Despite being a relatively rare breed, African-American Republicans are diverse in their political thinking and reasons for being part of the GOP, according to a Stanford sociologist.

Corey D. Fields

Corey D. Fields (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Public opinion surveys generally find that about 7 to 10 percent of blacks identify themselves as Republicans. In addition, only 2 percent of Republicans identified themselves as black in a 2012 nationally representative survey done by the Pew Research Center.

Identity is often thought to drive political behavior. For example, an LGBT activist is likely to vote for liberal policies and a National Rifle Association member will probably stand for more conservative ideas.

But research by Corey D. Fields, an assistant professor of sociology, suggests that political demands also shape the way individuals think about their identities.

Fields, who is a faculty affiliate at the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford, interviewed about 50 black Republican activists for his recently published book, Black Elephants in the Room: The Unexpected Politics of African American Republicans.

The Stanford News Service interviewed Fields about his research.

How and why did you start working on this project?

The research began about seven years ago with my interest in unexpectedness, which is when someone is doing something that someone “like them” isn’t supposed to do.

I’ve always been drawn to people who defy expectations. As a researcher, I believe it’s important to look at people who don’t fit the mold. Doing that sometimes tells you more about the people who do fit the mold. African-American Republicans are a compelling illustration of this phenomenon.

The Republican Party started out with abolition at its creation. How and why did the number of black Republicans eventually decline to a point of them becoming the odd “black elephants”?

African-Americans’ departure from the Republican Party coincided with the rise of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s. But it wasn’t until the GOP incorporated opposition to civil rights that black support for the party became virtually nonexistent. Many historians identify the Barry Goldwater candidacy in 1964 and deployment of what became known as the “Southern Strategy” as signature moments where the Republican Party lost the support of African-American voters. Current polling trends suggest that’s not going to change anytime soon. However, demographic trends suggest the Republican Party will have to find a way of incorporating racial minorities if it wants to be successful in presidential elections.

What is it like for African-American Republicans today and how do they vary according to your research?

The central challenge for African-American Republicans is everyone expects a black person to be a Democrat. Frequently, they face pressure from two audiences: other African-Americans and white Republicans. Both groups believe “black” and “Republican” don’t necessarily go together. As a result, African-American Republicans often feel isolated and marginalized.

African-American Republicans vary in how much they see issues of race and racism as being a problem in America. While they all recognize that racial discrimination is unacceptable, the group I call “race-blind” think that many of the challenges facing the black community are self-inflicted. They talk about conservative policies in more abstract, ideological ways.

In contrast, African-American Republicans I classify as “race-conscious” understand racism as being a defining feature of the black experience in America. This latter approach calls for black power through conservative principles. Unfortunately for the latter group, important gatekeepers within the party are much more interested in hearing from African-American Republicans who sidestep a racially conscious message and suggest that racial discrimination is less important to the black condition than things like personal responsibility.

What surprised you during the research on this project?

I was surprised how little thought white Republican Party leaders gave to the experiences of black Republicans and other minority groups inside the party. There was an expressed commitment to diversify the party, but I noticed a lot of heavy lifting hasn’t been done. Not many party leaders could tell me why African-Americans join the party or what black Republicans within the party think about more famous black Republicans, like Herman Cain and Ben Carson, whom the party selected for the national stage.

The GOP has been vocal in calling for increased diversity among both the leadership and the rank and file of the party, but those efforts haven’t been very successful. Why is that?

GOP leaders often promote representatives who are appealing and palatable to people already supporting the party. The party takes an inward-looking approach to inclusion. They are enthusiastic about including more racial diversity in the party but only want representatives who toe the current party line. Put glibly, the party is eager to have racial minorities to come to them, but there has been less work invested in taking the Republican Party to minority communities.

What do you believe is the biggest takeaway from your research?

Not all African-American Republicans are the same. They vary in regards to the meaning and importance of race in their political thinking. This variation structures their political differences. But African-American Republican behavior is embedded within the broader context and demands of Republican politics.

The black Republicans who gain the support of the party don’t reflect the complexity behind the scenes.

Media Contacts

Alex Shashkevich, Stanford News Service: (650) 497-4419,