When I did more on-the-ground reporting, I was assigned to go to a Durham town hall leading up to the N.C. General Assembly’s drawing of new electoral maps. Republicans billed the meetings, with a stop in each of the state’s congressional districts, as a listening tour of sorts. I remember as I listened to progressive activist after activist get up to harangue the legislators for the maps they hadn’t even drawn yet, a black pastor stood up and gave a different message.
He said something to the effect of, “At my congregation, there are many like me, and most of us are ready to come your way if you would just quit it with the racism.”
Now I personally don’t believe Republican legislators were motivated by racism as they drew districts in recent years, but it was a very believable story to the pastor. He seemed to be saying that people in his congregation largely agreed with Republicans on the issues (which polling shows is the case on many things, like the Parents’ Bill of Rights, School Choice, etc), but they won’t join them politically because they feel there is a lack of respect.
The National Anthem
That memory came to mind after seeing the reaction among some conservatives to the playing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” sometimes called the “Black National Anthem,” at the Super Bowl. The song wasn’t introduced as the Black National Anthem, and the lyrics are basically just a Christian hymn praising God for bringing them through their struggles. The song was written in 1900 by a black Floridian pastor in honor of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, so it is hardly an anti-American anthem. It also wasn’t the only other song performed beyond the usual Star Spangled Banner. They had other patriotic songs, like America the Beautiful.
In a league where about 70% of the players are black men (despite only being 6% of the population), you might think it would be an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of that group of fellow Americans during Black History Month. No such luck. The amount of disrespect shown online was pretty incredible.
Reps. Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene both panned it and called it “woke,” as did a number of conservative commentators, some saying including the song was “racist.” But just like many on the right, including myself, thought it was disrespectful when people would kneel or otherwise protest the National Anthem, we should be aware that taking a virtual knee to a patriotic song important to the black community will also be seen as disrespect.
And it isn’t just black liberals who felt disrespected. Black conservatives, who on many issues are allies of these same white conservatives, saw these responses and did not appreciate it. Kaladin Free, who describes himself as a Christian conservative Ron DeSantis supporter, debated some of those complaining about including the song. Later he added, “Y’all better get used to the growing of the tent because I’m gonna bring a lot of friends with me.”
Talking about American history
Kaladin is going to stay in the tent and demand respect, but other black Americans will probably react to seeing their history disrespected how the Durham pastor reacted, by assuming they are not welcome and staying away. Every conservative-leaning person should be careful when speaking on matters of race and history that they don’t unknowingly drive away potential friends and allies.
We could start by not dismissively throwing around the word “woke” every time race comes up. The word “woke,” before it was co-opted by white progressive activists, was used by black people in the Jim Crow South as a warning to stay alert to plots by those seeking to oppress them. Blues singer Lead Belly first used it in a 1938 song about the Scottsboro boys, nine young black men executed in Alabama on scanty evidence, telling listeners to “stay woke.” Conservatives afraid of big government taking away their rights should be able to see some common ground in the original use of the term, even if it has been twisted into an overused social justice cliche.
As much as conservatives have great reasons to love America and be proud of its traditions of liberty and human rights, it would be naive to think that’s how the U.S. government has always treated everyone.
The comedian Chris Rock once described these mixed feelings that many black Americans have towards Uncle Sam this way, “If you’re black, you got to look at America a little bit different. You got to look at America like the uncle who paid for you to go to college, but who molested you.”
Does that mean that America doesn’t stand for liberty and human rights? No, it just means that we haven’t always lived up to our principles, and some people were more on the receiving end of this hypocrisy than others. It’s disrespect to downplay this pain. People on the left try to leverage this pain to push equal outcomes for all, which they call “equity.” This would be a complete abandoning of the equality under the law and limited government principles that conservatives stand for. So we should fight those efforts. But that doesn’t mean we should downplay the real damage done to our fellow Americans.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen conservatives online point out that slavery has existed in every major civilization since the beginning of time until very recently. Of course that’s true, but it’s a cruel and irrelevant point when discussing specific pain inflicted by one people group on another. To return to Chris Rock’s analogy, it’d be like a nephew who didn’t get abused telling the one that did, “You do know that rape has actually existed in all human societies.” Yes, evil has always existed, but that doesn’t make it sting any less.
Democrats’ disrespect of rural voters
Just like Republicans have had trouble attracting black voters even when they share values, rural white voters have been abandoning the Democrats due to a similar perceived lack of respect. Democrats are traditionally the party of the rural South, labor voters, farmers, and the blue-collar working class in general, but many just can’t bring themselves to vote for a party ruled by cosmopolitan, wealthy, Ivy League elites who clearly look down their noses at them.
When a rural working-class voter turns on MSNBC or reads the New York Times, how do they see themselves portrayed? If they watch a Hollywood movie or watch The Daily Show, are they shown as hard-working people trying their best to get by or as stupid, bigoted, uneducated, poor hicks? We’ve all seen the jokes, where a wealthy progressive says something about “fly-over country” and how they are toothless or marry their sisters.
That is disrespect. And if the left wanted to hold onto these voters, they probably should have kept those jokes to themselves. There was shock in 2016 when Donald Trump appealed directly to some of the issues rural voters were concerned about (illegal immigration, trade deals, the opioid crisis, manufacturing jobs) and won the rural vote 3-1 over Hillary Clinton. Union Democrat strongholds like western Pennsylvania seemed to flip completely overnight, with Trump winning rural Pennsylvania 71-26.
Respect — whether of people’s struggles, stories, songs, or history — is the first step to building the trust needed for political alliances, and without it, even broad agreement on issues probably won’t be enough.