Sensible Black Republicans were once thought to be a potential firewall for the party to prevent it from descending into MAGA paranoia, anti-woke hysteria, and conspiracy theory madness. They’ve often demonstrated an ability to look away from the action that would make Magic Johnson envious.
Many of them stared in the opposite direction as the fight over “Critical Race Theory” was happening and states attempted to ban it, even from higher education. They were mostly silent as Black professors, teachers, and librarians looked for allies to help protect their academic freedoms.
However, when the Florida Board of Education released its K-12 social studies curriculum, which includes an “African American History Strand,” some prominent Black Republicans finally found a voice. The Florida curriculum states that “slaves developed skills, which in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), a GOP presidential candidate whose personal story is about how his family went from “cotton to Congress,” told an audience that slavery had “no silver lining” while discussing the brutality of the institution in more detail. Scott then stated that he hoped a presidential candidate “could appreciate that,” taking a light jab at his GOP primary rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Former Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX), another GOP presidential candidate, was even more forceful in his rebuke when he stated, “slavery was not a jobs program” and that “anyone implying that there was an upside to slavery is insane.”
MAGA favorite Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL) gave perhaps the softest rebuke of all, essentially asking for an adjustment to the curriculum. And yet, DeSantis still attacked him viciously by accusing him of standing with Vice President Kamala Harris over the state of Florida. DeSantis referred to the other dissenters as “D.C. Republicans” who “accept false narratives.” The governor has stood by the curriculum, despite the fact that many people have pointed out it makes the despicable institution of slavery seem like an unpaid college internship.
“Lead Belly warned Black people when traveling through the south to ‘stay woke’ or be aware of the very real threat of racial violence and terrorism.”
DeSantis has fashioned himself the ultimate anti-woke crusader, a movement which claims to be all about a return to “normalcy.” But its true motivation runs deeper than that. It is about silencing dissent—even from future generations.
In education, anti-wokeism is indoctrination—often by omission. It’s banning books about historical figures like Ruby Bridges, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks because they dare to mention racism. Black Republicans, for the most part, sat idly by as these restrictions were instituted.
Republicans have built a movement against “wokeness,” an amorphous term that seems to cover any cultural phenomenon they don’t approve of. But the word “woke” actually dates back to at least 1938, when legendary blues musician Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter sang the phrase in his song, “Scottsboro Boys,” about nine Black youths who were falsely accused of sexually assaulting two white women. (Lead Belly warned Black people when traveling through the south to “stay woke” or be aware of the very real threat of racial violence and terrorism.)
Black communities have continued to use the phrase in the near-century since, with moderate frequency, to represent a mindset of staying aware of injustices—both overt and covert.
However, the modern political right is using a linguistic weapon it has deployed since at least the Nixon era. When terms are problematic for their objectives or worldview, they simply redefine them. Woke was colonized from Black movements for social justice and made to symbolize anything supposedly absurd that is done in the name of political correctness. In other words, it is fundamentally anti-Black to use the word woke to mean something other than what the creators of the word meant for it to signify.
After the Civil Rights Movement, Black people largely aligned with the Democratic Party. The GOP’s 1964 presidential nominee, Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Southern Jim Crow Democrats began to leave the party, first as Dixiecrats, and later as standard issue Republicans.
Meanwhile, the first Black mayor of a major U.S. city, the first Black woman to run for the presidency from a major party, and the first Black governor were all Democrats. Edward Brooke, the first Black U.S. Senator out of Massachusetts was a Republican, but criticized the nomination of Goldwater and often butted heads with members of his party as they shifted.
Nixon, however, was able to convince some Black voters to stay with the Republican Party. He pushed the concept of Black capitalism to upwardly mobile African Americans. He co-opted the language of the Black Power movement to posit Black capitalism as the alternative to protest.
Behind the scenes, he promised southern Republicans he would “lay off pro-Negro” policies. Nixon’s White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman once said “the whole problem is really the Blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this without appearing to.” His domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman said that the Nixon administration viewed Blacks as their “enemies” and looked to “break up their meetings,” “arrest their leaders,” and “vilify them night after night on the evening news.”
Yet, some Black Republicans made the Faustian bargain. For the next several decades, many Black Republicans were among the party’s most talented representatives, from former Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice to former RNC head Michael Steele.
Many Black Republicans of Sen. Edward Brooke’s ilk either left the party or became further marginalized following the MAGA takeover of the GOP. The ones who remain are quickly learning that today’s anti-woke Republican Party doesn’t want their input. It demands their submission and obedience.
DeSantis has drawn a line in the sand for Black Republicans, like his fellow Floridian Byron Donalds. He stated “at the end of the day you’ve got to choose.” The choice they are being presented with is between their community and ancestors or with the modern anti-woke Republican Party.