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Virginia’s new lieutenant governor is a Black Republican woman. That identity is more common than you may think.

Winsome Sears represents a persistent minority viewpoint in Black politics.

- January 21, 2022

On Saturday, Winsome Earle-Sears, a Black Republican woman, took the oath of office to become Virginia’s 42nd lieutenant governor. She is Virginia’s first female lieutenant governor and the first immigrant to win statewide office in Virginia. But being Black and Republican is what’s gotten a lot of attention — even though that’s not as unusual as many believe.

Sears is actually Virginia’s third Black lieutenant governor, and she succeeds another Black lieutenant governor. Boyd Rutherford and Mark Robinson are also Black Republican lieutenant governors, serving in Maryland and North Carolina, respectively. And Black Republican women — Jenean Hampton, Jennette Bradley and Jennifer Carroll — have held the office in Kentucky, Ohio and Florida.

Because African Americans are the most loyal Democratic voting bloc in the United States, some view Sears and her contemporaries as unicorns in the Black body politic. It’s true that about 90 percent of Black Americans have voted Democratic since the mid-1960s, and that few self-identified conservative Black Americans embrace a Republican party identification. But that doesn’t meant that Black Republicans are nonexistent or unimportant.

One of the things that makes the story of Black Republicans so interesting is their attitudes about race. Black Republicans acknowledge racial difference and historical racism, but they propose different approaches to address current racism. This not only distinguishes them from their Democratic counterparts, but also helps us understand whether and how these officials shape the agenda on racial issues when their party is in power.

Martin Luther King Jr. was right. Racism and opposition to democracy are linked, our research finds.

Black politics has always been more diverse than assumed

Michael Dawson noted in his 2001 book, “Black Visions,” that conservatism was one of the many ideological strains that inform American Black political thought. About 30 percent of Black Americans identify as ideological conservatives. But as Tasha Philpot notes in “Conservative but Not Republican,” Black and White conservatism focus on different things. Using survey data and content analysis of Black and mainstream newspapers over the second half of the 20th century, Philpot finds that Black conservatism focuses on social welfare and religion, while White conservatism also focuses on morality and the role of government.

Philpot argues that this different understanding of conservatism, along with high levels of racial group consciousness, explains why few Black conservatives are willing to identify as Republican.

Still, Donald Trump won a larger share of the Black vote in 2020 than he had in 2016. While researchers are still examining why, some Black people may have been drawn to Trump because of his appeals to Black capitalism, or promises to support Black entrepreneurship and economic development — a tactic Richard Nixon used more than 50 years ago.

And we cannot ignore gender, either. Since 1972 — with the exceptions of 2004 and 2008 — the percentage of Black men voting Democratic in presidential elections has been 6 to 12 points lower than it has been among Black women.

Meanwhile, at least one Black Republican lawmaker has been serving in Congress for more than a decade. And since the 1965 Voting Rights Act first passed, Black Republicans have been elected at least once to more than a dozen state legislatures.

How I did my research

After Sears’s election, I wanted to understand Black Republicans’ views on race. To do so, I looked at the political memoirs of the current and former Black Republican members of Congress who have held office within the past three years to discern how they reconcile their racial identity with their partisan identity. Their writings reflect a heterogeneity that helps us understand their policy commitments, campaign strategies and alliances within the Republican Party.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah) are unapologetic Black capitalists, and their books reflect their commitments to opportunity and entrepreneurship. Owens notes that one of his political goals is “the resurrection of the once self-sufficient and proud black community that I grew up in.” The title of his book, “Liberalism: Or How to Turn Good Men into Whiners, Weenies and Wimps,” also evinces a concern with promoting strong Black manhood through conservative politics.

Scott accentuates the importance of interracial dialogue. In his book, he describes how his early childhood experiences on a diverse military base taught him to not insulate himself within the Black community.

Former representative Will Hurd’s (R-Tex.) forthcoming memoir presents a different type of racial engagement. There, he recounts attending a Black Lives Matter protest in the summer of 2020. He saw no contradiction in registering support for the George Floyd protests while opposing “defund the police” proposals, writing, “It’s okay to say the words Black Lives Matter and agree with the concept while disagreeing with some of the tactics by the organization with the same name.”

Despite the differences in how these Republicans engage with Black issues and communities, they all clearly expressed a sense of optimism about Black progress. It is likely this optimism that distinguishes Black Democrats and Republicans and explains why Black Republican legislators take different positions than those of their Democratic counterparts on issues related to systemic racism, as was on display during this week’s Senate debate on voting rights.

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Sears echoes those themes

Sears, a practicing evangelical, drew upon that racial optimism and embrace of capitalism — with a dash of individualism — in her victory speech, when she said, “We [Black people] can live where we want. We can eat where we want. We own the water fountains. We have had a Black president elected not once, but twice. And here I am, living proof.”

During her campaign, Sears had been criticized for a campaign photo of her carrying an AR-15 rifle. She defended that photo to a Norfolk news station, explaining that “it shows women as powerful. I’m familiar with this gun. I’m a Marine.” Such a statement is consistent with the muscular conservatism Owens expressed in his memoir and with the brawny political evangelicalism that historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez describes in “Jesus and John Wayne.”

So, while successful Black Republicans like Winsome Sears may be few, they aren’t going anywhere. And they are in a position to affect our policy discourse in profound ways.

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Andra Gillespie (@AndraGillespie) is an associate professor of political science at Emory University and author most recently of “Race and the Obama Administration: Substance, Symbols and Hope” (Manchester University Press, 2019).