Editor's note: The following column originally appeared in The Hill newspaper and TheHill.com.
At a campaign stop last year, Donald Trump saw one black man in a sea of white supporters. Without a drop of embarrassment he announced, “Oh, look at my African American over there. Look at him. Are you the greatest?”
Yes, it has got to be tough to be a black Republican in the Trump era.
It is all the harder after two terms of near-total black support for the first African American president — a Democrat whose right to be president was brought into question by a Trump-led, racially-charged ‘birther’ movement.
But there are black Republicans.
There is Dr. Ben Carson, Trump’s lone black cabinet member, as well as the actor The Rock, newsman Lester Holt, and basketball hero Charles Barkley. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) are bright lights of black conservatism in official Washington.
Recently, musician John Legend played a famous black Republican on television, starring as abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Trump won eight percent of the black vote. That was better than GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s six percent in 2012. But an NBC exit poll last November found 68 percent of black voters to be “scared” of Trump’s brand of Republican politics.
Since then, Trump’s budget plans have aimed to cut funding for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, potentially limiting monitoring of police abuse and voter disenfranchisement. He has also proposed cuts to programs in the Education Department, which are likely to undermine efforts to prepare minority students for college. And there are also cuts to funding for public housing programs.
In this moment of tense relations between President Trump and black America, it is important to separate Trump’s racial politics from the conservative principles that still attract black Americans.
Last week, one of history’s great black Republicans and conservatives, William T. Coleman Jr., passed away at age 96.
He was one of the seven percent of black people who are Republicans, the lowest percentage of any racial group in America. Far more black people are conservatives, though. A 2009 Pew poll reported that about 32 percent self-described as on the “conservative” end of the ideological spectrum.
One day, I walked into Coleman’s law office and he pointed at a bust on a bookshelf. He was surprised that I recognized the figure as the black Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin.
Pushkin was a hero to Coleman, as a black conservative, because Pushkin achieved success based on personal effort and education despite competing in an all-white world.
Coleman was an achiever.
As a leading legal mind, Coleman was a leading author of the briefs used by Thurgood Marshall, then lead counsel for the NAACP, in successfully arguing for the end of public school segregation in the 1954 Brown case.
Coleman later argued 19 times before the Supreme Court, including winning the case that the constitution protected interracial sex — a precursor to the court ruling in Loving v. Virginia that affirmed interracial marriage as a constitutional right.
Similarly, he won a Supreme Court case halting federal tax exemptions for segregated private schools.
All that success in arguing for racial integration — and his close alliance with leading liberals, including Marshall, during the civil rights movement — did not change Coleman’s allegiance to the GOP.
He became the second African American in a president’s cabinet, as transportation secretary for President Ford, a Republican.
Coleman’s brand of Republicanism celebrated personal responsibility, traditional family values and patriotism — he trained with the Tuskegee Airmen. He spoke up for black economic development free of racially-targeted government assistance.
He dismissed the black nationalist and black power movements as impractical, a waste of time in a predominantly white country.
His pragmatic view of race fit with Booker T. Washington’s call in the late 1800s for blacks to create alliances with whites even if it meant turning away from radical black activist demands for whites to admit racism and make reparations. Coleman, like Washington, kept his eyes on the long-run benefit of gradual racial reform.
But his pragmatism held a defiant edge. He refused to allow white racism to define him. In James Baldwin’s language, he was clear with whites that “I am not your negro.”
He held that view despite discrimination at top law firms that barred him despite having graduated first in class from Harvard Law School in 1946 and becoming the first black law clerk at the Supreme Court.
His black Republican identity led him to be a dealmaker between white Republicans and the civil rights movement. He pushed for Republicans to vote for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act as a respected fellow conservative.
To this day, Republicans accused of racism are quick to point out that 80 percent of House Republicans and 82 percent of Senate Republicans backed the 1964 bill. Those are higher percentages than were seen in the Democratic Party, which then included a large contingent from the south intent on maintaining segregation.
The same held true for his influence at the Supreme Court.
When President Kennedy nominated Marshall to the Second Circuit Court Appeals in 1961, he ran into difficulty in the Senate. Southern Democrats were still smarting over the Brown decision and eyeing payback for Marshall’s role in the victory.
As I wrote in my biography of Justice Marshall, “Thurgood Marshall — American Revolutionary,” Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter was heard telling friends around Washington that while he liked Marshall personally, he was not qualified for the appeals court.
Coleman knew that if Frankfurter’s criticism went public it would give ammunition to segregationists out to defeat Marshall.
Coleman’s personal relationship with Frankfurter led the justice to end his criticism. Marshall was confirmed to the appeals court, which led to his later appointment as solicitor general and finally to the Supreme Court.
The Washington Post’s obituary of Coleman noted that President Clinton gave him the country’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and praised him as a man of “disciplined devotion to the things that make this country a great place.”
That is a Democrat speaking about a real black conservative.