News & Politics

No Requiem for a Black Conservative

The rise and fall of Claude Allen tells much about the GOP's courting of black conservatives.
In a tear-jerk moment toward the end of Claude Allen's abortive Senate confirmation hearing for a spot on the federal appeals court in 2003, Sen. Orin Hatch tossed him a puffball question. Hatch asked what Allen's grandfather, who was the first in his family born out slavery, would say to him about his pending judgeship. Allen, visibly moved by the question, said that he would tell him to give back to those who he received from.

Allen's answer told much about the GOP's two-decades long court and tout of black conservatives. And that hasn't changed, even when some of them embarrass the party with their shoot-from-the-lip gaffes or fall from grace in a swirl of corruption and scandal. Allen has fit the bill on both counts. In 1982, he embarrassed the GOP with his slurs against "queers," and two decades later during his confirmation hearing he didn't back away from those comments, claiming he had simply meant "odd or unusual" people. Now Allen, President Bush's former domestic policy advisor, has been arrested on charges of stealing from department stores.

But Allen is only the latest in a string of black conservative poster boys who have been dogged by scandal. In the 1980s, Reagan's HUD Secretary Samuel Pierce was accused of corruption and influence peddling, and Clarence Pendleton, Reagan's appointee to head the U.S. Civil Rights Commission was hit with allegations of illicit business dealings. A sexual scandal embroiled Bush Sr.'s affirmative action Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas in 1991.

Last year, black Republican pitchman Armstrong Williams was reviled for grabbing nearly a quarter of a million dollars from the White House to pump Bush's education policies, all the while masquerading as a neutral media commentator. In each case, the disgraced black Republican administration appointees and boosters did not tumble as far from grace as might be expected. Pierce and Pendleton served no jail time, and resumed their business careers. Thomas is the much-prized conservative high court polemicist. Though Williams was bounced from his spot as a commentator on a few media outlets, he is still a frequent guest on talk shows, defending conservative policies. Their names quickly disappear from the scandal sheets. They are simply too valuable to be summarily tossed to the wolves.

Conservatives desperately need blacks such as Allen to maintain the public illusion that black conservatives have real clout and a popular following in black communities. Their great value is that they promote the myth that a big segment of blacks support political conservative principles. In the last presidential election, Bush, Republican National Committee head Ken Mehlman and strategist Karl Rove spent millions on outreach efforts to attract African-American voters. Mehlman has since barnstormed the country in tow with conservative blacks to primp the GOP's message to black groups. Allen and a handful of other blacks have relentlessly pumped Bush's policies on TV and radio talk shows, in op-ed columns and in debates with civil rights leaders and liberal Democrats.

The young black conservative political activists such as Allen spin, prime and defend administration policies on affirmative action, welfare, laissez-faire capitalism and anti-government regulations with the best of white conservatives. Bush's controversial federal court appeals nominee, black California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown, once brashly claimed that she was "one of the few conservatives left in America." Allen did not make the same bold claim, but he is every bit the conservative ideologue as Brown.

But none of their efforts touting GOP policies have helped much. Bush still got only a marginal bump up overall in the black vote in 2004, and with his Katrina bumble his poll ratings are stuck even deeper in the tank with blacks. Still, Republicans have done everything possible to ease the way up the political ladder for their bevy of black conservatives. Allen's career is a textbook example of that. He was barely out of the University of North Carolina when he became the spokesmen for Sen. Jesse Helms' re-election campaign in 1982. He moved from there to work for Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He then bagged a prize clerkship on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Next, he was appointed counsel for Virginia's Attorney General, and then he became Virginia's deputy attorney general and later secretary of health and human services. When his nomination for appeals court judge didn't pan out, Bush made him his top domestic policy advisor.

In years past, scandal-plagued black Republican boosters and appointees pretty much skated away with little more than a spate of bad publicity and a hand slap. Allen may not be as lucky. He may eventually be prosecuted. But as long as Republicans find men like him useful in their drive to make the party appear to be an authentic voice in black America, they'll do whatever they can to keep them as far out of legal harm's way as possible.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black, published by Middle Passage Press.