In any electoral contest, it’s gratifying for a candidate to learn that his opponents are worried about him. James Evans’ ego must have experienced an adrenaline shot recently. A few months have passed since Evans threw his hat in as a challenger to state Sen. Alicia Suazo. When she abruptly abandoned a planned reelection campaign, people were worried. Behind all the uproar over the ethics of the spontaneous designation of her heir apparent, Democratic activists—mindful of their domination of the West Side Salt Lake City district for years—felt like something could be slipping away.
Robert Gallegos, one of those activists, put it plainly. “We got to beat this guy Evans. If we don’t make sure we have a strong candidate running against him, we’re going to be in trouble.”
Ever aware of residents’ loyalty to the Democratic Party, Gallegos was still worried—but he was also confused. This political opponent seemed to pose a special challenge. Evans isn’t your typical conservative, white, Mormon Republican. Evans is a conservative, black, Baptist Republican.
And that combination of characteristics confused Gallegos. “Sometimes I just want to go up to him and shake him and say: ‘Man, don’t you know you’re black?’”
Evans knows he’s black. It’s not exactly something the man could ignore. But Gallegos’ surprise may be just as understandable as it is condescending. Like a growing number of politically active blacks in Utah, Evans is bucking the stereotype that people of color are some kind of loyal liberal legion. If you are a minority, Evans says, people assume you are a Democrat. If you’re not, you could be akin to a traitor.
Evans called that assumption tragic. “When you look at countries that are essentially undemocratic, you find that the people are not free to express their opinions and beliefs. Unfortunately, you find that same situation in minority communities, where if you go against what the established belief is, then you are ostracized.”
Ostracized, but not wholly unsuccessful. Although an activist in the state Republican Party who counts among his supporters computer icon “Superdell” Schanze, Evans has yet to win an election. But in municipalities around the state, constituencies have elected three black conservatives. One of them has mounted a strong campaign to become the first person of color to represent Utah in Washington D.C. Following on the heels of a nationwide movement of blacks who feel more comfortable in the right wing, Democrats can no longer count on blacks for unwavering support.
These guys say it’s about time. “Anytime you shut down the competition of ideas, the community suffers. You want the best solution possible to any problem out there. The only way to get that is through a fierce competition of ideas. The established civil-rights leaders don’t want a stiff competition of ideas. They want you to accept their ideas and leave it at that. I would like to know who it was who determined which way we are supposed to think. I would like to meet him and challenge him,” Evans said.
Winston Wilkinson says he likes to look people straight in the eye. After so many years of practice, he says he knows right away if a person is hiding any hate, any misconceptions or any fear. As a young seaman in the Navy, Wilkinson was one of the first African Americans to be asked to serve in the White House honor guard. In 1965, as the freshly validated President Lyndon Johnson rode in his motorcade toward a formal inauguration, an officer told Wilkinson to pick up the Alabama flag and carry it in front of that state’s racist leader, Gov. George Wallace. Wilkinson said it was “kind of a kick” to walk proudly in front of Wallace, who for years had advocated the continued segregation of public institutions.
What wasn’t “kind of a kick” though was his first experience with outright discrimination. One night, Wilkinson ordered a meal in a diner with three or four Navy buddies all in their uniforms. After a minute, the waitress came back and told him the cook would agree to make the food but Wilkinson wouldn’t be allowed to eat it inside.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “It hadn’t dawned on me why she was saying that. Living in a black community all my life was almost like living in an incubator. Even when we talked about current events in school, they never made it clear what was really going on. I didn’t know how to react.”
He reacted in a big way. After the navy, Wilkinson earned a law degree. In the 1980s, he had a chance to serve the president again, this time as a bureaucrat in the Reagan Administration. In 1981, he converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and eventually moved his family to Utah. In 2000, voters gave him the nod to represent the south end of the Salt Lake Valley in the newly formed County Council. If he earns the blessing of Republicans in May’s State GOP Convention and a later primary, he will challenge the Democratic incumbent Rep. Jim Matheson in a more conservative 2nd Congressional District.
Wilkinson said that he has always been conservative. “My lifestyle, my upbringing, my values and principles were already set by my father. And they were always, I guess you could say, conservative. I was a Democrat for years but didn’t know why. I came to age at a time when there was a lot of government spending going on in a war against poverty. But I stepped back and saw that the handouts weren’t really teaching the black race self-help, self-determination. In the ’70s, I saw the Republican platform that talked explicitly about learning to do it yourself. I quickly migrated to that point of view.”
Pull yourself up by the bootstraps. It’s not an altogether unfamiliar slogan to Utahns. Wilkinson and others said it meant something more to blacks and it was an especially relevant theme: It is time to give up the blacks’ status as victims.
Tim Isom, the first black city councilman in the small Davis County town of Sunset, said that if people of color continue to think of themselves as victims, they will always face a certain form of segregation. “The so-called liberals continue to perpetuate the idea that everything has to do with race or discrimination. All it does is continually build walls between people. We will never have unity until we drop the attitude that once you’re a victim, you will always be a victim. We need to stop that and make sure that everyone takes control of their own destiny.”
They generally agree that although there may be isolated incidents of racism and discrimination in the community at large, the most active of black politicians should recognize that no longer do they need to spend so much time and effort on civil-rights issues. If they do spend a lot of time on it, they may do more damage than good.
Evans put the blame for such political irrelevance squarely on the shoulders of renowned civil-rights activists like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Stuck in a “time warp,” these leaders are holding people back, he said. “I found the biggest obstacle minorities face is their own self-doubt, which unfortunately is reinforced by these leaders—by them always saying how unfair society is and how there is always someone trying to hold you down. All this negativity handicaps minorities psychologically. Society has changed tremendously since the time when that message was relevant.”
But frustration with the victim identity is not limited to Republicans. Utah’s only black member of the Utah State Legislature is Democrat Duane Bourdeaux. He’s not a fan of the attitude either. “It is the mindset of a lot of people. I’m not going to say, ‘Poor me, I’m the victim of the color of my skin.’ We need to teach people to be resilient.” But not necessarily Republican, he added.
Bourdeaux says the media has burned an image into the public’s mind that black Democrats are “one-issue” candidates concerned only with civil-rights issues. And it may be because of that image that voters see prominent black conservatives as more diverse in their views.
Lee Walker is the CEO of a conservative black think tank in Chicago called the New Coalition for Economic and Social Change. Wherever he goes, he carries a picture with him of Clarence Thomas, the only black and decidedly one of the most conservative members of the U.S. Supreme Court. He says he can’t describe the “licking” he takes every time he tells somebody he’s friends with Thomas.
Only now have blacks begun to realize they aren’t obligated to a certain political orientation, said Walker. “Historically, black leadership normally went along with liberal white views. And even though they didn’t speak for the community, that was the image that came out in the media. Now we are starting to see the diversity.”
But it would be a mistake to think of it as a new phenomenon, Walker said. Advancing themselves toward equality has been an age-old dilemma with which African-American intellectualism has struggled for centuries. But conservatism among the black community has a historical precedent.
Walker had a specific historical figure in mind. And his counterparts in Utah know to whom he is referring. More than once, conservative blacks making their mark in Utah referred to an intellectual hero of African-American self-sufficiency: Booker T. Washington.
“You look to history,” Walker said. “And you take the best from it.”
Unlike the others, James Evans said he never had a doubt about his political affiliations. He never vacillated between the parties. Never had an epiphany while reading the platform of the Republican Party, never had to oppose the priorities of his parents. In college at Tuskegee University in Alabama, Evans and a group of his friends started a Republican club and helped raise support for Ronald Reagan.
Listing his political heroes, he names Reagan, George W. Bush, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Booker T. Washington. In 1881, Washington single-handedly started Tuskegee University as the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial school. Writing in Up From Slavery, his most famous work, Washington iterated the kind of conservative thinking that would put him at odds with other blacks—the same ideas that have put black conservatives in the 21st Century at odds with other blacks. “I believe it is the duty of the Negro to deport himself modestly in regard to political claims, depending upon the slow but sure influences that proceed from the possession of property, intelligence and high character for the full recognition of his political rights,” Washington wrote.
His brainchild, Tuskegee, evolved into a highly technical school. Accordingly, more than a century after Washington had set it up, Evans graduated from the institution with a degree in chemical engineering. Whether Washington was a cynical sellout or a sage, the revitalized conservative movement among blacks shows signs of a renaissance of Washington’s influence.
Along with a conspicuous reappearance of Washington’s ideology, though, is a reminder of the rancorous reactions he provoked. W.E.B. Du Bois was one of those who worried about what he called Washington’s “seeds of disaster.” He also helped found the NAACP with the idea that blacks needed more than just jobs. Du Bois wrote that there were three ways an oppressed people reacted to their environment. “[A] feeling of revolt and revenge; an attempt to adjust all thought and action to the will of the greater group; or finally, a determined effort at self-realization and self development.” According to Du Bois, Washington had chosen the second approach—“the old attitude of adjustment and submission.”
In modern parlance, that translates into being in the “hip-pocket” of the “establishment.” And it was this accusation that people like Winston Wilkinson said he faced from some in the black community when they learned of his political stance.
“I think it is unfair for some of the black Democrats to say, ‘Well, because you’re a Republican or because you’re a Mormon you can’t understand the needs of the black community.’ I came from the same roots they came from. I fought in the same battle they did. I don’t have blinders on that I can’t sit down and talk to people about the issues whether in the black community, white community or whatever,” he said.
Bourdeaux, the Democrat, said he knows that nobody is in the hip-pocket of anybody. But he still defends the Democratic approach. “With the government charging everybody taxes, we all have the right to sit down and find out what the best ways are for us to spend it. You can use the terrible terms like ‘handouts’ all you want, but some of us feel that if you invest into a person early and provide for a strong education, you will save money and have a better community in the future,” he said.
Jeanetta Williams, the president of the local branch of the NAACP, said most blacks in Utah vote Democratic. And those interested in running for office as Republicans have probably figured out the best way to be successful. “They feel like they must be conservative to win. That’s more or less what it is because of the state we live in.”
In November, George Garwood became the first black mayor elected to office in Utah. In January, he took over the administration of South Ogden City—population: a little more than 14,000. Shortly after his election, he was having a conversation with an organizer from the NAACP when he had the distinct impression that he needed to clarify something.
“It was some kind of discussion about affirmative action or something and at some point in the conversation I said: ‘Well, you obviously don’t know what my political views are.’ They asked me what I meant and I told them I was a Republican. They sat back in their chair as if they were really confused or something and said ‘How can you be a Republican?’” he said. “You hear that a lot from people.”
To explain why he heard that a lot, Karen Johnson, a professor of African-American studies at the University of Utah, said that blacks more or less switched their allegiance from the Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln’s, to the Democratic Party with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s. She disagreed with the idea that civil-rights leaders had lost their relevance in contemporary times. “I believe the biggest problem so-called minorities face is the interlocking forces of institutionalized oppression. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are individuals who have embarked on a number of struggles in an effort to battle against the forces of oppression and exploitation,” she said.
For James Evans, those leaders exemplify everything that is wrong with liberal intentions. Racism is quickly turning into a relic of the past, he said. Any problems that arise can easily be settled in a court, he believes. People should be judged now on their own particular choices. “A lot of minorities are getting advanced degrees in things like African-American studies or the social sciences. We Republicans are insisting that minorities go into subjects like math, science and economics to learn things that help you have an economic impact. We can’t blame The Man if we choose to go into African-American studies instead of chemistry and then complain that we’re not making as much money.”
But the conservatism isn’t just limited to economic policies. American free-market ideals joined with social conservative and religious-interest groups about the same time African Americans joined the Democrats. Garwood, Wilkinson and Isom—the Sunset city councilman—are all active members of the LDS church. For the Mormons, not only do they find themselves constantly defending their politics, but being LDS can strain that further.
Wilkinson said he didn’t know anything about the LDS church’s previous exclusion of blacks from leadership positions until well after his conversion to the church. When he learned that before 1978, the church did not allow blacks into the priesthood, he said, his “testament was too strong for it to matter.”
Regardless, he feels more at home among the Mormons in Utah than any other place. “They are very strict about their values and principles and they are not as liberal in their thinking and acceptance of deviation from the morals they believe in. If that is conservative, then that is what I want to be. There are certain values and principles that make up the core of who I am. I’m not willing to be flexible with that and I think Utahns like that.”
Evans likes it too. He said Utahns have struck a perfect balance. “The primary focus of any civilization that has been successful has been a strong commitment to God and to the family. When you stray from that, that is when you see a civilization dissolve.”
Evans expects a tough fight to win Suazo’s senate seat. Suazo took it over from her late husband Pete after his death. The district had been extremely loyal to the Democrat and especially his crusade for hate-crimes legislation to stiffen penalties for felons who commit crime with a message directed at any racial or minority group.
Bourdeaux represents the same neighborhood as Suazo in the Utah House of Representatives. He wholeheartedly supported the hate-crimes legislation. “When a person commits a hate crime, the victim is not just the individual directly involved. The crime is meant to hurt an entire population of people. It has a chilling effect on the entire community. That makes it a more serious crime.”
Evans doesn’t buy it. “Do I as a racial minority have a right to import my feelings into a crime that was committed against another racial minority?”
In 1997, Clarence Thomas wrote about the loneliness of the black conservative. “Those on the left smugly assume that blacks are monolithic and will by force of circumstances always huddle to the left of the political spectrum. The political right watches this herd mentality in action, concedes that blacks are monolithic, picks up a few dissidents and wistfully shrugs at the seemingly unbreakable hold of the liberal Left on black Americans.”
His friend in Chicago, Walker, said people just need to understand the definition of conservatism. “It is a belief and attitude based around principles that an individual should be able to achieve a middle-class lifestyle by being self-reliant, educated and hold in dear the importance of the family. Too many blacks are tricked into thinking that the white man is holding them back even though it is strongly agreed that we are living in a white world and it is no longer a setback to want to attain the same things, both material and moral.”