We Need to Talk About the GOP’s ‘Black Friends’

We Need to Talk About the GOP’s ‘Black Friends’

We Need to Talk About the GOP’s ‘Black Friends’

The Republican National Convention has been all about using Black people to convince white people it’s OK to vote for a bigot.


In between the lies and the fearmongering and the stories about having intimate conversations with Jesus that somehow don’t include healing the sick or helping the needy, the goal of the 2020 Republican National Infomercial has been pretty obvious. Republicans are doing everything they can to give white people “permission” to vote for a white nationalist bigot, Donald Trump.

Of course, most white Republican voters don’t need permission to vote for white supremacy. They’re racist themselves and think being racist is just common sense. This convention has plenty for them. The RNC featured Abby Johnson, an anti-abortion activist who, in a recent YouTube video, said it would be “smart” for cops to racially profile her brown son. The RNC also featured Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the white couple from St. Louis who pointed weapons at Black Lives Matter protesters who were walking past their house. The McCloskeys warned America about the danger to “their” communities from “radical leftists,” like soon-to-be Missouri Representative Cori Bush.

The message is not subtle, but Donald Trump’s willingness to say the quiet part out loud is why so many racists love him. The irreducible core of his base is white people who think being openly racist and violent toward Black people is an inalienable right that has been taken from them by “cancel culture.” Trump gives these people a bullhorn, and they love him for it.

But there are other racist white people who miss their dog whistles. There are white people who want every drop of privilege and power that flows from America’s systemic oppression of Black people, but don’t want that MAGA-hat-induced heat when they go to the grocery store. They don’t think of themselves as “racists”—and get more offended when they’re called racist than they do over actual acts of racism. They support the bigotry and xenophobia that Trump brings, but they don’t want to feel like bigots and xenophobes while supporting it.

These white people need some cover, and this year’s RNC is providing it in the form of Black people who support Trump. The Republicans have invited a cadre of professional “Black friends” to validate Donald Trump and make white people feel a little less racist while supporting white supremacy.

There’s a word for what Republicans are doing—tokenism—and there are a lot of definitions of the term floating around. So, at the risk of sounding as intellectually constrained as Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, I’ll use the dictionary definition of the term:

tokenism | noun | the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce.

It is important to understand that tokenism is not done to benefit minorities, not even the token minorities used in the scheme. Tokenism is done for the benefit of white people, to make them feel more comfortable and less complicit in the prejudice and bias of their institutions, schools, and workplaces. It’s done to shield white endeavors from accusations of discrimination. It is, quite literally, a cosmetic adjustment: a mere lacquer of Black faces gilded onto the same old white spaces.

You can tell that the Republicans are engaging in tokenism at their convention if you listen to the content of the speeches given by Black speakers instead of being preoccupied (as I suspect many Republicans are) with the fact that they are talking while Black. Close your eyes, and you will hear their silence on issues of racial and social justice. The Black speakers, like the rest of the Republican Party, offer no agenda to extend economic or social opportunities to people of color. They offer no policy prescriptions to address police brutality or violence against Black people. They offer no rebuttals to the assaults on voting rights or immigrant rights the Trump administration engages in. And they’ve been as silent about the disproportionate toll Covid-19 has taken on communities of color as Herman Cain.

The Black people who were allowed to speak at this convention were there to transmit one message to white listeners: “It’s OK.” Trump’s racism is OK, because here’s one of Trump’s Black golfing buddies. Cops and vigilantes’ shooting black people is OK, because here’s a Black ex-con who complied with the police and is still alive. Caring only about your own pocketbook and 401(k) is OK, because here’s a Black guy who started his own business and made a lot of money. All of them wanted to talk about their individual experiences with Trump. None of them wanted to talk about systemic issues facing Black people who don’t have the benefit of knowing a Trump (or a Kardashian) personally.

Former NFL player and current insider-trading suspect Jack Brewer summed up the entire reason so many Black people were prominently featured at the RNC. He told his audience, “I know what racism looks like, I’ve seen it firsthand. And America, it has no resemblance to President Trump. And I’m fed up with the way he’s portrayed in the media.” Brewer gave voice to the way a lot of white people (and some Black people) view racism: a personal thought crime, not the commission of biased actions. So when Brewer, or another former NFL star like Herschel Walker (who on Tuesday said, “I’ve seen racism up close, I know what it is, and it isn’t Donald Trump”), vouches for Trump personally, it’s supposed to make it OK to support Trump’s demonstrably racist actions, like birtherism, the Muslim ban, or sending in storm troopers to crush Black Lives Matters protesters.

The banality of these Black validators can be seen most clearly when you compare their roles to what the white speakers were allowed to do at the convention. Think of it this way: Most of the white speakers came armed with some agenda. They wanted more farm subsidies or fewer abortions or more Jesus in schools or the right to shoot Black people walking past their homes. But the Black speakers seemingly wanted nothing. There were no additional policies they desired or issues they wanted addressed. They had no goals they wanted the next Trump administration to accomplish and no legislation they wanted Republicans to pass.

Instead of an agenda, the Black people were just there to say, “Thank you, white folks,” and fade off-screen. Most of the Black speakers had a specific story about how a white man helped them in their life: Tim Scott, for instance, spoke about a Chick-fil-A man who helped him pass high school. The ones who didn’t have nice white man to thank had to thank Trump directly. Jon Ponder had both: He spoke about a white FBI agent who helped him turn his life around—and then, courtesy of a video recorded at the White House several hours earlier, the world got to see Trump give him a “surprise” pardon.

Making sure that Black people have no voice or role in shaping the agenda of an organization while dragging them out to thank white people for giving them an opportunity to be a part of the organization is what tokenism is all about. There are legions of white people who only view Black people as criminals or charity cases and expect Black people to be appreciative and “happy” with what charity or clemency is given. A Black person who demands equality makes those white people uncomfortable. A Black person who demands equality now makes those white people feel threatened. A Black person who is “just happy to be here” is the only Black person those white people want to see.

That’s how the Republican National Convention brought itself to one of the lowest political stunts I think I’ve seen in my life, and I’m old enough to remember when George W. Bush flew in on a fighter jet and hung a “Mission Accomplished” banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln. Trump held a naturalization ceremony for five variously brown people at the White House and broadcast the proceedings to the convention. These five people were reduced to smiling, nonspeaking props in Trump’s reelection campaign, at a ceremony that should have been all about them and their personal achievement of becoming American citizens. At least two of the people didn’t know they would be filmed and used for a campaign stunt until they showed up at the ceremony.

Trump didn’t even bother to learn how to pronounce their names correctly.

After the ceremony, MSNBC correspondent Jacob Soboroft said, “There are literally tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people who are eligible and awaiting their own naturalization ceremonies. And not only their own naturalization ceremonies, but the ability to vote this November.” Tokenism doesn’t get more blatant than finding five new Americans to smile for you while you suppress the votes of thousands just like them.

The astute reader will notice that I haven’t been particularly critical of the Black and brown people who have allowed themselves to be used as tokens by the Trump administration this week. People have tried to use me as a token before. Don’t let these Black Republicans fool you: We know it when it’s happening. We notice when people don’t give a damn about us until it’s school picture day. All tokens have a choice to smile for white people in exchange for the opportunities and prestige they can provide or to tell white people the truth and risk retribution and being kicked out of the club. I try not to begrudge Black people who consent to be used: It’s shameful, but Black people like money, too. Getting to the point where you can consistently tell white people where they can stick it, and live to tell the tale, is itself a form of privilege. This week, I’ve found myself regarding the Black bodies dancing for Trump with as much pity as disgust.

What anger I have for this particular crop of Black tokens comes from the fact that so many of them volunteered. These were not schoolboys trying to get by at prep school or single moms trying to hang onto their jobs. These were grown-ass adults, predominantly men, who could have sat this grift out but raised their hands to confirm white bias and quote scripture while doing it. We know Trump doesn’t like to pay his debts, so I hope they got their 30 pieces of silver up front.

Still, the willingness of a person to debase themselves does not absolve those who profit from the debasement. People of color are suffering from an economic collapse that disproportionately affects our communities, a pandemic that disproportionately afflicts our communities, and a criminal justice system that disproportionately murders people in our communities. And all the Republican Party has to offer in response is a few performative pardons and some Magic Negroes who are willing to help white people feel cool with bigotry. Moral judgment should fall on those who use tokenism to hide their racism. The few Black people who are willing to play along in exchange for cash or prizes are largely irrelevant.

I’m sure this week’s show will help Trump with his base. White Republicans have enjoyed a week of listening to Black people tell them exactly what they want to hear.

At least they got actual Black people to participate in the performance instead of locking the Trump children in a room with a vat of shoe polish until Eric took one for the team.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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