Harvard professor gives talk on race in the Republican party
Leah Wright Rigueur, assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, spoke at the Gerald R. Ford Library Wednesday about the history of Black Republicans, particularly during Ford’s presidency.
Rigueur, a historian who focuses on issues of race in the Republican Party, began by noting that since 1948, a majority of Black voters have identified as Democrats, and in 2012, Black voters played a crucial role in re-electing President Barack Obama by giving him almost 94 percent of their vote. Overall, she said she believes Black Americans have been turned off by the Republican Party for many years.
“The modern GOP is a party whose conservatism makes it virtually impossible for Blacks, given their history and experience, to accept,” she said.
However, Rigueur noted that Black Republicans do exist — some Black families never left the party, while others have found their way back.
“Black Republicans are both invisible and hyper-visible, isolated political misfits, who often provoke extreme reactions on the left and the right,” Rigueur said.
Speaking to reasons some Black voters have stuck with the GOP, she pointed to Ford’s White House and his appointment of a Black man to a Cabinet position.
“When Ford announced his nomination for secretary of transportation in January of 1975, no one — and I mean no one — was prepared to hear William T. Coleman’s name,” she said. “They could not have predicted that a Republican president would appoint a Black man to a Cabinet position.”
Howevever, she noted that while Black Americans played roles in both the Ford and Reagan presidencies, as well as their campaigns, Black Republicans were also frustrated over what she called Ford’s empty promises to them.
“What Black Republicans identify as the problem is that Ford, as the leader of the party, spoke of inclusion and expansion, but didn’t put any effort into actually institutionalizing that inclusion,” Rigueur said. “I think we can see this period looks at the frustration with redirection, with indifference, with ideas of outreach and this notion of colorblindness as a solution to the Republicans' problems.”
The audience at the talk consisted of largely older, white community members. Many of them — including Toni, an Ann Arbor resident who asked her last name not be used — said they were moved to come because of last week’s election results.
“I came because my husband’s a Republican and I’m a Democrat,” Toni said. “I thought this might be helpful information for me. This has been a difficult election. We can’t really talk about anything because we get angry, so I thought this would be a good way to get a different point of view.”
Jim Mays, one of the few Black audience members, came to the event at his wife’s urging, though he noted that he was always interested in what Rigueur had to say.
“I was told to come (by) my wife,” Mays said. “This is the first time I’ve had some free time to come. I think I have interest in this topic. I was born 80 years ago. I’ve seen a lot of transitions. I’ve seen a lot of things happen. And unfortunately for me, every time there’s a Republican president and Republican Congress, I lose.”
LSA sophomores Danielle Williams and Lindsey Medd were among the only students in the audience. They came to hear Rigueur speak as part of an extra credit assignment for an American culture class on race and racism.
“We want to compare it to different things we’re learning in our class,” Williams said. “It’s interesting because (the class) really relates to things going on in the world right now.
The topic of this year's presidential election was only broached during a Q&A session after Rigueur’s formal speech. Rigueur said she thought the Trump campaign's Black outreach was modeled after that of Reagan in 1980.
According to Rigueur, Reagan used the same kind of “What have you got to lose? Why not?” rhetoric with Black voters that became popular throughout the Trump campaign. Black individuals voted almost overwhelmingly for his opponent, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
“(Reagan’s speeches) were not actually about Black voters,” she said. “This is explicit. They’re targeted at white suburban ticket-splitters. (They’re) making conservatism soft and agreeable so anybody, including non-conservatives, can embrace it.”