The announcement that South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley will appoint Tim Scott, a black Republican, to complete the remainder of Jim DeMint's term as a Senator, has generated a disturbing reaction.
Despite the fact that Scott will become the only sitting black Senator (since we elected the other one president), there has been a significant amount of commentary on whether Scott's conservative views undermine his blackness and render him a "sell out" or an "Oreo." To be clear, these accusations should not be confused with the perfectly legitimate question of whether appointing a black man that most black people disagree with will help the Republican Party shed its racially uninclusive image. Instead, these attacks question Scott's authenticity as a black man.
This isn't new. High profile black Republicans have often been confronted with such attacks. From Condoleezza Rice to Clarence Thomas, black conservatives often find themselves being race-checked for splitting with the majority of the black community on their political leanings.
It may be a common narrative, but it's incredibly unfair. Moreover, it's dangerous. And not just for black conservatives, but for the liberals who are typically making the claims as well.
Essentially, this argument boils down to an insistence that after having faced racism and systemic racial bias in this country, black people are only allowed to have a certain type of reaction to the oppression we have faced. It implies that it is possible to be black the "wrong way." Attacking black Republicans then, becomes one more way to rob an already marginalized group of entitlement to interpret their own experience.
It is especially distressing that sometimes those leading these attacks are people outside the black community. This is not solely a condemnation of white outrage at the existence of someone like Scott, though I confess I'm uncomfortable with the racial dynamics of white liberals feeling such ownership over the loyalty and allegiance of black voters that the appointment of a black conservative sparks accusations of not being "black enough" from people who are not black at all.
But my frustration is broader than that. In fact, it is broader than frustration over the reaction to black Republicans. It is frustration that those from marginalized communities face unfair attacks any time they veer to the right of the political spectrum.
As I've written elsewhere, those attacks themselves are sometimes the problem, as the term "Uncle Tom" and references to "house versus field slaves" roll off the tongue far too quickly and thoughtlessly whenever this issue comes up, and such racially charged language exacerbates what is already an inappropriate criticism.
But beyond that, the suggestion that people of color, LGBT people, or low-income people cannot vote for Republicans without being condescendingly told they are voting against their own interest is denying them agency because they are a member of an underrepresented group.
When being a part of a marginalized community disentitles people from complexity of thought, it perpetuates the same system of oppression and privilege that made those communities marginalized to begin with. We cannot simultaneously decry the existence of privilege and then exercise it to tell those who have been oppressed how they are allowed to advocate on their own behalf. If we want a meaningful social justice movement aiming at change for those who have been disenfranchised, we have to let go of the idea that we can assume a monolithic voting bloc. Fighting for increased political power for those who have been underrepresented means increased political diversity, and we have to make room for the fact that sometimes progress will bring more black Republicans.