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How Black Republicans In Utah Weigh Party Politics Vs. Racial Equality

Illustration of a hand putting a ballot in a mailbox.
Renee Bright / KUER
As police once again becomes a focus of national conversations, some Black Republicans in Utah are pushing to disentangle the fight for racial justice from party politics, and to bring more African Americans over to the GOP.

Black conservatives in Utah say there’s more than one way to fight for racial justice. While the liberal demand to defund the police has become a rallying cry in many recent protests in Salt Lake City and around the nation, they’re taking a different tact. 

Some Black Republicans here want to separate partisan politics from the fight for racial justice and pursue solutions that align better with their conservative ideologies.

“Conservatism is colorblind,” said Burgess Owens, a Black man and the Republican candidate for Utah’s 4th Congressional District. “It's an ideology. It's priorities in which we put God, country, family [and] respect to women above self.” 

Owens frequently appears on Fox News to speak out against Democrats. He recently went on Lou Dobbs Tonight to talk about the recent protests against police violence.

“What is your reaction to the Black Lives mural, this mantra now that is falling on the lips of everyone in the media, it seems, and the radical Dems?” Dobbs asked Owens. “Black Lives Matter, and you go to hell if you say All Lives Matter.” 

“The fact that all lives matter should not be a debate,” Owens replied. “We all know that all lives matter. Only the left, only the godless, could ever make that an issue.”

It’s not just a “mantra” that Owens takes issue with — he also criticizes calls from the left to divert police funding toward social services. 

“We have a party, the Democratic Party, that is not trying to do the best for the Black community,” he said. “If they were trying to do the best ... would they be trying to give those folks and those communities more protection or less protection?”

Instead, Owens said he supports police reform efforts spearheaded by Sen. Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, which provide incentives for police departments to ban chokeholds. It doesn’t explicitly ban them, like Utah’s Republican-controlled state Legislature did in June or like Democrat-backed legislation in Congress.

While Owens said he is proud to be a Black Republican, he is in the minority. According to the Pew Research Center, just 7% of registered African-American voters identify as or lean Republican. Meanwhile, 70% identify as or lean Democrat. 

The GOP can be a hard sell to Black Americans, according Edmund Fong, an associate professor at the University of Utah who studies race and politics.

“The Republican Party has remade itself as the party of conservatism, of modern conservatism,” he said, adding that was largely in response to events in the 1960s and 70s, like the Civil Rights movement. “The Republican Party has adopted a number of positions that are against a lot of those broader transformations dating from that time.”

Some Black Republicans come to the party, Fong said, because they’ve been successful and believe in the American dream of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.

That’s the case for Owens and Mia Love, who was the first African American Republican woman to serve in Congress when she was elected in 2014 to represent Utah’s 4th Congressional District, the seat now held by the Democrat that Owens hopes to defeat in November. 

Love didn’t respond to an interview request for this story, but Fong says that judging from her public statements, “she came to her conservative principles from her background as an immigrant from a country escaping political persecution — Haiti in this case — and was able to live, in some measure, the American dream here.”

Since the early 2000s, the Republican Party has made an effort to diversify, Fong said, but having Donald Trump as the head of the party has made that more difficult. 

Take, for example, Trump’s continuous questioning of former President Barack Obama’s citizenship or in 2018 when he referred to some African nations as “----hole countries.”.

But former Utah GOP Chair and former state Sen. James Evans said people on both sides of the aisle make racially insensitive statements, and Black Americans should stop assuming that the left has their best interests at heart. 

Photo of a man in a black suit and red tie, standing behind a podium with a logo of an elephant that reads 'UTGOP'
Credit Chelsea Naughton / KUER
Then-Utah GOP Chair James Evans speaks at a 2016 General Election Watch Party at the Rice Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City. Evans held the position for four years.

“You have a progressive agenda that has abused hundreds of years of Black history in America by trying to reduce it to a progressive policy that says ‘if you don't support this policy, that means that you're racist,’” Evans said.

Instead, Evans said he’s focused on expanding free market principles to uplift Black Americans and help them achieve the American dream. 

“I look for ways to promote entrepreneurship and business ownership that's sorely lacking, in particular in the Black community,” Evans said. “If you're telling me a larger government will be better, I'm not interested in it because we've tried that and it doesn't work.” 

To bring more Black people over to the GOP, he argued, Republicans need to talk more about racial justice issues.

“My appeal is to separate out the political philosophy arguments on how government should be involved in our lives versus how we should treat one another as fellow Americans,” he said. “Those are two separate discussions that we have to have.”

So, why isn’t that happening? Kaden Madson, Vice Chair of the Utah Black Republican Assembly, offers this explanation: 

“A lot of Republicans nationally have gotten to the point where they know that they're not going to get the African American vote,” said Kaden Madson, Vice Chair of the Utah Black Republican Assembly. “And they say, ‘I'm not going to waste my time trying to get something I'm not going to get.’”

The assumption that voting Republican and racial justice don’t mix really upsets Madson.

“When somebody identifies [with] enough views, which happens to be culturally on the right for me — pro-life, standing up for religious freedom — they're going to get my vote,” he said. “Those kind of things are valuable to me. And so, therefore, I'm voting within my own interests because that's what I value.”

Madson said, while the President has certainly made racially insensitive statements, he still supports him because Trump is the leader of a party that reflects what matters to him. 

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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