“You’re a Republican?”
“But you’re black.”
“Because both my parents were.”
“You know what I mean.”
Eric rolled his eyes. “Here we go again.”
“Do you know how many times I get asked this question?”
“Are you really surprised that we’re surprised?”
“Okay, let’s back up here,” Eric said. “Do we really need to talk politics right now?”
James looked out of the window. He didn’t know for certain, but he figured they were somewhere above Arkansas.
“We have quite a bit of time left,” he said. “Yes, I’d like to talk about this.”
“Why is it so important to you?”
“I have a hard time understanding why anyone would be a Republican, let alone a black man. I know you know the history of that party.”
“Yes, but I’m more interested in the party’s future.”
“How do we expect the party to improve if it can only cater to a few types of voters? If it knows nothing it can do will attract black voters, it has no reason to try.”
“I know a way it could attract black voters.”
“And what’s that?”
“Do something to help them.”
Eric rolled his eyes again.
“You and I were in the same history classes, Eric. You know that from the very beginning, America’s Southern political party has been invested slavery. It opposed anything that would weaken the institution and brought the country to war rather than accept the continued possibility that a Northern majority in Congress would threaten Southern states’ supposed right to continue to enslave their blacks.
“After the South lost that war,” James continued, “it loathed Republicans, the party of the North at the time, for having the audacity to pass the the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments against its will, forcing the region to acknowledge that slavery was now illegal, that black people were considered citizens, that all citizens were considered equal under the law, and that the right to vote couldn’t be denied on the premise of race. The horror!”
“Can we speed things up, please?” Eric asked. “This was all one hundred and fifty years ago.”
“That legacy continues to this day,” James continued. “In their hissy fit against Republican policies, Southern Democrats devoted themselves to getting around the rules. They resorted to domestic terrorism, either secretly through the Ku Klux Klan or openly through prejudicial law enforcement, to scare blacks and white sympathizers out of voting. They created literacy laws to disenfranchise a people who they had made it illegal to teach how to read in the first place. They looked at the size of the black community in their states and, rather than do something to attract black votes, chose to limit those votes instead.
“And nothing’s changed! Rather than try to win people over, they enact voter ID laws that disproportionately affect people who vote for the other party. They do their best to ensure that felons never get the right to vote, knowing that black people make up a disproportionate percentage of the prison population.”
“Are you saying Republicans should go easy on criminals?” Eric asked.
“I’m saying our justice system and society at large is more likely to consider a black person a criminal than a white person, even if the two people committed the same offense. The Republican party knows this, does nothing to try to change it, and instead takes advantage of the situation.
“It has no shame jumping on any chance to capitalize on racial differences. The Republican party only became the Southern party once the Democrats started to atone for their own racial sins, ushering in the New Deal and, God forbid, passing the Civil Rights Act. The Republicans saw an opening and have benefited from fueling the flames of racial animus ever since, whether subtly or otherwise.”
“It’s good to see you’re finally moving pass the 1960s.”
“Do I really need to flesh this out all the way to the present?” James asked. “Starting in the sixties, Republicans opposed affirmative action because it could benefit blacks at the expense of whites, nevermind that whites had been benefiting at the expense of blacks for three centuries. For the government to try to do something now, anything at all, was wrong.
“Republicans coined the phrase ‘Big Government’ and opposed public institutions because the federal government required states to integrate them and their effects. Private schools, though, could be as segregated as they wanted, so let’s invest in those! Screw funding for public housing, let’s direct everything towards homeowners, and hmm, I wonder who could afford to buy homes! It certainly wasn’t the people who had been prevented from owning property for hundreds of years in a country that has always measured someone’s worth by the amount of private property they own.
“And somehow, today, racial disparities are supposed to have disappeared already. Civil rights laws have been enforced for decades now. That’s more than enough time to make up for hundreds of years, right?”
“You’re right, James,” Eric said. “We were in the same history classes, and I’ve heard all of this before.”
“Then why did you make me spell it out for you?”
“Because I find something funny in the image of an Asian guy telling a black guy why he shouldn’t be a Republican.”
“You know that as far as this country’s been concerned, my ancestors might as well have been black.”
“I’ll give you that,” Eric nodded. Then he stroked his chin and took a few moments to gather his thoughts. “I come from a family of entrepreneurs. When neighborhoods integrated, many black businesses and schools lost money. They were no longer needed. Some families actually suffered from that. Mine was one of them.
“My great grandfather ran a small chain of grocery stores that catered to black neighborhoods, the only ones he was allowed to sell goods in. Even after taking a hit, the family was still too well off to benefit directly from social programs, and affirmative action wasn’t a primary concern as long as everyone kept working for themselves. My great grandfather’s grandchildren and great grandchildren have been scrambling to replicate his success ever since. Republican policies, history aside, simply make it more affordable to run a business.”
“So your parents were Republican?”
“I bet you even married a white woman,” James joked.
“I wanted to, but she ended up hating me for being a conservative.”
This time, both men laughed.
“I know all about the party’s past,” Eric continued. “And I know those elements live on in its present. But as an American citizen, I should have a choice in who I vote for just like anyone else, and I’m probably one of the few black men who actively sees it being in their best interest to vote this way.”
“You’re not wrong about that.”
“Hopefully our numbers will grow, and at some point the party will start pandering to us as well. White folks are changing, and those that refuse to are gradually dying off. I want to be one of the people standing here when the new Republican party takes shape.”
James wanted to spit out a response, but he held his tongue. Instead, he said, “I still disagree with you, and I think your vote is doing this country harm.”
“You and every non-related black person I’ve ever met. Along with plenty of Asian Americans, Indians, white people, and even some folks from other countries.”
James laughed. “Through it all, I can still respect you. When this plane lands, I’ll buy the drinks. I’ll even look by the fact that you and I work for the same company. You’re no more an entrepreneur than I am.”
“Well, you know what they say. The recession hit black people the hardest. But I’ll bounce back, and when I do, you can come work for me.”
The two men shook hands.