Episode Summary

Since the 1964 presidential election, Americans of African ancestry have voted overwhelmingly for Democratic presidential candidates. Republicans in most races usually get in the single digits, according to decades of opinion surveys.

On the surface, it may seem like Black Americans have an undying loyalty to the Democratic party. But when you take a closer look, you see that there’s a much more complicated situation. And that’s because Black Americans are actually no different than any other racial or ethnic group in having multiple perspectives on politics and society.

In fact, many Black people are actually conservative and not just on religious matters, but they don’t want to vote for a Republican party that has a decades-long history of empowering and pandering to racists, especially since Donald Trump came on the political scene in 2015.

But even that aspect is complicated as well, because Trump actually got more Black votes in 2020 than he did during his first presidential run. According to exit polling by Edison Research in 2016, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 69 points among Black men. But four years later, Joe Biden had only a 60 point margin. A similar trend happened among Black women. In 2016, Democrats won the group with 90 percent of the vote. In 2020, they won with 81 percent. This trend parallels a similar movement among Hispanic voters, which we’ve discussed at length in a previous episode of Theory of Change.

Joining me to discuss is Brandi Collins-Dexter. She’s the author of a book that will be coming out in September called Black Skinhead: Reflections on Blackness and Our Political Future. She’s also a former senior campaign director at Color of Change, a progressive activism group.

The video of our July 28, 2022 conversation is below. The transcript of the edited audio follows.


MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Welcome to Theory of Change, Brandi. Glad to have you here.

BRANDI COLLINS-DEXTER: Yes. Thank you for having me on.

SHEFFIELD: All right. Well, so let me [00:04:00] just put the book up on the screen here. So there’s the cover, and for those who are listening, it is a picture of a Black man looking in a small mirror and running a razor on his head to shave it.

So tell us, first of all, the term skinhead, people associate skinhead with White nationalists and racist White people. But that’s not the connotation that you’re using here.

COLLINS-DEXTER: No. But I am drawing from the origins of the skinhead. I think a, a lot of folks, particularly in the U.S. may not be aware that skinhead as a subculture was actually, I would say the first multicultural subculture in working class London in the 70s and 80s.

So it was created by teenagers and, and young folks in, I would say Briston and other parts of London. And it drew from Jamaican and ska, and reggae, and soul music, and the aesthetic of a shaved head. And the combat boot was all tied to these teenagers, folks that had jobs that required them to have working boots.

And what we saw over time with the skinhead is that it went from being this multicultural music and aesthetic driven subculture to getting really fractured by economic changes that were happening in London. And really that kind of zero-sum fighting that comes in where you start to think that other people are taking your job and opportunities.

And so we saw the skinhead movement fracture and become increasingly more what we see as a White nationalist representation of that. And so, that was sort of the baseline where I started from, this idea of how culture shifts and how race and identity politics interrupt movements and the directions in which that drives us.

And that was when I started thinking about “Black skinhead” as a concept. It also is, of course, for folks that know, for Kanye fans, a shout-out and [00:06:00] acknowledgement of “Black Skinhead,” which is one of Kanye’s songs that explores these themes of isolation, anger, and frustration with corporations and government.

SHEFFIELD: Mm-hmm. Yeah. And this book is definitely not a typical sort of political analysis book; that it’s highly personal. And so it’s for somebody who’s not inclined to read political statistical books. I would recommend it to someone who’s trying to get a better handle on what Black Americans are thinking about stuff.

But in the course of writing it, you talked to lots of different people across the country. I mean, tell us about some of the people that you were talking to.

COLLINS-DEXTER: Yeah. So I’ll start by saying that the writing of the book started with my time as a fellow at Harvard and I’m associate research director at the Tech and Social Change Lab.

And it started by looking at online communities and particularly Black political expression and identity online, and how people were talking to each other, how misinformation, disinformation was circulating in different spaces, and how that was then manifesting in political behavior expression offline.

But I realized as I began to write this story, that to get to the misinformation, disinformation, all of, all of these concepts that are in vogue now, you had to begin by telling the story of media and the story of Black cultural building and, and Black identity.

And so with the book I spoke to somewhere between 40 and 50 Black voters between the ages of 18 and 108 was the oldest person that I talked to of all different political leanings. “Black MAGA,” Black leftists that were doing write-in votes for Nina Turner in the 2020 election, capital D Democrats, and people that opted not to vote for very clear reasons.

I wanted to get this holistic picture, both anecdotally and through the experiences of [00:08:00] different folks, and then pairing that with both data collection, raw voter data collection research, and more traditional research and data collection. And a number of different, additional source material to kind of like supplement or back up some of the things that I was hearing or observing in the different interviews. And then of course my own family, there are aspects of my personal memoir in it as well.

SHEFFIELD: One of the themes that you do very well to kind of expound on is that there are multiple ways in the Black experience in America of how you can move forward. There are many stories of somebody who through their own effort or talent is able to exit poverty and either have a comfortable middle class or upper middle class or even wealthy lifestyle.

And then you’ve got other people who worked collectively to do things, whether that’s in a union or through political organizing. And then there’s people who just don’t think there’s a point to any of it. And they’re kind of ” embracing the suck,” as the phrase goes, and just kind of accepting that nothing can change for the better.

That’s really kind of been, when you look at the way that Black Americans have voted, that not only do you need to look at the party share but you also have to look at the turnout. So the percentage of Black people who could vote, are they actually voting and is that fluctuating over time?

And and one of the things that is a, maybe a microcosm of how all that works is the Black attitude toward Barack Obama.


SHEFFIELD: And how that’s kind of shifted over time. But at the same time, there’s still kind of a natural protectiveness toward him and his family. Talk a little bit about Obama in the beginning, and how things changed over time, or how they’ve stayed the same.

COLLINS-DEXTER: Yeah. So just to go back a little bit, when I talk about the “Black skinhead” as a concept, I define that in a few ways. So talk about Black people that don’t see their voting [00:10:00] behavior as a reflection of their political identities.

So this might be people that disagree with abortion, are super conservative in their own personal life, but choose to vote Democrat because they think that Democrats will better serve the Black community at scale. And they’re concerned with issues of Black community improvement. So it’s, it’s those folks who feel like their identity is kind of disconnected from their voting behavior.

And then there’s folks who kind of live outside the bounds of the ways in which Black voters are talked about in mainstream media spaces. So when it came to Obama and President Obama, there were a couple of things going on there. One, we saw the rise of a presidential candidate that felt very young, very fresh, didn’t really have a record to hold against him. So could be anti-war, could be like kind of all of these things, and not necessarily have old clips, and a voting record to hold up against him– that had this image of a Black family in a way that really resonated with people in a similar way to, maybe The Cosby Show, or other examples of Black of families and pop culture.

But also what I talk about in the book is that a lot of the rise of Obama was tied to old fashioned organizing. I think a lot of us that remember that time, remember that much was made of President Obama being a community organizer. Some of us remember Sarah Palin on stage talking about mayor’s kind of like a community organizer, except I do real work, all of these kind of things.

But what we found is that community organizing works. And what we saw in Obama was a candidate that older Black voters were not necessarily sold on. In that period of time, they were much more breaking for Hillary Clinton. She seemed like the tried and true candidate that had the Clinton name behind her.

A lot of Black folks, including my sister and others were very staunch Hillary supporters. But you saw a lot of organizing take place in communities like South [00:12:00] Carolina and other conservative places that really got Black voters to break away from what their inclined voter behavior might be.

And one of the things that I offer in the book is that what makes a candidate successful is three things: Authenticity. So they ping as somebody that feels very true and real to Black voters in good and bad ways.

Two: Viability. That this candidate can win. And some of that is some of the lessons taken from the [Walter] Mondale election where Black voters turned out at very high numbers for Mondale and he got kind of slaughtered by Reagan and I believe that was the 84.

SHEFFIELD: Well, and, and they also went for Jesse Jackson as well during that, in the primary, and it didn’t work.

COLLINS-DEXTER: Yeah. But Mondale actually went back and invested a lot of time in resources and organizing Black communities, especially in places like Chicago and Illinois.

He worked with Mayor [Harold] Washington, who was the first Black mayor in Chicago at that time. And he did all that, but the White voters weren’t there; they broke at very high numbers, historically high numbers for Reagan and the rest is history, but you have authenticity viability. And will this person kind of move an authentic Black agenda.

And what we saw through community organizing is that you were able to get voters to believe in the power of Obama and his ability to move a Black agenda. But what we saw in the years following is that in terms of, well, one, he was stepping into the ’08 recession and there was a lot of fallout from that.

I think Black people lost somewhere around 50% of Black wealth from the ’08 recession that has not come back. People didn’t see their tangible surroundings change in a way that felt like ‘we have this Black president, we have this symbolic representation, but we’re not ha seeing like tangible benefits at scale.’

And as the online environment shifted and people became more and more fractured, and frankly exploitable in a lot of ways, you see this real [00:14:00] turn of cynicism around Obama, around the Obama legacy, around the Democratic party in general, and people feeling like we took a chance on hope and hope didn’t work out.

And so you’ve seen people take a much more critical lens. So president Obama, I think the “linked fate” and the pride in seeing a Black president and a Black first family is still there. But people are more willing nowadays to talk about some of the things that maybe he left unfinished during his presidency, or certainly his administration did.

SHEFFIELD: And I think also, maybe during the time when he was the president, there was kind of a contraction of Black media.


SHEFFIELD: Whether that was Black owned and operated media, but also whereas before Obama came along, to the extent that there were Black political commentators on TV, they were more kind of independent of the Democratic party to some degree or another, like they were a reporter or they were a columnist or something like that.

But when Obama came in and brought out all these new operatives in his orbit and many of them were Black. Not all of them, some of them were not, the ones at the top were not primarily. A lot of these people came into the punditry scene and it kind of changed the way that Black commentary about politics changed. It became, seems like, a lot more institutional and explicitly defensive about the Democratic party, protective explicitly of the Democratic party, and saying that Black people need to just sit down and do what the Democrats say. Would you agree with that?

COLLINS-DEXTER: Yeah. I mean, I think there’s a couple of things at play.

So one of the things that I want to say is that I want to suggest the book Fire on the Prairie, which is about the rise of Harold Washington as the first Black mayor and what we saw in the organizing and the work that had to come together to get him elected is very much the model of which Obama from America is drawn from.

And a lot of the Black media makers, politicians, and thinkers that were also leftists, or across different political ideologies, but [00:16:00] certainly a lot of leftists, a lot of populists that came together are to get Harold Washington elected, those were some of the people that Obama also drew from when he was beginning his run.

So these would be the folks like Jeremiah Wright, Michael Dawson, a number of different folks we could name.

SHEFFIELD: Chicago defender, yeah.

COLLINS-DEXTER: All of that, but Lou Palmer, but what we saw actually happen is that when Obama got elected, some of those more leftist grassroots folks were actually left behind. We saw infamously with Reverend Wright that he was publicly condemned by Obama in what turned out to be this really devastating way.

So the Black folks that went to DC and, and kind of took on this new class, those were not necessarily, I would argue, not all of those folks were necessarily the people that were core to the base building model that helped him win. But the other aspect of this is that, and I can say this as somebody who was doing digital organizing and doing a lot of work during the administration, it was so hard to organize against him.

We would have things that we were fighting for and pushing back on in terms of economic policy or lack thereof, like some of the things that were taken out of what became Obamacare, others. And there was definitely this sense of ‘you can’t make the Black president look bad, you can’t call him out publicly.’

So it wasn’t just the pundits and the political ops that were moving into television. It was also just even in attempting to do grassroots organizing. It fundamentally changed when we had a Black president, because it was that much harder to critique and hold him accountable in the same way that other presidents theoretically could be.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and, to that end, you mentioned briefly, and I wanted to kind of pick that back up as a, as a broader topic. The idea of “linked fate” as a political motivator among Black Americans. Tell us a little bit about what that concept is. What does it mean?

COLLINS-DEXTER: Yes. So linked [00:18:00] fate is a concept that comes from Dr. Michael Dawson, who’s a professor at University of Chicago, and he did what I think still continues to be one of the most robust surveys of Black political identity and expression, and looked at all of the different political leanings and also offered this term called linked fate. And that was the ways in which Black people engage, build community, work, and vote in ways that operate towards a greater good of the community.

A very classic example of this as far as voting behavior is something I mentioned earlier. Whereas you may have a upper middle class or wealthy Black voter who as an individual would benefit more from tax breaks or a number of different types of economic policies that preserve wealth at the top, but because of linked fate and this concern around the welfare of Black community and Black people, and being able to have a level of empathy in which you see when something happens to someone else in your community, it’s as though it’s happening to you. Because of that, that’s been the gel that’s kept Black voters at a sort of 90% Democratic voter base and has been able to be organized in these different ways historically.

SHEFFIELD: Mm-hmm. Yeah, it was a, it was a way of cutting across class or education and getting people to understand that things that you may not perceive as directly relevant to you, they’re still relevant to people who, you know, and, and where you come from.

COLLINS-DEXTER: And all of our fates are linked together. So if something happens to this person over here, even though I might be in a different place, if we allow that to happen to this Black person, then that means we’re now vulnerable in our safe space.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and over time though, that concept in some ways has kind of broken down somewhat among Black [00:20:00] Americans. And some of that has been along political lines in terms of frustration with feeling like Obama did not live up to his end of the bargain on that. But then also just as you now have some Black families who have multi-generational wealth or multi-generational middle class status, it’s harder for the grandchildren or great grandchildren of somebody who came up in Southern segregation to have any memory or see that as a relevant experience to them.

But I would say you could even go further back to that with the idea of the “Talented Tenth.”


SHEFFIELD: Which was originally a concept that was floated very early on as a way of helping Black people advance societally. But, in a lot of ways, I think you could argue that it kind of, it made it so that some people shifted from looking out for the community to looking out for themselves. But I don’t know. You tell me.

COLLINS-DEXTER: Yeah. I mean, I, I think there’s a couple things I would say there. I think one of the concepts that we see in the Talented Tenth that may be more familiar to your audience is that essentially it’s a type of trickle down economics, or that’s how it can manifest in some ways.

SHEFFIELD: Which is ironic because W.E.B. Du Bois was definitely not conservative by any stretch of the imagination.

COLLINS-DEXTER: Exactly, exactly. But this idea that like the top 10% are the most learned, the people that have the responsibility and the power to kind of uplift the race. But how that has manifested in more modern times is this idea that if we build this wealth at the top, that’ll be what kicks down and supports the people at the bottom.

So there’s more this preoccupation with drilling a hole in glass ceilings than there is in lifting the floor at scale. And so that’s one of the things that we’ve seen. Even when we look at issues around corporate power and the ways in which major corporations– you can say Comcast, Google, you can run them down– have been really adept at centering Black executives or Black voices[00:22:00] as a way to neutralize more progressive fights around and calls for regulation.

But the other thing I’ll say too, is that one of the things that I think I took for granted before I started diving into this book is that Black culture is a very 20th century creation. I would argue in a lot of ways, it’s certainly something that’s post-slavery because a lot of it is driven by the ability to share, to build a shared story and to circulate a shared story.

SHEFFIELD: Oh, and to perceive that you had a shared story. To even be aware that that existed.

COLLINS-DEXTER: Yes. That was something that really couldn’t happen, pre-Civil War. And so really, especially in the early 20th century, you see the rise of Black owned newspaper and media. I think there was over a hundred Black newspapers in Illinois alone.

You see the rise of Black radio. You see the rise of public spheres, spheres that become these places where Black culture is developed and codified, and where movement building comes from.

And what you’ve seen over time, because of deregulation, a number of other things that started happening under Reagan, accelerated under Clinton, got even worse so under Obama, et cetera, et cetera, is that those localized spaces for media and business ownership are gone or are being eroded away. And the 2008 recession made that even, even worth worse. A lot of Black wealth was tied in the land that churches were owned, was tied on those things that got lost in the housing crisis.

And so because of the absence of that, that makes it harder to cultivate a shared consciousness, a shared story, a type of linked fate. And I think that’s, that’s also part of this.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And related to that is that as the idea of a shared Black story or experience broke down, it also has created opportunities for right wing Republican [00:24:00] ideologues to try to make inroads among Black Americans.

And of course there are a lot of Black Americans who are conservative. Like attitudes towards same sex marriage, Black Americans were the group that was the most opposed to same sex marriage for the longest time, as a majority.


SHEFFIELD: And of course, a lot of that plays into religion, but Republicans have always been trying to crack that nut. To get people who agree, who share a lot of the same fundamentalist religious perspectives as them, might not believe in evolution might think that homosexuality should be criminalized, to say, ‘Well, look, we agree with all that stuff too. You should vote for us.’

But their willingness to pander to segregationists in the beginning, and now, with White nationalists, it’s made it harder for them, but at the same time, things are beginning to crack.

And in terms of media ownership, there’s an interesting little side note to that. There’s this guy named Armstrong Williams. Armstrong Williams is a conservative Republican activist and commentator with this company called the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which is–


SHEFFIELD: — a Republican linked company that owns lots of local affiliates across the country, but they also have carved out a space for him where he has his own company.

And basically he, as far as I know, may be one of the, if not the largest minority owner of television stations in America, and he’s just a regular Republican activist. And when you look at the way that Republican media enterprises, they actually seem to make a better effort.


SHEFFIELD: To put forward Black voices, I would say. And to support them, whether that’s Candace Owens or, like they got really big behind this woman named Kim Klacik, who was running a really long shot campaign in Maryland where you live. They’re constantly trying to put forward Black voices, but you know, they’re doing it not in always a very authentic way.

[00:26:00] You call a lot of these people “Black conservative avatars.” Talk about all this a little bit, if you could.

COLLINS-DEXTER: Yeah. So in my book, Black Skinhead, I have these two chapters and so one is called “An Abomination of Obamanation.” And the second one is called “My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy.”

And in “Abomination,” I really talk about the rise of the Black conservative avatar, somebody who becomes, or people who become this kind of pundit class that proclaim to speak for Black people in Black communities, but don’t actually have a Black base.

Part of where this comes from is Turning Point USA and Charlie Kirk, and this development of trying to appeal to younger voters with conservatism and how Candace Owens enters into that, transitioning from, she was originally a progressive feminist journalist that was once seen talking about Donald Trump’s penis size and proclaiming that it was very small and all of this typical stuff.

And then all of a sudden she, goes through a scandal around “doxing” and emerges as Red Pill Black Girl, which is this pundit who’s coming out as a Republican, talking about how she’s a victim, and has all of this dark money swirling around her and gets uplifted as this voice.

You also have at the same time folks like Diamond and Silk who were Democratic voters. I don’t even, I can’t even remember if they voted in the 2016 election, but it’s these people, and then you have Ali Alexander, who is one of the organizers at the January 6th insurrection. So you have a lot of these folks that are getting promoted in right wing spaces as people that proclaim to speak for Black folks.

But the interesting part about it is not only do they not– I can’t remember if this got cut because of legal, but I think I said in the book that I don’t think Candace Owens could lead Black people at scale off the [00:28:00] Democratic plantation if she was wearing a sexy Harriet Tubman outfit that says “For liberation, turn right.”

But what we do have is how, as you pointed out, a lot of Black conservatives who are emerging, who can be organized a little more. And so part of what you’re seeing particularly at the local level is the rise of what’s called, they call themselves the “conscious Black conservatives.” And so they are conservatives that have an explicitly pro-Black lens and are more of a callback to the traditional Black conservative, like the Booker T Washington or the others.

And they are some of the folks that have been organizing, talking to folks like Kim Klacik. She’s interesting. She’s had a foot in both worlds, but have definitely been successful at getting more candidates out there. I believe right now there’s more Black people in the Republican party in Congress right now than we’ve had since Reconstruction or a similar number.

And then in the midterms coming up, there’s 81 Black Republicans running for, I believe, 72 congressional seats in the midterms. And so they’re out there, they’re organizing. And I think the question is, can voters tell the real from the fake, can they tell the kind of “ops,” with Kanye’s 2020 run being a classic example of that, versus folks who they think can actually have a positive impact in their community.

And, and that’s some of the stuff that we’re really paying attention to and, and that I’m certainly watching, going into this and future elections.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, just to go back to Kanye West though. So we talked before the show that he’s kind of somebody who is a good reflector of the people who are around him and–


SHEFFIELD: –kind of repeats back the things they say and in, in a remix kind of fashion.

But at the same time, he does seem to have some genuine beliefs which kind of do map to this Black conservative tradition. And he had them before he fell in with people like Candace Owens–


SHEFFIELD: And Donald Trump. I think you can see that way back when he was trying [00:30:00] to say that he was going to rebrand the Confederate flag to be his flag. Because he believed that you could, if you just did it hard enough or, used celebrity enough, you could overcome any sort of discrimination or problem. It’s funny though, because that attitude is really straight out of Norman Vincent Peale, who was actually Donald Trump’s pastor when he was growing up as a kid. So it’s almost inevitable that he would be drawn to Donald Trump in that way.

But there are a lot of Black people who have this idea like what West infamously said that ‘slavery was a choice.’ But he didn’t quite mean it in that way, but it was still a very strange remark. Talk a little more about Kanye West in all of this and how you write about him in the book .

COLLINS-DEXTER: Yeah. So, I mean, in a lot of ways, so one thing I’ll say, as you mentioned at the top, is that this isn’t necessarily going to be a traditional political book that takes a very straight and narrow road to the end. For me, I think I’m a latchkey kid. I’m a product of pop culture. And so how I relate things and how I understand terms tends to be to link them back to something that feels familiar with me or familiar to me. And so, as I was looking at certain Black voter expression online and how that was operating in certain spaces, I noticed that a lot of it sounded very similar to what we were hearing Kanye West say.

And I, it was, I believe, in 2019 when he released the “Jesus Is King” album, which is a gospel album, and talks a lot about how he was canceled before canceled culture. So no more living for the culture, he’s nobody’s slave. So he’s like kind of playing around with a lot of this language of being able to liberate himself from mental slavery.

And I wanted to know [00:32:00] why I wanted to know where that came from. I also think it’s very different from his mother, Donda, who people that know him know she was a heavy influence in his life. But what a lot of people may not know is that she was a professor, an academic, and she was one of the first people to talk about Ebonics as coded language and part of Black culture, an important expression and a way in which Black people spoke to each other when they were being surveilled by White eyes and ears, and so sort of legitimizing it as a field.

So her backstory is very tied to preservation of Black culture and experience. And it’s very wild that she has this son who’s talking about no more living for the culture, but when you look at his bio a little bit, you see, one, that he comes from a family from Oklahoma that has this very much ‘bootstraps’ mentality that speaks to the more traditional leanings of Black conservatism.

But also I believe he was raised middle class. He, his mother took him to Japan where I think he lived for a few years. He went to the Chicago schools and where he went to as young person, it was like a gifted tech school. And I think he spent a lot of time alone as an only child mulling over a lot of concepts and processing them in a way that I think feels different from his mom’s approach.

And so how I treated Kanye, I saw him as an entry point into certain types of Black conservatism, but also identifying the ways in which that feels somewhat in conflict in ways in which I think he’s in conflict. And essentially I see him as a quintessential Black skinhead and somebody who’s an example of somebody that when you put yourself in isolation and you lose your community, this is the path that you start to take, and this is the road that you start to go down. And so that’s how I treat him as a subject throughout this book. And also he’s the one that introduced the world to Candace Owens him, simply tweeting, “I like the way Candace Owens thinks,” is the thing that really propelled her into this different space, got her meeting at the White [00:34:00] House with Donald Trump, et cetera.

So he’s very much introducing these different concepts into pop culture, but he’s also, as you said, very moldable and sort of being shifted around by different folks in different ways, if that makes sense.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. The other thing about West as a political person, is that he’s got this innate religious conservatism about himself.

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