Republican Rep. Patrick Penn accused Gov. Laura Kelly of advancing bigoted expectations recently, after she used her line-item veto to roll back $250,000 in funding aimed at historic Quindaro. Abolitionists founded the settlement along the Underground Railroad to help the enslaved flee bondage in Missouri in the 1850s.
“Diversity of thought exists in the Black community just like every other,” Penn said in an interview with Fox News. “No other race has the expectation placed upon them by white liberal elites that we line up and vote for Democrats like the Black community does. Such bigoted expectations are both unfortunate relics of a small-minded past and simply unconscionable.”
That’s bold talk for someone seemingly so out of step with Black political sensibilities. Penn and Black Republicans increasingly claim to speak for the Black collective, but they shouldn’t. They represent a political party that too often seems hostile to issues African Americans support. As we approach Juneteenth and commemorate a centuries-long quest for freedom, this distinction remains important.
Of the 26 majority Black congressional districts nationally, not one has elected a Republican. That’s less about lockstep loyalty and more about the Republican Party standing out of alignment with Black political beliefs. Black voters, like any segment of the population, vote their interests, and Black conservatives are viewed as proxies for white, conservative interests.
A Pew Research Center poll found that Black Republicans are less likely than Black Democrats to have strong ties to Black identity or other Black people, and are less likely to attend a Black church.
Not all Black Republicans function this way, but many do.
For example, Penn lobbied freshman Rep. Marvin Robinson, elected by a deep-blue constituency, to vote with Republicans nearly 70% of the time. Robinson voted with Republicans against food stamps, against Medicaid expansion and for a measure that would complicate vote counting. Robinson and Penn’s votes don’t represent the beliefs of most Black voters.
Don’t forget Daniel Cameron, the Kentucky attorney general now running for governor, who refused to charge the Louisville police officers who killed Breonna Taylor in her bed. Or Herschel Walker, the failed and confused Georgia senatorial candidate very few African Americans supported. Or South Carolina senator and presidential candidate Tim Scott, who denies the existence of structural racism.
Penn was right, there is diversity of Black thought. But his rhetoric is misleading. Maybe even intentionally.
I reached out to him via email but didn’t hear back. I was curious about his connections to the Black community. Was he raised in one? Does he volunteer in these communities? How has he developed sensibilities about the Black experience? I’d still welcome that conversation.
Attacking Kelly, Penn said in the Fox interview: “Democrats owned Marvin’s great, great grandfather down in Texas, so it’s no small idea that they think that they own his vote in the Kansas Legislature, as well.”
“Penn is either disingenuous or uninformed about how race realigned American party politics in the 1960s. For decades, many Black voters, like my great-grandfather, voted with Republicans because President Abraham Lincoln and the GOP ended slavery, but the parties flipped in 1964.” Mark McCormick
Historian and Atlanta native Taylor Branch discussed this with his hometown newspaper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in a 2013 interview.
“Most Americans need to be reminded that race and race alone had the power to turn our partisan politics upside down in one year — 1964,” Branch told the newspaper. “Before 1964, you could not win elected office in the South if you proposed any change to segregation.”
Branch said as the Senate prepared to vote on the Civil Rights Act, then U.S.-Sen. Barry Goldwater announced he would vote against it and received a 75-page legal opinion from William Rehnquist and Robert Bork on why politicians should oppose the Civil Rights Act.
“That moment was the catalyst that changed American politics to this day, because as soon as he said, ‘I’m going to vote against the Civil Rights Bill,’ you had candidates across the South springing up and saying, ‘I’m going to be a Republican,’ ” Branch said.
In a summer, Branch said, the parties realigned over President Lyndon Johnson’s federal attack on segregation.
Goldwater, Rehnquist and Bork “made resentment of the federal government respectable,” Branch said. “That kind of resentment, the notion that government is bad, grew out of resentment of the Civil Rights Act, and it has lasted ever since.”
Black Republicans parrot the same “small government, state’s rights” arguments, clearly out of touch with Black voters today and historically. In his most famous speech, Martin Luther King Jr. referenced Alabama’s governor as “having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification,” a direct reference to Southern efforts to keep the federal government from rescuing terrorized Black citizens.
White Republican politicians in the South used the fear of racial progress — the Southern Strategy — to lure white voters to a new GOP.
Even today, the GOP maintains an anti-civil rights posture. As protests against police terror crested in 2020 for example, conservatives smeared protesters as “woke.” When the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, 14 House members — all Republicans — voted against it.
Should Black voters distrust Democrats, too? Certainly. Black voters are often forgotten until election time. Many people have legitimately questioned African Americans’ strong yet unrequited devotion to the Democratic party. Over the years, for professional reasons, I’ve registered as a Republican, as a Democrat and as an independent.
But Black voters do understand who makes it difficult for them to vote. We do know who supports the largely white and conservative police unions and who refuse to even discuss qualified immunity. We do know who racially gerrymandered Wyandotte County, Robinson’s district.
Look, Penn persuaded Robinson to abandon his constituents and colleagues, and all’s fair in love and politics. But Penn doesn’t get to throw down race cards like he’s playing spades.
Democrats may once have owned Robinson’s grandfather.
But if Robinson’s grandfather were around today and needed help, it would be Penn and his pals — not white, liberal Democrats — who last session would have ensured that Robinson’s grandfather couldn’t eat, couldn’t access health insurance, and couldn’t vote.
Such policy positions are unfortunate relics of a small-minded past and simply unconscionable.
Mark McCormick is the former executive director of The Kansas African American Museum, a member of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission and deputy executive director at the ACLU of Kansas. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.