Are Republicans Failing Their Black College Faithful?

Republicans who went to black colleges are an invaluable resource to the party. But College Republican National Committee rules make it extremely difficult for students at HBCUs to maintain official membership just when the GOP needs them most.

James Evans is the kind of Republican his party wants to showcase, a trailblazer. He’s an American hero: After graduating from Alabama’s Tuskegee University, Evans became an Air Force captain. He’s a proud Utahan; in 2002, he became the state’s first black state senator, elected in a majority Democratic district. And recently, he was elected chair of Utah’s Republican Party. “Our Republican message is universal,” Evans told Utah’s KUER radio in 2013. “It doesn’t matter what your skin color is, your gender, your race, your sexual orientation.”

Evans is also a successful entrepreneur who owns Check Line, a payday loan franchise with three locations in or around Salt Lake City. This year, he is the Charter Day convocation speaker during Tuskegee’s homecoming festivities. The slot is considered a plum within Tuskegee’s elite alumni network; in 2014, the honor was given to an alumnae from Boston named Marilyn Mosby, then only a nominee for Baltimore City’s State’s Attorney, now the prosecutor in the Freddie Gray case. Bill Cosby spoke in 2013.

But when Evans arrives on campus there won’t be a Republican club fully recognized by the College Republican National Committee to greet him. There won’t be any reporting on the whole thing — the faculty in full regalia, the pomp and tradition of it all — in an official capacity, anyway, back to the Alabama Republican the College Republican National Committee headquarters (CRNC), headquarters or to the RNC.

Tuskegee is not alone.

The RNC and CRNC both said there’s more work to be done on black college campuses. “We want all college students, including those at our storied HBCUs, to be a part of our country’s next generation of Republicans,” RNC spokesperson Orlando Watson said. “There remains a lot of hard work ahead on and off college campuses, but we are making gains and proud of the Republican Party building support in places where Democrats for years have offered a lot of talk but not much else.”

The CRNC meanwhile, says that it’s in the middle of updating its list of active chapters and did not have the number of active HBCU clubs available. A spokesperson said it established chapters at Central State University in 2013, another at Morehouse College last year and was in the process also establishing another in Florida in the next few weeks at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla.

“All in all, these chapters are ways that we can break the stereotype of the Republican Party that we are the party of the few, and not of the many,” Carolina L. Hurley told BuzzFeed News in an email.

But the reality is that establishing a chapter on a black campus is challenging. The CRNC legitimizes Republican organizations on campuses, giving students the ability to support the national agenda in an official capacity with the opportunity for students to acquire the leadership skills needed to enter the pipeline of party leadership. It also has vital networking opportunities. But at HBCUs, schools that have passionate, but few students interested in the party, and a lack of faculty interested in advising them, hopes of experiencing all membership has to offer is often short-lived.

To be a black Republican is to be an iconoclast. And to be one at an HBCU only puts that into greater relief.

To be a black Republican is to be an iconoclast — challenging closely held beliefs about the black American identity and its long history in American politics. And to be one at an HBCU only puts that into greater relief. The measure of a Republican club’s success at such a school is often defined by interest — or lack thereof — of capable willing, leadership, says Harold Booker Jr., a recent Morehouse graduate.

It’s difficult to say how many Republican clubs at HBCUs are active. However, two of the oldest and most prestigious — the ones at Morehouse and Howard — are not. (One can gather what that suggests about other HBCUs.) But if the CRNC’s rules were less strict, and the CRNC offered an apparatus that allowed them fold their membership into one big, national consortium of HBCUs, could it change the trajectory of the party’s black outreach?

Many students are already engaging with other black Republicans informally, but there is a lot HBCU students miss out on. As an official chapter, students have access to statewide candidates under the banner of the state federation with each federation reporting to the RNC. Under the state federation chapters receive supply kits to promote their group and recruit other students.

Hurley, the CRNC official, said there hasn’t been any talk of consolidating HBCUs into one chapter. “We don’t typically separate out any chapters and encourage on a state by state basis for our state chairs to grow as widely as possible among all types of universities [and] colleges. Of course, we’d love to see more growth with our HBCU chapters and are very happy with the progress we’ve made.”

The national conversation sparked by the high-profile deaths of young, black and unarmed men at the hands of the police has spurred an entire protest movement — and coincided with a Republican rebrand that is built, in part, on stepping up its outreach to black Americans. The ongoing political implications of the deaths, and the protesters’ response, have come into sharp focus as a bipartisan coalition has committed to trying to fix the problems in the criminal justice system. Prominent black Republicans like Michael Steele, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott (who has introduced legislation for body-worn cameras for police) and Colin Powell have all spoken out publicly against black Americans being treated unfairly.

The HBCU apparatus could offer the kind of leadership building and networking already carried out informally in the insular network of HBCU students. It could also serve as an influential, race-conscious wing of the party, which suffers now, HBCU students say, from too many prominent voices speaking down, at and past, black people in America.

Eugene Craig, a Bowie State University student and 3rd vice chair of the Maryland Republican Party, said his message to Republicans who ask him how to reach communities of color is simple: You figure out what issue matters most to them, provide the solution and sell it. For black people, he suggested that issue is criminal justice and the relationship between law enforcement and people of color.

“The [problem] is that some of the issues that are affecting the black community run counter to mainstream conservatism and people carrying this message are a solid block of the conservative movement. But the thing we have to ask, is simple: Is the movement living up to our principles and ideal of small government and liberty and justice for all?”

Among their peers and in professional circles, HBCU Republicans say their college choice afforded a racial currency that black Republicans who went to predominantly white institutions did not have. It’s difficult to have your blackness questioned when your degree says Howard, Spelman, Morehouse or Lincoln.

“You can't be a student at a place like Morehouse and not learn about Martin Luther King and the contributions of his generation to the civil rights movement,” Harold Booker, Jr. said. “College Republicans at HBCUs tend to be more fiscally conservative than socially, and we’re more racially and socially conscious.”

"The GOP has meant well by hiring folks to push the message in black and brown communities. But all of that has been undone in a few months.”

That social consciousness is what makes it clear to young Republicans affiliated with HBCUs as current students or graduates, that something is amiss, Booker said. “I think since the last election, GOP parties have meant well by hiring these folks to push the GOP message in black and brown communities,” he said. “But all of that work has been undone with presidential candidates in a few months.”

In a recent appearance on Face the Nation, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who once said he could draw black voters in a national election (he got 20% of the black vote in 2009) said Black Lives Matter is “calling for the murdering of police.”

Jeb Bush has brazenly repeated the “all lives matter” mantra. “How many black faces do you see? How are you going to include them and get them to vote for you?” In South Carolina, a state with eight HBCUs, Bush made an argument that you can win elections by doubling the black vote, which he said was 4-7% for the Republican candidate. He compared his party’s message of uplift with the Democratic party’s that “we’ll take care of you with free stuff.”

Even Ben Carson, the black former neurosurgeon and current Republican frontrunner, has blasted the movement, at one point calling the activists “bullies.” For all of his status as an icon of black achievement, even if he is nominated, few expect that Carson can make much of a dent in the black vote.

Craig, of Bowie State, said one of the biggest problems the party has as it relates to their black outreach, is that it thinks it knows what black voters want when “they really don’t have any clue." But as a party official, Craig said he preaches pragmatism when it comes to the issues that perplex young, progressive blacks about Republicans.

He said that he reconciles the schism between these young Republicans and the party elite first as a function of their life experience. As an example, he said if a white Republican had never been profiled or never seen the police treat a person badly, how could they then be expected to speak with authority about police violence in their communities?

Craig said he supports Rand Paul because he’s not afraid to talk about racial profiling to mostly white audiences — and some black ones. Paul has made a series of appearances at HBCUs, including an infamous visit to Howard in 2013. When asked by BuzzFeed News to comment on why the visits were important for Paul, his campaign for president said in a statement they were part of a focal point on his behalf to expand the GOP tent.

“This includes going to places such as college campuses such as UC Berkeley and Howard University, urban areas such as Detroit and Chicago and even Silicon Valley in California,” Sergio Gor, Paul’s spokesperson said in an email. “His message of criminal justice reform, creating employment opportunities and personal liberty are also strong themes which resonate at HBCUs.”

But aside from a select few Libertarians like Paul, Craig said it can be difficult for Republican surrogates to speak candidly about race.

In addition to being an influential voice on police brutality (citing the McKinney, Tex. pool incident, Craig once blasted conservatives who “tear down” black people who are clear victims of police misconduct) Craig started Ready for Kanye, who on national TV said that the Republican president of the United States did not care about black people.

In that sense, HBCU Republicans and Kanye West have more in common than most black voters might think they do, said Craig, who’s had his own run-ins with Bowie State’s administration.

“I don’t know one young, black Republican that would agree with that,” Craig said of the George Zimmerman verdict. “From the party infrastructure, to leaders, [Young Republican] chairs, [College Republican] chairs, to folks that work on the Hill. I don’t know one.”

When Booker arrived at Morehouse full of energy and ready to assert his political identity, the Republican club was not recognized in an official capacity by the CRNC. Nor was it meeting regularly. “I decided I wanted to change that,” he said. “So I partnered with the county and state party to get the group re-chartered on campus. Unfortunately there are a lack of faculty at HBCUs interested in advising such groups. There is also a lack of a pipeline of black conservative leaders.”

The result, for the duration of his college career, was instability. “We may have a faculty advisor one year, the next year maybe not. Plus, many of the guys I looked up to all graduated the same year.

Booker said they were affiliated with the Georgia state Republican party, but the real hurdle came when the group tried to be recognized by Morehouse administration (Morehouse did not reply to a request for comment). Now as an alumnus, he sees missed opportunities to have built an a stronger organization, even as Republican VIPs like Tim Scott, David Perdue, Alveda King and fellow alumnus Herman Cain have all stopped by.

The CRNC’s rules explicitly state that colleges need to have enough members to launch a five-member executive board: a chair, vice-chair, treasurer, secretary, executive director and a recruitment director. The clubs, meanwhile, need to have a minimum of 25 people to apply for membership with the CRNC. The club then needs a faculty member to “sponsor and advise” the club, make contact with its area College Republican Federation Chairman — all while getting support of school administration, which at HBCUs, current and former students say, can be draconian in its approach to student leadership of the emerging sort.

“I think HBCU chapters of College Republicans will continue to suffer as long as the GOP doesn’t reach African-American voters.” 

“I think HBCU chapters of College Republicans will continue to suffer as long as the GOP doesn’t reach African-American voters,” he said. “HBCUs are a reflection of black communities from across the United States.”

Bethune-Cookman, the Florida school whose Republican club is close to being officially established, according to the CRNC, has undergone similar stops and starts — but without having ever officially launched. The effort is being led by Kristal Quarker Hartsfield, the RNC’s national director of African-American initiatives, and Tony Ledbetter, the chair of the Volusia County Republican Party. Together, they have been trying to get the chapter at Bethune-Cookman started for at least two years, Ledbetter said in a phone interview with BuzzFeed News.

“It’s taken a couple of years, because the school years come and go,” he said. When asked what the holdup was, he demurred. “The school is wanting to have it, and we’re close.”

But when pressed about the matter Ledbetter said the process could have been finalized, but it was up to a school administrator to sign the paperwork. Donielle Cyprian, Bethune-Cookman's director of student engagement and student activities board did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

He declined to name the official. However, he did recount a story from about a year ago when the same school official asked Ledbetter’s young Republican charges a question: “Why are you a Republican?” Ledbetter said the students couldn’t answer the question to the administrator’s satisfaction. And so there was no signature.

That’s all changed now, Ledbetter said. “A year ago when that question was asked of those three students, they were not as enthusiastic as they are now,” Ledbetter said. “But we’ve got five guys now who will begin very soon. They are solid Republicans now and they are very much wanting to move this thing forward.”

Ledbetter declined to share the names of the students and declined to share their contact information for an interview. But in a Facebook post, Michael Cantu, a local Republican and candidate for the Florida House of Representatives, posted a picture of three black students with Florida Gov. Rick Scott, identifying them as Korey Harris, Mykel Wyyet and Antonio Rawls, organizers of the first Bethune-Cookman Republican club at a school gala.

Scott was given an award despite protest from some alumni. “This great institution of higher learning has chosen to commit such an atrocity as honoring a man that has done quite the opposite for the poor, minority and disenfranchised of our state,” read a petition by a 2009 alumnus named Jasmine Burney. “As a premier historical Black College and University of Florida the institution should be embarrassed by this decision to celebrate a man with such a record.”

Ledbetter said the political climate at Bethune-Cookman was such that the students needed to be ready to defend Scott, and conservative values of the party. “We can’t start this until these kids were ready on that campus to go from the frying pan into the fire,” he said. “I told them, “Don’t you know that your friends are going to question you and ask why you’re doing this? And I said ‘You’d better be prepared to give an answer.”

Messages to the students through other channels went unreturned. But at least one of the students was in recent weeks trotted out by Cantu as evidence the party is having success reaching out to blacks at the local level. (The incumbent, Cantu’s opponent, is also black).

“We're doing great numbers over at Bethune-Cookman University,” Rawls, introduced by Cantu as the vice president of the school’s Republican club, said in a short appeal to an audience for support. A video of it was captured and posted on the Facebook page of the Volusia County Republicans.

“But I would first and foremost like to say none of this is able to happen without the Cantu family and their support.”

The case for the Republican party to allow HBCUs to form a single chapter is rooted, perhaps in spirit only, in history that reaches back to the 1960s, depicted in great detail by Harvard historian Leah Wright Rigueur in her book The Loneliness of the Black Republican.

Black Republicans have a long history of organizing among themselves in party ranks criticized racial discrimination by Republicans while simultaneously trying to sell the GOP to black voters. The National Negro Republican Assembly (NNRA) was perhaps the most radical of these groups; so dedicated were they to opposing racial inequality, the NNRA walked out of the nominating fete of Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, Rigueur writes.

To the NNRA, Goldwater was a bigot whose opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the most significant racial issue of the early 1960s, made him unfit to be president.

“Thus, when viewed within the context of the Republican Party, the NNRA's platform was indeed militant,” Rigueur writes. “The organization’s vocal support for civil rights and racial equality, combative posturing on its demands, unwillingness to let white Republicans influence assembly affairs, rigid intolerance for the Goldwater faction of the party, and impatience with the slow pace of change within the GOP— all of these characteristics identified the NNRA as a militant black Republican organization.

Rigueur said that HBCUs have long been fertile ground for conservative activity; she noted that in the late 1960s, Bob Brown, a special assistant to President Richard Nixon, proposed giving increased federal funding to HBCUs.

The experiences of HBCU students “are often times incredibly important and go missed in the national conversation,” Scott said by phone, adding that the Nixon administration figured the country only stood to benefit from the talent pool in HBCUs “once it was engaged with the political process and in a philosophical discussion on who we are as Americans. Brown thought, ‘We all benefit from that extra brain power.

Rigeur said that’s no different from today. “We have some dynamic individuals on college campuses, specifically at HBCUs, that have amazing ideas. Getting their thought process woven into the decision-making process on the national level only benefits the country,” she said.

The students at HBCUs are in a unique position — to both be valuable spokespeople for the party at the state and local level, while relating to voters and serving as a counterbalance to messaging at the national level the student readily admit can be damaging to the reputation of the party among blacks.

Could an arm of, say, the CRNC, the power to challenge and have dialogue with party leadership be effective? Could champions of both black people and conservative values lend the party credibility that might lead to a higher percentage of black Republican voters in elections it so desperately wants to win?

Of late, the Republicans have tried to earn this credibility by touting the political successes of its black officials at the federal level: Reps. Will Hurd and Mia Love, and Senator Tim Scott. (Watson, the RNC spokesperson, sent national press a reminder about Evans’ appearance and speech at Tuskegee. A message to the Utah Republicans for an interview went unreturned.)

For his part, Scott told BuzzFeed News that he sees his role for HBCUs as that of a facilitator. “I feel like my primary role is just to have a conversation about the future of this country and what role folks can play,” Scott said. “It’s not necessarily to push the conservative mandate on campuses. My goal is not to draw conclusions on behalf of others but to help people see that there are choices out there, and if we are to succeed at the highest level possible we are going to have to be integrated into the overall political structure in both parties.”

Ja’Ron Smith, the director of external affairs at Koch-sponsored Generation Opportunity, was chair of the Howard University Republican club as a student. Among other millennial issues, Smith works on criminal justice.

In early 2012, Smith — then the president of the Black Republican Congressional Staff Association — became one of the principal organizers behind Hoodies on the Hill, a rally of congressional staffers for Trayvon Martin. “We wanted to show a united front that this this kind of thing affects people despite of their political background, and citizens should have certain basic rights and be respected,” he said.

It happened nearly four years ago, but people still bring up the impact the memorial — which predates the establishment of the Black Lives Matter movement — had on the Hill.

Smith who still marvels at the attention the rally received in media and in Washington, said it was the leadership he cultivated at Howard through the Republican club that brought him to that moment. “The relentless pursuit of truth is in Howard’s DNA,” said Smith. “And that legacy is what made me intensely curious at that time. That pursuit is what made me question what I had been taught politically and brought me to be right of center politically.”

“It’s a lot to take on because people have these negative views that you’re a turncoat.” 

“It’s a lot to take on because people have these negative views that you’re a turncoat,” Smith said recently over coffee in northern Virginia. Smith, who is 33 with a smile that reveals a neat row of teeth, became a Republican in a place that is particularly unlikely: On the campus of Howard University. “Some people wanted to talk to us because they wanted to understand other people’s perspectives. But others want to attack you no matter what and don’t really want to have a conversation.”

The Republicans do. RNC Chair Reince Priebus went to Ohio for the occasion of launching the Republican club at Central State. “While the media often likes to report that the Republican Party doesn’t traditionally do well with earning the support of young people and black voters, College Republican chapter launches at HBCUs paint a different picture of the future,” Priebus wrote in an op-ed for HBCU Buzz.

The party has put resources into the outreach; this year, the GOP introduced Committed to Community, a media campaign on Radio One stations in select Ohio markets that tells listeners where they can go to hear more about Republicans.

But Craig said Republicans need to speak authoritatively on issues blacks care most about. Take the way disparities in the way the justice system is applied, for instance, Craig said.

“Republicans should seize this opportunity to engage minority communities on this issue and make a strong argument for smaller government, but it will require an empathetic understanding of the cultural differences to bridge that gap. That’s where HBCU Republicans have a lot to offer to the party.

“But it’s a matter of if the party is willing to put that hand out and say, “We’re going to listen to you so that we can learn from you.”

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