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Black Republicans: Grand Old Pawns

Clay Cane author of The Grift
Clay Cane photo by Boom Bailey

Trump-era Black Republicans aren't truly conservative, they're just cons, claims gay writer Clay Cane in his new bestselling book.


Like the idea of LGBTQ+ Republicans, the concept of Black Republicans is hard to fathom. The party of Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis is hostile to affirmative action, reparations, and, perhaps most egregiously, the teaching of America’s long history of enslavement, exploitation, segregation, and casual racism. So, how does one square the idea of prominent Black Republicans like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and South Carolina senator (and former presidential candidate) Tim Scott? To gay journalist and documentarian Clay Cane, people like Thomas and Scott are simply scam artists, selling-out their communities for power. In his new book, The Grift: The Downward Spiral of Black Republicans from the Party of Lincoln to the Cult of Trump, Cane explores how Black Republicans devolved from revolutionaries like Frederick Douglass to the current puppets of Trump. In between wowing the women of The View and seeing his book hit The New York Times bestseller list, Cane answered our questions.

Tell us about the impetus for the book and the process of researching and writing it.
I have been disgusted by how the Republican Party mangles our history with, "Frederick Douglass was a Republican" and "Lincoln freed the slaves!" I wanted to showcase how the original Black Republicans in the 19th century were the first progressives. They are rolling in their graves at the GOP of today. How did we go from the revolutionary spirit of Frederick Douglass to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas? Not even going that far back, how did the GOP go from figures like General Colin Powell, who I didn't agree with politically but he wasn't a grifter or a con artist, to Herschel Walker? It's turned into a full blown, perform for pay or power grift, which has a legislative impact on all communities, but especially marginalized communities.

You write how “the grift” of modern Black Republicans began before Trump took hold of the party. When did the shift — from wanting to uplift their brothers and sisters to exploiting the party’s racism and division — really begin to take hold?
The grift existed long before Trump. You saw versions of it even in the 19th century, people who got a little taste of power and made disappointing decisions, but obviously you give grace to people from that time. However, it got more insidious as the GOP went full force into the 1960s southern strategy, a political maneuver aimed at exploiting racial divisions to secure electoral victories, and needed Black people to provide racial cover. Some were willing to play the role. It's similar to the "ex-gay" movement, which we all know has resulted in massive profit for these hacks who I would also say are grifters. For years, the GOP has gleefully funded grifter movements as long as it pushes their anti-human agenda. After years of despicable policies, the Republican Party has created this mess and pushed out credible politicians who are Black, queer, or outside of the monolith of the party. There are grifters in every community. This book goes beyond Black and white, Republican and Democrat, it's the dangerous lengths people will go for access power, even if it means harming their own community.

Have Trump-supporting celebrities like Lil Wayne and Kanye West had a significant influence on how Black Americans view Trump and Republicans?
I don't think it has been a significant influence; they have mainly become a laughingstock. However, as I have said, some celebrities have realized propaganda is profitable and being contrarian can get you a headline on Fox News. Any little bit of spreading misinformation hurts. My primary concern is how their uninformed rhetoric affects non-voters. I hope this book wakes people up, particularly non-voters, which is the biggest voting bloc.

Let’s talk about Justice Clarence Thomas. What do you think his judicial and political philosophy is at this point?
Waging war on marginalized communities then claims he is an "independent thinker." Supreme Justice Clarence Thomas is a watershed moment in the Black Republican grift. Before him, they were Black Republicans, who I may not have agreed with politically, but they weren't delving into anti-Blackness like he was. Thomas is against affirmative action, a policy created by a Black Republican named Arthur Fletcher, but is on record saying affirmative action changed his life. Whether it's voting rights or even the wrongfully convicted or publicly shaming his own sister for being on welfare, Thomas has been coined the anti-Thurgood Marshall, the justice he replaced. It has been a massive bonanza for him; he is supported by right-wing organizations, which is well-reported now. In 1991, John Wilks, a Black Republican who served in the Nixon and Ford administrations in sub-cabinet roles, said it best, “They merely say they’re conservative, say they’re opposed to affirmative action and are immediately picked up by a right-wing white sponsor, such as the Hoover Institution, Heritage Foundation, and American Enterprise Institute, groups not known for their sensitivity to Black issues. That’s the main shortcoming of these new Black conservatives.” That was over 30 years ago, and the Black Republicans of today are following Thomas’s lead. If you don't toe that line, you will be pushed out like former RNC Chair Michael Steele or General Colin Powell.

And onto newly-wed Sen. Tim Scott. You see him as potentially more dangerous than Mike Pence — why?
Senator Scott is foaming at the mouth to be the vice presidential pick [of Trump]. However, I extend my best wishes to him and his fiancée Mindy. Personally, I don't subscribe to the notion of policing people's private lives, a practice that he and Senator Lindsey Graham seem to endorse.

I believe Trump is looking for undying loyalty, the loyalty that Mike Pence, who I am no fan of, did not show when he wanted the 2020 election overturned. But Scott provides a particular role for the GOP base — if a Black man says there isn't a voting rights issue, then there isn't. If a Black man says there isn't systemic racism, then there isn't. If a Black man guts the George Floyd Policing Act, then it's not problematic. Again, he provides racial cover. Just like Rosa Parks tried to ring the alarm about Clarence Thomas many years ago, Scott should not be ignored. There is also another name, Mark Robinson, who is running for governor of North Carolina and is currently the lieutenant governor. He had no political experience; he was a factory worker who went viral for insulting Michelle Obama and the movie The Black Panther. Fox News put him on TV and he won a statewide election. The Black Republican grift is on the rise and the GOP is recruiting them. It's important we call them out.

I imagine there is a parallel between Black Republicans and LGBTQ+ Republicans; can you elaborate on the ways they’re similar and different?
As I mentioned, the “ex-gay” movement, which was hugely profitable. But also, during the early days of the HIV epidemic, there were closeted gay people in government doing nothing or pushing for dangerous policies while their friends, or even sometimes partners, died. Thankfully, there were activists who exposed them. In the intro, I also discuss Black gay men suddenly making the transformation to becoming a Republican.

What's interesting is when the grifters get their wake-up call, and they want to come back home only when they are impacted by the GOP's bigotry. Remember all the apologies from the “ex-gay” movement? This book serves as an act of resistance against those who would betray their own community for the sake of proximity to power. You have to call out extremism before it takes over.

The Grift is available now. Watch Cane discuss his book on The View below.

Author Clay Cane Traces Roots of Black Republicans to Modern Day in 'The Grift' | The

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Neal Broverman

Neal Broverman is the Editorial Director, Print of Pride Media, publishers of The Advocate, Out, Out Traveler, and Plus, spending more than 20 years in journalism. He indulges his interest in transportation and urban planning with regular contributions to Los Angeles magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times and USA Today. He lives in the City of Angels with his husband, children, and their chiweenie.
Neal Broverman is the Editorial Director, Print of Pride Media, publishers of The Advocate, Out, Out Traveler, and Plus, spending more than 20 years in journalism. He indulges his interest in transportation and urban planning with regular contributions to Los Angeles magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times and USA Today. He lives in the City of Angels with his husband, children, and their chiweenie.