When I tell people my father is a black Republican, many of them look at me curiously, as if I've just told them I was raised by mermaids. I assume they're surprised not only because much of my personal politics sit decidedly left of center, but also because black Republicans, who made up only 2 percent of the delegation at this year's Republican National Convention, have become somewhat of an urban legend, a phenomenon you might hear about on the news from time to time but will never encounter yourself in real life. On top of their rarity, America's black Republicans must also contend with the fact that some of their most notable comrades come off as either unserious or downright unhinged. For every levelheaded Colin Powell in the public eye, there is a man like Herman Cain, whose bid for the GOP's presidential nomination earlier this year was more circus sideshow than political campaign.
My dad, who is thoughtful and fiercely private, is almost nothing like Mr. Cain, but the two men nevertheless share the kind of back-story conservative bootstrapping fantasies are made of. Like Mr. Cain, my father was born in the 1940s to a domestic worker and a laborer, neither of whom was educated past the sixth grade. Also like Mr. Cain, my dad beat the odds to become the first of his family to graduate college. Having earned his way through undergrad with the Army's ROTC program, he then served as a captain for two tours in Vietnam, during which time every single man under his command returned home alive. Once back in the States, he matriculated at a law school where he was the first black student they'd ever admitted. By then he was married to his first wife and was already raising his first son, my older half-brother. At a lean period in graduate school, after spending his whole life enamored of jazz music, my dad sold his most prized possession, his trumpet, to help pay for his classes and provide for his family. Years later a childhood friend of my father's would boast to me: "Your dad could play the trumpet as beautifully as Miles Davis." I looked at my father quizzically, as if to ask him why he had literally sold out his musical ambitions. "I had responsibilities," he said, shrugging. There was no regret in his voice.
When I consider my father on paper, it's not all that shocking to me that he's a Republican: A black man born into poverty in the Jim Crow era who grew up to serve his country and put himself through college and law school, and who maintained a deep sense of personal responsibility all along the way. Though he's not a millionaire or captain of industry, my dad does in many ways embody the self-made achiever conservatives love to tout as being the American ideal. What's more, his minority status sets him in stark contrast to the mythical "welfare queens" and imprisoned black males with which some GOP lawmakers like to scare constituents. He's what Republicans want all minorities to be like. Or, at least I once thought he was.
I couldn't help but think of my black Republican father throughout the majority of this election cycle, which, blessedly, ends today (dear Zeus, please let it end today). I thought of him when Cain was behaving like a clown in the primaries, of course. But also last month, when Fox News' Sean Hannity had on his program Tucker Carlson, the conservative pundit and editor of the Daily Caller. The men's topic of discussion was a five-year-old videotape of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama giving a speech to a room of black pastors. Hannity and Carlson took issue with a lot of the video's content—Obama's inveighs against racial oppression in America, the presence of the controversial Reverend Jeremiah Wright—but they were also notably disturbed by Obama's "accent" in the footage, by which they meant the easy twang he tends to develop when addressing predominately black audiences. Linguists call what Obama was doing code-switching: A black man talking to black people in a speech pattern different from what he'd use for a white audience. But to Hannity and Carlson it was "pandering." "It's a put on," said Carlson. "It's phony."
In a three-page piece further dissecting the speech for his website, Carlson continued his race-baiting, calling Obama's words "angry" and saying they were "closer to an Al Sharpton rally than a conventional campaign event."
A few days later, I thought of my father and his party again, this time when news broke that Arkansas state Republican Congressman Jon Hubbard had released a book in which he argues the merits of slavery and claims desegregation ruined public schools. U.S. Congressman Rick Crawford, who represents Arkansas's First District, called Hubbard's writing "divisive and racially inflammatory," but he stopped short of calling it what it actually is: outright racist and contemptible hate-speech.
I thought of my father in late September, when the chairman of the Mecklenburg County (Va.) Republican Committee had to be asked to remove from his group's Facebook page a picture of the president as an African witch doctor; and last year, when an elected member of the Orange County Republican Party's central committee came under fire for sending around a picture depicting Obama as the child of two apes. I thought of him a few weeks ago when a bald white man was photographed in a Romney event in Ohio, my dad's home state, in a t-shirt reading, "Put the white back in White House." And then again when Romney adviser John Sununu said that the only reason Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama is because they're both black.
A great deal has been made this election cycle, and, indeed, over the past four years, about whether Republicans are racist. Some liberals, eager to defend President Obama from baseless attacks about his birth certificate and religion, have become rather quick to accuse the right of bigotry. In response, many conservatives have begun ignoring or downplaying those charges with the kind of frustrated skepticism the villagers had in Aesop's "Boy Who Cried Wolf"—if everything is racist, nothing is racist.
I sit somewhere in the middle of these two camps. One the one hand, I don't think even most Republicans are hatemongers, partially because I was raised by—and had some of my first political conversations with—one who decidedly is not. Nevertheless, I can't help but feel a twinge of sadness for my father whenever I see a member of his party, and there are too many of them, calling the first president to ever share our skin tone a monkey, or sending around images of the White House lawn planted with watermelons, as the Republican mayor of Los Alamitos, Ca., did in 2009. Worse still, though GOP leaders will every now and again deliver brief and gentle condemnations to their party's most virulent racists, there seems to be no earnest effort from the most powerful Republicans to purge that element from Republicanism once and for all. The result is a sort of two-headed GOP monster, one head of which decries Democrats for daring to suggest Republicans are intolerant whites while the other head calls the president a black gorilla and laughs.
I recently asked my father how he feels seeing so many of his fellow Republicans gleefully slinging unvarnished anti-black antipathy at our president and others. He said that while it makes him a bit angry, he's mostly disappointed by the degradation of an institution he once respected, and which he believes once respected him. One of the first Republican politicians my dad can remember admiring was William Moore McCulloch, a congressman from Ohio who, despite his other stringently conservative philosophies, nevertheless was one of the most adamant supporters of the Civil Rights Act. Thirty-two years after Mr. McCulloch's death, one wonders if he'd ever have a chance of being elected by today's GOP, which seems quite content not only with its dearth of blacks, but also with its reputation of being directly and vehemently hostile toward blacks.
My father spent his whole life living up to the standards Republicans ostensibly expected of him, because that's what came naturally to him. But he can never be white, and, more and more, that seems to preclude him from inclusion in the party where he once found a home. My dad has been a Republican since he could first vote, and he told me once that he will almost certainly die a Republican. But this year, he's supporting President Obama.