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Young, black, and conservative

A vocal group of young African Americans wants to change the face of conservatism

Young, black, and conservative

Olivia Rondeau (Lee Love/Genesis)

Olivia Rondeau is used to facing tough opponents. The biracial Maryland native started wrestling as a freshman in high school, and in 2017 she made history by becoming the first female wrestler to win gold at the AAU Junior Olympic Games. But her toughest battles have come in a very different arena—the online wild west of social media, where users navigate political correctness, angry mobs, and “cancel culture.”

Around nine months ago, Rondeau posted a video to her YouTube channel—previously used just for her wrestling videos—titled “Why I Am Blexiting.” The term Blexit refers to a movement founded by conservative commentator Candace Owens that encourages the “black exit” of African Americans from the Democratic Party. In the video, Rondeau described why she rejected Democratic values and policies, such as the welfare state.

Owens shared the video, and a star-struck Rondeau found herself ushered into an energetic group of like-minded young adults and teens, many of them sporting outsized online followings.

These kids log on to Twitter every day and challenge all the stereotypes of their generation by being young, black, and some of President Donald Trump’s most outspoken supporters. And sometimes, they pay a price for it.

Rondeau did not always identify as conservative. She remembers how elated she felt both times former President Barack Obama won election. “We were a big Obama family,” she told me. Her dad believed Obama’s “hope and change” platform meant big changes for the black community on mass incarceration, the drug war, and unemployment.

Eight years later, disillusioned with a presidency they felt hadn’t lived up to its promises, her parents voted for Trump. Rondeau, who had begun watching Owens’ videos, underwent her own political transformation.

“Basically, it became a thing where, we can’t trust Obama just because he’s black, and we can’t distrust people because they’re white or Republican,” Rondeau said. “It came down to who is going to do the best by our community and our country.”

Rondeau soon began to get attention for her online presence. She now boasts 1,400 YouTube followers and 26,200 Twitter followers. She also began to meet up with others in the group, some at conservative and Republican events, and even landed an invitation to the White House in February for Black History Month.

One of those she met was CJ Pearson. When it comes to the label “young black conservative,” Pearson used to have the market cornered. He went viral at the age of 11 after uploading a YouTube video posing the question “President Obama, do you really love America?” It racked up more than 2 million views.

Pearson first discovered his interest in politics in elementary school, when his teacher held a mock election. The students had to research the candidates in the 2008 presidential election and choose which one they wanted to support. Pearson read the news, watched a debate, and later cast his mock vote for Republican nominee John McCain.

Though his parents are lifelong Democrats, Pearson told me that after continued research, he decided “conservatism was common sense to me. … It sounded a lot like what you did at home.”

Lee Love/Genesis

CJ Pearson (Lee Love/Genesis)

Now 17, the self-described populist conservative is mastering a new kind of political commentary. He blasts out short videos on Twitter to his 310,900 followers, reacting to the news of the day and taking aim at Democratic talking points with his homegrown Georgia drawl.

It’s made him plenty of enemies. One of his regular opponents is Roland Martin, a prominent African American political commentator and former CNN contributor. In one particularly testy exchange, Martin warned that Pearson would get his “[obscenity] whipped” for getting into “grown folks’ business.” Pearson fired back that “I don’t remember ANY journalist directing such violent hate towards the Parkland kids. Different rules for conservatives, I suppose.”

Anthony Bradley, author and professor of religious studies at The King’s College in New York City, has tracked the burgeoning online activism of young black conservatives with interest. He says the unexpected nature of the combination of young, black, and conservative—“in the era of Trump of all eras”—explains some of the rancor the group has drawn.

“To me it’s absolutely ridiculous that you’re going to attack a bunch of teenagers and college students,” Bradley said. Teenagers naturally fight for causes and challenge the establishment, he said: “It just so happens that this iteration of black youth rebellion against existing norms happens to be in favor of Donald Trump … and because of that, people are losing their minds.”

Pearson has had some well-documented political missteps, including a stint when he disavowed the Republican Party and backed independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2015. Not long after, he recommitted to conservatism and landed on the Trump campaign. He partially attributes his missteps to not having mentors or a community around him back then.

A little over a month ago, Pearson encouraged his followers to share why they had left the Democratic Party with the hashtag #BlackNotDemocrat. Within hours, the hashtag rose to one of Twitter’s trending topics.

In a phone interview he told me he started the hashtag because “stigma is the biggest thing we have to tackle.”

Pearson said he did not specifically brand the hashtag as Republican because his goal is not necessarily to convince African Americans to switch parties. Pearson said he’ll question both parties when necessary, though he thinks Democrats should be challenged not to take the black vote for granted.

Nothing quite prepared Rondeau to deal with the amount of verbal abuse she would get for disavowing the Democratic Party. Strangers called her ugly, accused her of betraying her race and of being an “Uncle Tom,” and cast other racist slurs. She said she had to report one threat to come and find her from someone who lived nearby in Maryland.

Rondeau said she believes some of the hateful comments stem from “a huge misconception that black people who consider themselves Republican are anti-black or secretly white supremacists or hate themselves.”

At first, a somewhat shaken Rondeau locked down her social media accounts to private. But she decided to resurface after considering her reasons for speaking up in the first place: “I consider myself very pro-black, that’s why I decided to be an activist and outspoken; I believe Democrat policies harm black communities the most. … That’s why I want to make a change.”

She made a YouTube video responding to the insults to show “I wasn’t taking it that seriously, that I was laughing at the stupidity of people who would refuse to debate me but just call me names.”

Another young black conservative unafraid to spar with critics is 17-year-old Khaliq Rodriquez. Hailing from Harlem, N.Y., Rodriquez said almost everyone he knew voted for or identified with the Democratic Party.

So when he started identifying as a conservative online in 2016, “people I thought I could call friends … completely disavowed me as soon as I chose to think differently.” Classmates accused him of going against his race by voicing support for Republican policies.

Rodriquez had started to question Democratic policies after experiencing a night-and-day difference in quality between public schools in his Harlem neighborhood and the private school he attended after earning a scholarship. He still doesn’t understand why, faced with abysmal reading proficiency statistics, fights breaking out in the halls, and outdated textbooks in some of the worst public schools, local Democratic politicians dismissed school choice as a racist Republican idea.

After that, he started to look into other conservative ideas. “Schools were the big red pill for me,” Rodriquez said.

Lee Love/Genesis

Khaliq Rodriquez (Lee Love/Genesis)

Rodriquez became national chairman of the Black Conservative Movement, a grassroots effort entirely run by young black teenagers. The group has 97,800-plus followers on Instagram, nearly 15,500 likes on Facebook, and 27,300 followers on Twitter. The group’s main goal is to give young African Americans an alternative to the Democratic platform.

“It’s black people’s responsibility to make parties fight for their vote,” Rodriquez said. “If parties fight for their votes—just like with school choice—then you get the best outcome.” 

JUSTIN CORBIN is another teen who worked with Rodriquez in the Black Conservative Movement. Unlike Rodriquez, he grew up in a right-leaning family. He remembers listening to conservative talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck in the car.

“I don’t think my mom realized she was creating a monster when she was playing it,” Corbin said. He jumped into politics by starting a side hustle, Jumpstart Strategies, that offered social media strategy for campaigns. After being featured in Students for Trump, he connected with the other teens from the Black Conservative Movement.

Corbin told me he’s wrestled with whether the movement is simply regurgitating identity politics for the right by “encouraging hyphenation when it comes to African Americans instead of just Americans.”

He said he eventually reconciled his activism with his identity because of the strong need to reach out to African American communities: “We won’t be in good shape in five, 10, or even two years if we haven’t done something where we’re normalizing a black Trump supporter.”

Trump’s rhetoric—especially during high-profile spats with minority members of Congress or when he called Baltimore a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess”—is sometimes a challenge for these young black conservatives. Some of the young adults I interviewed condemned Trump’s rhetoric but said their support for his policies remained unchanged.

Toby Pegues, a black conservative in his 20s, told me via email that “if someone is going to be president, I feel that they need to handle conflict in a presidential manner.” Pegues, a Christian, added that while the Twitter spats upset him, the only way Trump would lose his support “is if he blatantly disrespected my Lord and Savior.”

Meanwhile, Rondeau said she believed Trump’s tweets about Baltimore merely gave conservatives an opportunity to respond with action. On Aug. 5, she went to North Fulton Avenue in Baltimore to participate in a street cleanup. Armed with trash bags, a group cleared used needles, garbage, and other hazards from the sidewalks and roads from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. By the end of the day, close to 200 people had participated, and they had picked up more than 12 tons of trash.

Handout

Justin Corbin (Handout)

Some on Twitter condemned the cleanup as an effort of “rich white people coming in to clean up black neighborhoods.” Rondeau shrugged it off, and said she believes her critics’ tactics will backfire.

“For every hate comment, I feel like that’s one more vote for Trump because people see that and they’re like, why am I on that side?” Rondeau said. “Droves of conservatives don’t come and call people ugly and stupid, or [say] racial slurs to a black girl wearing an Obama hat.” She hopes other black teens will start to ask themselves: “Why is there a huge backlash? Why do they not want me to think that way?”

Rondeau recently began training with the women’s wrestling team at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania. She took her MAGA hat with her.

Harvest Prude

Harvest Prude

Harvest is a reporter for WORLD based in Washington, D.C.

Comments

  • Margie
    Posted: Sat, 09/14/2019 10:47 am

    Thank you for this insightful article! I had no idea, but have been hopeful that more African Americians would think policy over party since South Carolina's Tim Scott got elected to the US Senate. Praying for these reasoning and active young people!