I grew up around politics. My uncle was state president of the NAACP in Oklahoma, and my father Buddy Watts ran for county sheriff and later became a city councilman. Even while I was playing professional football, I knew some day I wanted to enter public service in a capacity where I could effect change and apply the values I learned at home to influence legislation.
As a group, African-Americans are traditionally known to align themselves with the Democratic Party. Your father is a Democrat. You chose the Republican Party. Why?
The greater question is why not? When we limit ourselves to thinking only like the group, we hinder ourselves from being able to look at different models. Group identity of itself is not a bad thing because, after slavery, it comforted and protected African-Americans. However, when group identity says: “Don’t ask why the uniform doesn’t fit — just wear it anyway,” then I am always vigilant. The Republican Party’s leadership, by and large, has been more open to looking at new models and new ways of dealing with old problems, be it poverty, education, healthcare, etc. The Republican leadership has been more open to saying, let’s look at new ways to attack this problem.
In your autobiographical book, “What Color Is a Conservative? My Life and My Politics,” you said that the Democrats’ edge over the GOP is that the latter seems to lack “humanness.” Can this administration change that?
This White House has already made a huge impact. Look at what President Bush has done in the last four years. More African-Americans are homeowners than ever before. The president’s faith-based initiative allows faith organizations to compete for federal funding; he has also been urgent in working to combat healthcare disparities plaguing the black community, and with education the president has been very involved in working to strengthen the capacity of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Also, he has also done much for small and minority business contracting by recognizing that supporting these businesses is critical to ensuring continued job creation. Then you look at the diversity of Bush’s cabinet. He’s hired more African-Americans in very influential positions, boasting the most diverse cabinet in history. This president has performed very well, but people refuse to give him credit for what he has done.
There was much uproar in the Senate, the House, the American public and even in the black community concerning Condoleezza Rice’s nomination to be secretary of state. Why was she under attack in the black community?
I don’t think Condi Rice is going to lose any sleep if she isn’t accepted by everyone. However, had she been a black female Democrat we would have heard cries of racism and bigotry. The same people who have been the most vocal and mean in their attacks of her as a black female Republican would have been the same people leading the charge against white politicians like Barbara Boxer. They would have been crying foul. I am so hopeful and optimistic that we will get beyond skin color, beyond gender, beyond partisan politics. Some day we won’t be talking about the ‘black’ secretary of state, or the ‘female’ legislator, or the ‘black’ Republican. We have a choice in this country — to choose where we buy our hamburgers, where we buy our cars, where we buy our office supplies. We need those same choices when it comes to party affiliations as well.
Many conservatives, white and black alike, are critical of Affirmative Action. What is your position on this highly emotional issue?
In my opinion, Affirmative Action should be about creating opportunity for all people — red, yellow, brown, black and white. But in terms of education, I say that anybody who needs help that stays in school, gets good grades, and wants to continue their education, should get the assistance they need. Why would we colorize it? Why would we say, let’s just only help black kids or white kids or Hispanic kids? Affirmative Action should be about financial need.
So you’re saying that Affirmative Action should not be based on race, but on socio-economic criteria?
If you based Affirmative Action on need, it would still encompass as many or more black and Hispanic kids today. If you based it on need, it would also encompass poor white kids. Those that need it should be able to get it.
What does ‘economic empowerment’ mean for this generation of African-Americans?
It’s a priority and politically important, but a lot of African-American elected officials and leaders usually advocate for things that hinder economic empowerment. If anybody wants investment capital or capital flow in the community, you don’t create those opportunities by creating a hostile environment. The things that create a hostile environment encourage increased regulations, litigation and more taxation of that investment capital. If you create that type of environment for that investment capital, it won’t go to the underserved black community. It will go somewhere that it can find a non-hostile environment. If the state of Oklahoma creates a hostile environment for investment, that investment will go to Texas or Florida or Indiana. But when you create a friendly environment for investment capital, you’ll find that Starbucks Coffee will invest in South Central Los Angeles. So again, it’s having the right framework and infrastructure to attract the capital that creates economic empowerment, like homeownership. In this last election, Senator Kerry was talking about putting more money in Section 8 Housing; while President Bush was talking about creating more homeowners. There is a difference in philosophy. If you want economic empowerment, you have to have a friendly environment to attract capital to create the opportunities. That is just a fact of life, it’s not Republican or Democrat. The Democrat leadership and many Black leaders usually opt for more regulation, litigation and taxation, which again snuffs out economic opportunity.
J.C. Watts played quarterback for the University of Oklahoma, and later in the Canadian Football League from 1981-86. After leaving football he served as a Baptist youth minister. He is the first black Republican elected from a southern state in over 120 years. He was GOP conference chairman, which made him fourth in the Republican Leadership. Since retirement from Congress he heads J.C. Watts Companies, a consultant in business strategies, and is active on several corporate boards. He is chairman of African-Americans for Bush and a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma. He co-founded and co-chairs the Coalition for AIDS Relief in Africa and serves on the board of the Corporate Council on Africa. He serves on the boards of the Boy Scouts of America and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He is also the chairman of GOPAC and has created the J.C. Watts Foundation to focus on urban renewal and other charitable initiatives.