By Jarrett L. Carter, HBCU Digest
Before coming of age as a student at Hampton University, Carl Gray was a staunch, frequently lone defender of his conservative values. Ask him to recall a specific time where classmates or friends really challenged or debated him on his politics, he can’t remember one -- because a teacher or administrator always got in the way to defend liberal policies and the fellow students that believed them.
“That in itself was discouraging to know that teachers and professors wouldn't even allow for students to have their own discussions regarding political beliefs,” said Gray. “It was 'My way or the highway' in those classes. You either agree with the liberal philosophy or face the wrath. I often felt that I was being indoctrinated rather than taught. I actually learned more on my own, by reading both sides and making my own conclusion.”
Gray’s story is a common one on historically black college campuses around the country. As terms like "redistricting," "job creation" and "equal opportunity" hover around the culture of African Americans and their vote, a growing number of HBCU students and young alumni are supporting conservative values. It is a counter-cultural revolution in the face of traditional politics championed by black college students, but a throwback to the values that conservative HBCU students and alums say aren’t far from what black colleges have always promoted, and need for future progress.
“I want to represent all and want minorities to begin to play more of an active role in the political process,” said Daniel Davis, a 2010 graduate of North Carolina A&T State University and the GOP candidate for the Connecticut House of Representatives’ 26th District.
The New Britain, CT native says that his college experience helped spur an interest in politics and conservative values that were piqued as a child, namely through creating a conservative organization on a campus historically regarded for liberal-charged student activity in Greensboro, NC.
Despite being largely underrepresented and unheralded in the pop culture talk of the ‘black vote,’ HBCU students and alumni like Davis are challenging classmates and communities to rethink alliances, and to look ahead to more substantive solutions for African Americans nationwide.
“My advisor of the club said that that is not what college campuses are to do. They are to challenge students by sometimes offering them differing opinions and allowing them to choose for themselves," Davis said. "This is the only way we can become more well-rounded members of society.”
Mobilization efforts for conservative groups on black college campuses remain a hard sell. Texas Southern University and Tennessee State University are the only HBCUs listed as ‘active’ on the College Republican National Committee membership roster, out of 1,800-plus campus chapters nationwide.
But that hasn’t stopped individuals from staking out a respected place of leadership at HBCUs with strong traditions of advocacy for Democratic politics.
“This is why I started a conservative organization at North Carolina A&T. I did not create it to preach what I believe onto other students but rather, as black Americans, we only get one side, that side being from the Democrats,” Davis added.
Others note that appeal and passion for conservative values doesn’t live with loyalty to the Republican Party.
Gray, a 2006 Hampton graduate and registered Democrat with conservative values, says that many of the tenets of political right are the core cultural elements that African Americans hold most dear.
“I've been interested and involved in politics since the age of 10 when I would go to the U.S. Capital,” Gray said. “I had no idea that the biblical principles and values that I had been raised on were considered "conservative." I just thought it was how things are. It wasn't until college that I got the label of conservative because I had the traditional values of protecting life, individual responsibility and personal liberty.”
Gray, an IT security professional and native of predominantly black and democratic Landover, MD, considers himself a strict constitutionalist and believes the HBCU and the black church to be two institutions which, through conservative values and perspectives, have helped buoy and promote black progress through the years.
“HBCUs with churches leading the way were the catalyst for much of our revolution. And much of the time it was against an oppressive government." Gray said. "We have now as a people switched our position to want to give government more rights to our livelihoods and lifestyles than it would even have under the constitution.”
The increase of HBCU students and alums identifying as conservative or Republican is consistent with an uptick in black participation within the Republican Party overall.
In an August 2012 study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the number of black delegates participating in the Republican National Convention increased 20.5 percent from 2008, with 47 delegates comprising 2.1 percent of the total delegation and up from 39 delegates who appeared at the 2008 RNC Convention in Minneapolis.
According to The Joint Center, which has surveyed black Republican participation since 1984, conservative partisanship dropped from nearly 15 percent in 2004 to just over seven percent in the 2008 presidential election.
Shermichael Singleton, a Dallas native and former HBCU student, says that dismissing negative connotations about race within conservative politics are key to better understanding of conservative ideology and the Republican Party.
“I think the biggest stereotype about black Republicans, is that we wish to be ‘white’ or must dislike being black.” Singleton said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. I am proud to be black. I love my culture and heritage and wouldn’t change it for the world. At the same time, I do recognize there are many challenges facing the black community and that something has to be done to solve them. Yet, the two are not mutually exclusive. “
Gray, Davis and Singleton all say they’ve felt a level of discomfort when sharing their views in the classroom or on the quad, because of assumptions from classmates or faculty. Nevertheless, they all value the chances presented at their respective HBCUs to encourage a different perspective.
“I never received major backlash because most of my peers at A&T respected me, if for nothing else than for being different,” Davis said. “Many of them would call me "Republican" or "The Republican" and that was fine although I didn't like how often times in class debates they would automatically write off my opinion because of my party affiliation.”
“As a young politician, I do not espouse all of the beliefs of even my own party so it would be frustrating when they would anticipate my point of view merely because of affiliation. I pride myself on being a very independent thinker.”
“I definitely recall many debates and many challenges by school administrators, which made the time I spent at this particular HBCU uncomfortable and longing to interact with others who better understood and respected my perception of reality,” said Singleton. “The experience was at times upsetting and unfortunate. That said, I am grateful for the handful of classmates and friends at the time constantly pushing me to stay true to who I am. To those individuals I remain grateful.”
Singleton, who works with the Romney presidential campaign, says that he feels the pressure to defeat negative stereotypes of black Republicans.
“I do feel pressure working to debunk the stereotypes, because I care about the state of things that affect America," Singleton said. "But I also care about how those things that affect America as a whole and how the greater impact of these issues often affect minority communities even more.”
Gray, who echoes opposition to the stereotypical sentiment of black Republicans wanting to be white, doesn’t feel the pressure to defeating it, but more so to clarify what conservatism is and its benefits for black people.
“I believe conservatism speaks to the essence of us as a people. Historically, we are a God-fearing people who know how to take care of ourselves and help. We have natural business acumen and a strong history of overcoming obstacles," said Gray. "Let’s be honest, thousands of Blacks worked for 400 years for free in this country with money
from our labor being redistributed consistently to those in power. So why would we then support those that seek to redistribute the fruits of our, anyone else’s labor?” he added.
Ultimately, Davis hopes that his victory on November 6 will encourage a new view of how to craft solutions that empower all people, but particularly African Americans.
“The party realizes that it will not advance and remain relevant if we do not bring in more youth and minorities. I challenge people to do their homework and to not automatically write off conservative candidates and some principles,” Gray said.
“All we ever really wanted from the government was equal protection. We don't need them to force someone to make us their equal. We were created equal and we have the wherewithal to do just as well as the next person regardless of our circumstances. We don't need the government to take from someone else so that we can have our basic necessities; we've done very well making it.”