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Republican Byron Donalds is Black. That’s basically the talking point

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Picture: US Congress – Byron Donalds is a conservative Republican from Florida who was elected to Congress in 2020. He is a Trump supporter and was among the Republicans in Congress who voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election results.

By Robin Givhan

While the House of Representatives (elect) was in the midst of a marathon comedy of stubbornness and entitlement as it has taken more than a baker’s dozen of votes to select a new speaker, a side tragedy of insults and accusations unfolded between waiting-to-be-sworn-in members Cori Bush and Byron Donalds. The back-and-forth reeked of antebellum belittlement, intra-racial prejudices, bright ambition along with a whiff of misogyny. It was condescending. It was painful. It was fraught.

Ultimately, the entire mess was a reminder of America’s problem with Black Republicans. They are never just … Republicans.

The public will be forgiven for not having much familiarity with the players in this contretemps. Bush is a liberal Democrat from Missouri who was elected to Congress in 2021. She gained prominence as an activist during the Black Lives Matters protests in Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown Jr. In Congress, she championed Black maternal health and defunding the police. Donalds is a conservative Republican from Florida who was elected to Congress in 2020. Before coming to Washington, he was part of the Florida state legislature. He is a Trump supporter and was among the Republicans in Congress who voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election results.

Neither Bush nor Donalds was born with distinctive advantages other than, perhaps, faith and gumption. They are two Black Americans who dwell at opposite ends of the political spectrum. On day two of the hunt for a Speaker, Republicans nominated Donalds. Donalds signed off on the nomination by voting for himself multiple times. Bush declared him a “prop”. He was not amused. The public could follow this because it all unspooled on Twitter, which remains the favoured stage for all acts of performative politics.

Bush later explained that she didn’t have anything against Donalds personally, or because he’s a Black man or because he’s a Republican. No. She just wanted to inform him that he was being mistreated by his party and that he should stand up for himself. Hers was a protective gesture toward a colleague. A bit of sisterly love, if you will. As Bush told HuffPost: “I want him to understand: They’re only using you … don’t let them do that to you.”

Perhaps Donalds was being used by Republicans. But one could argue they’d also used Andy Biggs (Arizona), Jim Jordan (Ohio) and Kevin Hern (Oklahoma) and anyone else they threw into the voting pool knowing that they had little chance of winning more votes than Kevin McCarthy (California).

But it’s never that simple for Black Republicans. They cannot be used with aplomb. Their ambition can’t be merely craven. They are a minority within a minority. They are often viewed with suspicion by more liberal Black Americans as treacherous because they seem to vote against their own interests or at least the interests of the multitudes who look like them. Even though White Americans regularly make decisions at the polls that would do themselves and their neighbours’ harm, often because of a vision of themselves in the distant future as a millionaire mogul, society expects Black Americans to be a cohesive voting population – to move arm-in-arm toward a shared future. That sense of community, after all, has been powerful. It has paid dividends. And there’s still work to do.

So the outliers become problematic. They often feel the sting of insults and assumptions about how they define their racial identity or about whether they really understand the ramifications of racism. The exchanges between Bush and Donalds reflected generations of this complex animus. To what end? Perhaps wounds exposed even briefly to the light have a better chance of healing.

In Donalds’s retort, he admonished Bush to let an ambitious Black man rise: Don’t be the Black woman knocking down a Black man even if you disagree with him. That’s another injurious trap: that a Black woman should remain silent in the face of the harm she believes a Black man is committing. That she shouldn’t be the one to highlight his failures even if they are clear and dire and she’s in the best position to fully understand the consequences.

All of this blossomed into view. Seeded by ambition. Fuelled by anger and hurt. She belittled Donalds. He tried to put her in her place.

All the while, standing off to the side, were Donalds’ fellow Republicans who just can’t ever seem to have a conversation about race, diversity or inclusiveness without becoming awkward and defensive. Chip Roy (Texas) nominated Donalds by paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr about judging people by the content of their character instead of by the colour of their skin. These men and women declare themselves so blind to race that they keep tripping over it. Republicans trying to make rousing and convincing arguments about their commitment to diversity reel off snippets of King’s speeches as if they’re cracking open an emergency vial of smelling salts.

In his nomination of Donalds, Scott Perry (Pennsylvania) reached back to Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln to paint the party as welcoming to Black folks. But harking back to the days when theirs was the party of Lincoln only underscores how much it has transformed, how it has evolved into the party of Trump.

A lot of wounds and worries came into view when Donalds was suddenly standing in the spotlight. What it means to be part of the Black community. Who can criticise a Black man’s politics and aggrandisement. As well as, his party’s ungainly understanding of diversity and representation. But more than anything, Donalds forced the uncomfortable question of whether an ambitious Black man – ultra conservative, Trump-loving – can also just be a Republican.

Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press.

This article was first published in The Washington Post