Illustration: Franco Égalité
As the summer roiled with protests over the murder of George Floyd by police and the pandemic drove a wave of activism into Zoom chats, I found myself once again watching an online panel discussion about the state of Black men in America. I had observed dozens of similar events over the years, on those many occasions that this country sparked the flint of racism hard enough to compel public discussion about Black men. Now, in my city and elsewhere, even at my job in a public library, people were attempting to unpack why people that looked like me seemed to be targeted by the state. This time, the pandemic had removed the barriers of travel, cost, and embarrassment that can hinder public race discussions. All of the tough conversations people said they wanted to have could now happen from the safety of their homes.
During this particularly clumsy session, I found myself typing a question in the chat — something that goes against my rule of not engaging directly with such forums unless I’m on the dais. These discussions are generally not for me. They are for people who have questions about the veracity of accusations about state-sanctioned violence. If you don’t know what racism is or you think the problem might be sagging pants, then it is not a conversation that desires or warrants my participation. And yet, there I was, typing away: “What is being said here that hasn’t been said in a hundred years of asking this question?”
What further insight are these interrogations meant to provide? Everybody wants an answer out of these forums as if there are not a thousand valid and ancient answers.
After the four-year exercise in naked despotism that was the Trump administration, the recently concluded presidential election proves particularly instructive here. The Black vote is always about survival, you see. And on the heels of a protest summer unlike anything in decades, Black voters found themselves staring down disenfranchisement and voter suppression in historic numbers. As is tradition, we voted almost entirely Democratic.
In 2020, more Black men who voted opted for a second Trump term than in the previous election: 18% of them, up several percentage points from 2016. Almost every discussion about why this happened focuses on what President Donald Trump said or did to woo Black male support, despite the innumerable incidents of racially charged actions during his tenure. What’s less discussed is why they were ripe for such targeting, and it lies in the larger question about the state of Black men in America.
After 400 years of the American experiment, Black men remain the country’s boogeyman of choice. Note how the fiction that there are more Black men in prison than college persists despite never being true. Likewise, peep the reporting on overwhelmingly nonviolent protests from this past summer to see how “rioting and looting” Black men have yet again been used to steer fearful Whites through the cattle chute of media for their ratings meat.
When asked about the state of Black men in America, then, I have a ready answer: It is precarious. The statistics regarding Black men’s relationships to education, health, prisons, and employment bear this out, as they always have. Black men are trying to survive, and the only debate on the matter should be how we respond to the many ways in which that relationship manifests. You do a lot of things you wouldn’t otherwise do when you’re trying to survive.
What does the growing lean by Black men toward certain conservative values say about the conditions under which we live? It says that we are exhausted; that we have tried all of the ways we were told would work if we gave the methods time; that perhaps the answer doesn’t lie in collective incrementalism, but in self-preservation masquerading as individual success. Crab theory is the nucleus of conservative values.
All survival carries an element of trauma. Such pain may be great and omnipresent or minuscule and burrowed deep in the subconscious, but the ingredient is always present in the struggle. If you exist at all in a state of needing to survive, you do so having inflicted some measure of damage.
For Black men, this means contending with the legacy of slavery.
Conservatism balks at history because the suggestion that anything other than rugged individualism defines your success is for losers. With Black conservatives, this strain of bootstrapping extends to an unwillingness to unpack the legacy of slavery — or really anything else. Reflection smacks of therapy.
In Black communities, therapy has long held an air of emasculation. Anything that seeks to dive into the emotional interior of Black people seems dangerously soft, potentially exposing us to a world that we know means us harm. Black male survival in America has always centered on masculinity, toxic or otherwise. We puff up. We talk loud. We go to great lengths to show that we are grown-ass men.
The issue isn’t that 18% of Black male voters don’t see Trump as a White supremacist. It’s that they don’t care.
A popular refrain from Black conservatives is the notion of “victim mentality,” and how attempts to address anything that is not concrete and material — such as the effects of slavery on the modern Black condition — are victimizing. To them, slavery is history, and history can’t harm you. It is an extremely anti-therapy notion, in a community that already struggles with accepting trauma-based realities. Black communities do not by and large see therapy as something Black people do. Conversely, we handle our oppression through a hundred other outlets, few rising to the level of genuinely therapeutic.
One thing is clear: The issue isn’t that 18% of Black male voters don’t see Trump as a White supremacist. It’s that they don’t care. This is not to say that Black men who leaned into Trump don’t care about anything, just that they care about themselves more than any concrete realization of community. On some level, I get it. Conservative values are not foreign to Black communities. Many Black communities are traditionally Christian, homophobic, and capitalist (historically by force, but these days out of a perceived necessity to survive). Moreover, Black people are broadly excised from political processes. And because we are under constant attack from a country that has effectively colonized us, we are constantly seeking new ways to get out from under the thumb of that ancient and unrelenting oppression. Black conservatism is the kind of decision people faced with fighting for their lives sometimes make.
What does the growing lean by Black men toward certain conservative values say about the conditions under which we live? It says that we are traumatized and that we have not only refused to acknowledge the depth of that trauma but have, in fact, built defense mechanisms to ensure we never have to.
The majority of arguments for Black conservatism hinge on conveniently mishandled facts and a version of history with holes cut into it. When you hear a Black conservative argue that the Republican Party of Lincoln provides a reason to vote for the Republican Party of Trump — as if they are interchangeable — they aren’t presenting a linear or cogent argument. They are laying out a path that is beaded and broken, less a timeline than Morse code. This too is a way our bodies attempt to protect us from trauma: omitting whatever is necessary in order to make connections that are more comfortable and justifiable.
Personally, I’d rather they just admit that they’re selfish and thirsty and stop bringing Black people into the mix altogether. Say what you will about 50 Cent’s support of Trump to hold on to his tax benefits, but at least you know where he stands. We no longer have to labor under any pretense that 50 Cent cares about Black people. Similarly, no one is asking Justice Clarence Thomas what he thinks about the Black community because his inaction has made it abundantly clear that he doesn’t care what happens to Black people in anything more than an academic sense. In a bastardization of Booker T. Washington’s defense of self-sufficiency, Thomas believes that we exist but apart from another; that everyone should stand on their own two feet. Such work ethic marks one as a good race man but not of the race. You best serve the race by first serving yourself.
The Democratic Party hasn’t failed Black people; the many broken promises of America have.
A lot of this is President Barack Obama’s fault. Not directly, of course. Many of the newly minted Black male Trump voters are people who were disappointed by the seeming ineffectiveness of Obama’s presidency. Not enough of his vaunted changes happened. And once you find fault with Obama, you’re about one bad day at work away from dissuading yourself from the rhetoric of the left altogether. And look: Obama made it easy. Compared to the bull in a china shop that was Trump, Obama comes off as a somnambulist. The problem is that burgeoning Black conservatives blamed Obama’s ineffectiveness on Black issues (or their pockets) solely on Obama — and not on the mountains of Whiteness that he had to scale against an intractable Republican-held Congress.
Of course, Democrats must do more in the interest of Black people. Who doesn’t believe that? Democrats must move the needle on the concerns of Black communities, and they must do so now. They are only saved so far by the fact that Republicans all but admit that they will do nothing for Black people. For Black conservatives to act as if the Republican Party gets a bad rap is laughable. The Republican Party not only does less for Black people than the Democratic Party; they actively work against the freedoms and liberty of Black people through voter suppression and almost gleeful support of consistently anti-Black legislation. Without such suppression, it is wholly possible Republicans wouldn’t win any major elections. The Democratic Party hasn’t failed Black people; the many broken promises of America have.
In the end, Black people have always done what they needed to do to survive. That may make it sound like we were all in a meeting room somewhere, hashing out to-do lists, but the reality is that Black people have rarely been on the same page across the board, even when our common enemy was emancipation-obvious. I always want to believe that, when it comes to Black people, that even when I disagree with the person on the other side of the table, they at least think they’re doing what’s best for our people.
And yet, the Black Republican bridge in 2020 is a bridge too far. There is too much “I” in their statements, too much “mine.” Too many personal anecdotes, too much misrepresented history presented as evidence. If you only want to go for yours, just say so. Or better, don’t say anything; people can read between the lines. Just stop citing Black survival as a reason for siding with a party that is wiping Black people off the map.