simplest answer is that their celebrity insulates them from the day-to-day experiences and concerns of everyday Black voters. In 2016, Lil Wayne, for instance, rejected the Black Lives Matter movement, telling Nightline that he did not feel connected to anything “that ain’t got nothing to do with me.” For others, their ruthless sense of individualism and capitalism allows them to sidestep racism and inequality.
Most of these celebrities, however, point to a willingness to negotiate with “anyone that will listen,” citing the importance of working for progress with “both sides of the aisle,” as the rapper Ice Cube has repeatedly argued. In this respect, Black celebrities are very much like traditional Black Republicans, who have been arguing in favor of “two-party competition” for at least 80 years, seeing it as the best way to “leverage” the power of Black voters. The Rev. Jesse Jackson said as much in 1978 while speaking to the Republican National Committee. Black people, he argued, must “pursue a strategy that prohibits one party from taking us for granted and another party from writing us off.”
But, much like mainstream Black Republicans, Black celebrities often endorse such an approach while refusing to acknowledge that the party with which they are negotiating is actively working to suppress those very same rights. Arguably this reality explains why Jackson found himself running to oppose Reagan in 1984, instead of endorsing the president. He described the Reagan administration’s policies toward Black Americans as “Kool-Aid” laced with “cyanide.”
While there is a social cost to endorsing or working with Republican candidates, many Black celebrities welcome it — arguing that it makes them “independent” thinkers, something Republicans also like to celebrate.
But if celebrity endorsements are the only GOP strategy to grapple with the challenge of racism and racial inequality in America today, it will be a long time before it actually manifests into widespread support from a Black community that deserves substance — and far more than lackluster celebrity glitz.