The opening bars of Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” filled a conference room at the Liaison Hotel on Capitol Hill, and out onto a stage walked Jason Whitlock. Some 250 MAGA-hatted young Republicans cheered.
It was Saturday morning at the Young Black Leadership Summit — a four-day conference hosted by Turning Point USA, a conservative group and Trumpian alternative to the College Republicans. The activists had already visited the White House the day before — “Who in this room wants to be president?” President Trump asked in the East Room to raucous cheers.
Now came Whitlock, the former Kansas City Star sports columnist turned talking head and co-host of Fox Sports 1’s afternoon debate show, “Speak for Yourself."
“You want to be leaders and you’re black and I’m here to tell you how to do it,” Whitlock told the audience. “Disconnect from this social media garbage; disconnect from these celebrity athletes who don’t really care nothing about you."
The crowd roared.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and Stacey Dash, who spoke about her journey from starring in “Clueless” to becoming a conservative activist, were on stage earlier in the morning. Then came Second Amendment activist Maj Toure, who wore a sweatshirt emblazoned with the phrase, “Black Guns Matter.”
Whitlock, who wore a blue suit and no tie, promised a less political message.
“I hate to disappoint you,” he said. “But I’m not a political partisan. I don’t vote.”
In an age when prominent black athletes from LeBron James to Colin Kaepernick have preached progressive political messages, Whitlock, as he often does on TV, offered a countervailing view.
“These athletes today who are trying to be Muhammad Ali for the most part, to me, are making fools of themselves,” he said. “Ali was not worth $500 million like LeBron James. He was not attached to a $100 million corporation like Nike.”
He continued: “Take your money, pool your resources and support people who actually represent your views and have the time to be full-time involved.”
Whitlock’s remarks had a consistent theme: that the political discourse of the black community is unduly influenced by the media.
“They’re controlling our thought and policing our thought through these companies out of Silicon Valley that are imposing their values on us,” he said. “We have all of these athletes hooked up to Twitter.”
R.C. Maxwell, who attended the conference, said: “We need people like Jason Whitlock here. No offense to Ben Carson, but Whitlock ... is black culture.”
Outside the speaking hall were banners bearing the names of conservative news outlets such as Breitbart and slogans such as #BigGovSucks. Liberty University and The Heritage Foundation had tables piled high with literature.
Turning Point, founded just six years ago, has grown markedly during the Trump era, with founder and executive director Charlie Kirk and communications director Candace Owens becoming celebrities in Trumpworld. Earlier this year, a rival advocacy group for young conservatives, Young America’s Foundation, accused Turning Point of boosting its membership with “racists and Nazi sympathizers.”
Whitlock was invited to Washington by Brandon Tatum, Turning Point’s director of urban engagement, who said he had watched Whitlock on TV for years (Turning Point said it did not pay him an honorarium). “Lots of people here play sports, love sports,” Tatum said. “Jason is an older man, accomplished, so hearing from his perspective is important to be exposed to.”
Despite his appearances on Fox News, Whitlock was not familiar to everyone at the conference. Asked about Whitlock, Dash shook her head and replied, “Sorry, who?”
On stage, Whitlock spoke for more than half an hour, slowly pacing back and forth, microphone in hand. He advocated for intellectual debate — “I will talk to anybody ... You want to talk, let’s talk,” he said — and encouraged attendees to stand up for their political beliefs.
“When someone questions your blackness, tell them I’m black, not liberal,” he said. “And if they don’t understand the difference, pray for them.”
In lieu of social media, Whitlock said, the young activists needed to reconnect with the spiritual roots of the black community.
“If you understand our history in America, our relationship to God has been the strongest indicator of your blackness from the time we got here,” he said.
Asked by an audience member about his relationship to God, Whitlock spoke of his own grandmother and her experience in the Baptist Church. Her father, Whitlock said, had nearly been lynched by the Ku Klux Klan. It instilled in her a hatred of white people that was only tempered by her faith, which she passed down to Whitlock.
Whitlock invoked his professional journey, too. Several years ago he was hired to lead ESPN’s The Undefeated, but he left the company before it launched. The site today covers race and culture, often from a progressive point of view.
“In terms of being really comfortable standing up here in front of people and telling them to lean into God, it was those experiences over the last five to seven years that helped me be completely comfortable with that,” he said.
Afterward, Hasan Boddie, 22, a college student from Atlanta who declined to name his school, said that Whitlock “had a level of realness. Political people get caught up in left-right, Republican-Democrat. He had a level of realness.” (Boddie, a sports fan, added that his favorite athlete is Kyrie Irving. “I love that he’s wiling to say the Earth is flat,” he said. “Is it flat? Who knows? That’s for God and astronauts to decide.”)
Approached several times by a reporter for an interview about his speech and his appearance at the conference, Whitlock declined.
“I hear you’ve been asking ridiculous questions about me,” he said. “How the f--- would I know Stacey Dash?”
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