Q&A: Kevin J. Williams, Director of ‘Fear of a Black Republican’
Trenton, New Jersey-based film director Kevin Williams spent six years asking some simple questions: With so few African American Republicans in the U.S., does the Republican Party even want them? And what effect is that having on the inner city, in which most politicians are Democrats and, oftentimes, have little visionary competition from the right to make their metropolis a better place.
What Williams, a Republican, came up with was his new documentary film, Fear of a Black Republican. In addition to the current lack of African Americans in the Republican Party, Williams pieces together the history of African Americans, as it pertains to party affiliation and notes the changes between Reconstruction, when most African Americans were Republicans, and the Democratic politics of the mid-20th Century, when the shift to the Democratic Party came about and then solidified. We spoke with Williams about the film, which will hold its Philadelphia premier Thursday night at the Pearl in North Philadelphia.
What inspired you to make this film in the first place?
Essentially, my wife and I, when we bought our house in Trenton after we got married, we started getting more and more involved in local politics, staying civically active, going to city council meetings to express our concerns about issues. But things weren’t getting any better and we figured out that everyone from out City Council level all the way up, to our mayor, county commissioners, all that, to the state level, assembly, governor, congressperson, senator…the first Republican representative was President Bush. It really told us that something was askew where we were, and in most cities. And when we tried to find real Republicans – and we talk about that in the beginning of the film – when we tried to find some African-American Republicans where we lived, we couldn’t find any. The ones we did come across, they kind of kept their views to themselves. They didn’t want to talk about things in public or at city council meetings.
So, really just trying to improve things, we worked with Democrats all the time on different issues and campaigns but just to find out why our own party, those interested in the city and not the campaign, really motivated us to find some answers. Because in our minds not having a 2-party system really traps a city like Trenton, New Jersey and Philadelphia in the position that they’re in.
So, it sounds you would say the lack of competition between parties has led to more urban problems.
I would say so. There are such a lack of jobs. People are trying to move out of the cities as soon as possible, with the exception of a lot of these folks that are starting out. The Black middle class in particular has been leaving cities for decades now. We’ve seen that in Trenton where we live that once that started occurring, the political class, folks who might be very good leaders to lead our city, they have no reason to get involved in politics or be politically active with their community group, even.
Their goal was to get out of the city and move to the nearby suburbs. And without having at least a Republican party to make the Democrats work harder and come up with better ideas, maybe embrace some different ideas or even co-opt them. It’s like having two foxes in a fight. You know, Muhammad Ali wouldn’t have been Muhammad Ali unless he had a Joe Frazier to fight him.
This came from your local situation?
Well, actually what happens is, and we show this in the film, we start off very locally, in Trenton, New Jersey. But then we quickly realized, particularly from Maxine Waters, who’s a congresswoman from Los Angeles, she comes to Trenton to try to shore up the African American vote for Kerry vs. Bush and that establishes a national basis, because when we interview Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, particularly, we’re realizing right off the bat Trenton is the same as Atlanta, New Orleans, Washington, DC, Chicago, etcetera. And as we traveled the country throughout the film, we followed a Congressional race in the Atlanta area, we traveled to Philly in the movie, for Lynn Swann’s [2006 gubernatorial] campaign and what happened with that. We went to Washington, DC, Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans.
I think we give people a really strong sense of, it’s not just a local issue, where you live; this is going on all around the country…And both parties have been able to profit by the system that they created and maintained.
But it’s all about the suburbs, it’s not just about the cities. It’s all about the suburbs, because that’s where the checks come from; the donation checks. It’s also where a lot of the political power and decision-making takes place.
On that national note, I saw in your synopsis you note the time of the Great Depression changed this entire system in which African Americans kind of congregated to the Democratic Party from the Republican Party. Did your research find the New Deal was responsible for this?
Yeah, that was really the turning point to when the Black vote started going toward the Democratic Party. It was much more, what my research shows, on a personal basis with President Roosevelt and the community itself. It wasn’t necessarily about the Democratic Party. But what happened, particularly throughout the 20s, is that the Republican Party took that vote for granted, for sure. So, then when the Depression came about – it was one thing to live through the depression; to be Black through the depression was a-whole-nother level of hell. And all Roosevelt had to do, and he did this, was he put out little messages to show some interest, to show people he would at least do something.
And the results showed that. There was a lot of racism in the New Deal, in some of the different government programs. But it was better than what the Republicans were offering under Hoover. So, that’s partly what started it.
But what really turned the tide were 3 key events: in 1948, when President Truman integrated the military and that really was the first time, in 1948, where a majority of African Americans, 56 percent, identified themselves as Democrat rather than Republican. And you go 12 years later, to the election of President Kennedy. When he took office after Martin Luther King was arrested. [King] was actually friends with Vice President Nixon. They talked to each other, and when he got arrested, Nixon didn’t even travel to vie for him, for goodness sake for the independent celebration. He didn’t reach out, didn’t try to do much do anything to get him out of prison.
So then when Coretta Scott King got worried that [Martin Luther King was] going to be murdered, she actually reached out to the Kennedy Campaign. They were smart enough to reach back to try to get him out of prison. So then, by the time it gets to Goldwater in ’64, the major cracks are already there. Then Jackie Robinson…says, basically, anyone who would vote for Senator Goldwater would be an Uncle Tom in the community. And when he said that, that was just the final nail in the coffin.
When Goldwater votes against the Civil Rights Act in 1964, there’s hardly anyone who’s Black who is going to be voting for that candidate. And that is pretty much what occurs. By the time it gets to Nixon and the southern strategy, they’re already down to 8 percent identification with the Republican Party and there’s barely been any change since. But until Truman, they were considered Roosevelt voters, not true Democrats. Truman made them Democrats for the first time.
One thing you didn’t just mention there was Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. He infamously said after signing the Civil Rights Act that the Democrats had lost the South for a generation. There was a shift there from the Dixiecrat, quote unquote, to Republican statewide politicians, then, in the South. Would you say the New Deal or Great Society had a larger role in maintaining the Black vote for Democrats?
If you’re looking since the 60s, I would say the Great Society maintained the foothole, particularly with lower income folks. That quote is a very sympathetic quote but also, he said, later on when talking about the Great Society, that he would also have those [spells out] N-I-G-G-E-R-S voting for us for 100 years.
Regarding that, I’ve come across a lot of rhetoric from people on the right who maintain the Democrats sort of attempted to create a dependent class of African Americans through the New Deal and Great Society. In your research, did you found any evidence of this and did you find people who believe this to be true?
Yes, very much so. You can go through a lot of different comments, a lot of different material. One of the things that the Democratic Party will fight for is the ability to maintain the level of government assistance going, particularly to the African American community and the lower income communities. One of the effects, and it’s a very ugly effect of this, is it does maintain a voting block who is dependent on you delivering the goods or you bringing home the bacon or you making sure the checks go out every month. So, they have one interest, and their interest is to keep voting for you.
That’s the biggest problem [with the Republican Party], that the Republican Party doesn’t make outreach efforts. They never come into the community. So, when they’re accused of things like baiting the poor or being racist, they’re never in the room to say ‘no, we’re not and here’s the evidence of this. I’ll explain to you our policies and our party’s ideas and what we’re really trying to do.’
So, what’s been happening decade over decade, election to election, is the Democratic Party has gotten free reign to decide the agenda, decide the message and basically get it out in the city who for the most part decide who they’re going to vote for.
It’s almost a sin of omission by the Republican Party. They have not tried. They have this mantra, self-believing, self-fulfilling prophecy that they’ll never vote for us. But then they never have to try, never go out to prove that wrong by investing even minimal money and resources advertising on Black radio. If you have a Black Republican candidate, emphatically support him with money, resources and expertise. So, they can keep saying, ‘Well it’s not worth the effort, why should we go into West Philly?’ ‘Why should we go into North Philly?’ But until they’re forced to do that, the day is going to be coming very soon.
Tavis Smiley talks about this in the film: The changing demographics of the country. Either you come because you see the light or you come because you see the heat. You have to be the judge. You have to make the call.
[Republicans] are going to be forced to appeal to minorities and particularly people in the city, in urban areas, because the way demographics are changing and the way people are getting involved in politics, you have to go where people are. People aren’t congregating in rural areas. There’s folks in cities that are getting more and more sophisticated with social media and technology. The thing about both parties—and this is a hard thing for folks to comprehend—it’s not about skin color. There are racists in every segment of society, there are racists in both parties, [Deceased former West Virginia Senator] Robert Byrd for one [on the Democratic side]. You have people who make controversial comments like a Trent Lott.
At the end of the day both parties have a system that they’re maintaining because they don’t want to spend more money and expend more resources where they don’t have to. It’s all about the next election and it’s not about, particularly on the Republican side, building their party. And on the Democratic side, they’re about maintaining their core constituency, what they have. And until they’re forced to spend the money and resources in urban areas…
It’s like, someone described it to me as, ‘You know, if the Republican party came in [to the city], you would have the Democratic party pouring money, resources in. It would look like Omaha Beach on Day two. And they, for some reason, can’t be convinced to do it. And if they are, then I think it’s going to rapidly change our political system.
With the rise of the Internet and that having such a huge role in politics now, why do you think the Republicans have still failed to get that message across? They would have to invest many less resources than they would have, even 10 years ago.
Yeah, that’s exactly right, because as a matter of fact, in 2004 they only invested $2 million for the African American vote and that was when Bush ran against Kerry. So you can only imagine what the party spent in 2008 against President Obama.
So, what they could do with using the Internet, using social media, you don’t even have to pour a lot of money into television advertising. You still need street walkers and door knockers, you still need to do that anyway, because that shows you’re serious. But they wouldn’t need to spent anywhere near the amount of money you would need to spend ordinarily…
I suggest, I tell people, if you just spend $10 million—and that’s nothing in a billion dollar election—and went to Black media, Black radio, which in our society, media is so segmented along racial-social lines, they would have a huge payoff for it. By any measure, it would get the Democrats to defend their most reliable vote because we have had many people in the African American community come to our screenings. We actually have more Democrats at our screenings than Republicans, who want another option. They’re not happy with their party, they’re not happy that the other party isn’t giving them anything, and what we hear from many people, particularly under 40, is that the independent word is looking very attractive to them and more of them are considering doing it.
You noted before that the Republicans essentially took the Black vote for granted in the 1920s and lost it. Do you see a similar situation coming up now with the Democrats?
Very much so. That is one of the things, particularly when we did our research on what happened to the Republican Party. It was over this 50-60 year history between Reconstruction and the Depression. The Democrats are at that point now. It’s been 50, 60 years since the election of President Kennedy and the Great Society when they solidified that vote. They’re going to be in tough orders. Because even with President Obama, many people say the situation in cities haven’t gotten better. There are more than a few African Americans, not just Tavis Smiley and Cornel West that have gotten a lot of flack for it, criticizing President Obama and what he has delivered or what he hasn’t delivered. They’re getting very close to that point, too.
What I hope our film generates in people is looking at the next 10-12 years, there’s going to be a very big seismic change in our electorate. And I’m not going to say that it’s going to flip back and go to the Republican vote, but it may go to the big, wider independent vote and god knows what’s going to happen with that.
Fear of a Black Republican will be shown on Thursday night at the Pearl Theater in North Philadelphia and will be followed by a Q&A session with Williams. Click here for more information.