A number of Republicans will pick an immediate fight with this book. First, one of its premises is that from the New Deal to the advent of Reagan conservatism, black Republicans lost an internal fight for the heart and soul of Lincoln’s house—and with that loss, the party founded on the ideal of equality has morphed into an institution its founders would not recognize. Conservatives who view that same period as the steady triumph of principle will bristle at this suggestion.
Then there is the dust jacket cover, a 1960 photo of a beautiful but nationally unknown African-American woman. (She happens to be Jewel LaFontant, the first female deputy solicitor general and mother of Barack Obama confidant John Rogers.) Why, conservatives may ask, such an anonymous image instead of one of the GOP’s black stars? Flip through the index and there is no reference to any of the high-profile contemporary black Republicans who belie the author’s suggestion of loneliness: Rep. Mia Love, for example, one of the most heralded freshmen in the 114th Congress, or Dr. Ben Carson, arguably the hottest name in grassroots conservative politics. There is a scant one-line reference to Sen. Tim Scott, the only black person ever elected to a Senate seat from the old Confederacy, and a brief mention of Condoleezza Rice, who requires no further description.
Dismissal, though, would do a disservice to Leah Wright Rigueur’s interpretation of a political evolution that conservatives ignore at their peril. The Republican party she depicts, for much of the last century, had its share of black voters, and could claim to be an influential voice within the African-American community. But today it is a brutal fact of life that the Republican party is simply loathed by an overwhelming number of black Americans. To most, the source of that loathing is deeper even than their affinity for a black Democratic president, and it rests on a gut suspicion that the modern GOP is a comfortable enabler of white racial resentment. Rigueur’s implication is hard to refute. There are no sensible Republicans who view this as a good space, morally or politically, for a national party to occupy, and it is worthwhile to take a close look at how generations of Republicans tried, in vain, to avoid this moment.
To be sure, Rigueur lacks the pure storytelling skill that has allowed other authors to spin bestsellers out of some of the same material, and there is a denseness of detail that sometimes buries her larger points. But The Loneliness of the Black Republican is meticulous, well-crafted, and consistently astute about the fractious recent history of the Grand Old Party. If the Republican party in the Reagan through Obama era seems to divide over tactics but rarely over policy objectives, and almost all of its politicians operate within a relatively strict consensus, it has not always been that way—and a reader understands better what a divided GOP really did look like.
Republicans should also appreciate how thoroughly Rigueur shreds some of the left’s demeaning tropes about black Republicans. Skeptical media invariably brand them as either cast-offs striving for a shorter line of advancement or empty vessels that shortchange their own history out of some misguided illusion of “colorblindness.” If they are granted the credit of sincerity, black Republicans are often depicted as sincere right-wing freaks. But as Rigueur describes it, the overwhelming majority of these men and women have been principled people who, in the language of insurgency, regularly spoke truth to power—often at the cost of reduced influence and access. They understood racism’s full force.
Moreover, rather than being monolithic, they run the full political wingspan of the last three generations: liberals who distrusted the New Deal’s hypocrisies on integration; centrists trying to fend off both a Southern strategy in their own party and militancy rising in their own neighborhoods; economic nationalists who envisioned the black consumer class and its reshaping of the American marketplace; neoconservatives who made trenchant critiques about the risks of government dependency.
What has bound these streams together is not opportunism but a coherent idea about equality of opportunity and the central place that principle must hold in the conservative (as well as the liberal) imagination. As Rigueur observes, the theme of individual dignity and empowerment that came to define black conservatives has been absorbed, at least partly, into mainstream thinking on poverty in both parties.