In pre-pandemic days, as someone who splits his time between Rochester and Washington, D.C., I attended numerous lectures at think tanks and press events in the nation’s capital. Speakers ranged across the political divide from liberal and Democratic (Elizabeth Warren) to conservative and Republican (Mitch McConnell). Recently, in reviewing the events, one fact stood out for me: a good number of the conservative speakers I’d heard were African-American.
At the Heritage Foundation, I heard Kay Coles James—the conservative think tank’s first Black president. “The reason that I am a conservative today,” she recently told an interviewer, “is because I know—I have seen with my own eyes, have experienced it in my own life, I know—that conservative values and principles win the day.”
At the National Press Club, I heard Robert Woodson Sr., a veteran of the civil rights movement, launch the “1776 Unites” project to counter the New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which puts slavery at the center of American history.
At a hotel ballroom just blocks from the White House I heard 30-year-old author and commentator Candace Owens address 400 young people who had traveled to the capital for a conservative “Black Leadership Summit.”
Other Black conservatives whose work I’ve heard discussed include Jason Riley, columnist with the Wall Street Journal; author Shelby Steele; economists Glenn Loury and Thomas Sowell; and radio host Larry Elder.
It was interesting to hear these speakers because Black conservatives often don’t get much attention in the national discussion. In politics, African Americans are often treated as a monolithic voting group—one that overwhelmingly supports Democratic candidates. I wondered if the conservative views I was hearing were just those of public intellectuals speaking from a national platform or if they also hinted that conservative views, at least on some issues, were more popular among African Americans than their voting patterns might suggest.
First, some data. In a 2019 Washington Post article, “Five Myths About Black Voters,” Theodore R. Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, wrote that while Democratic Party presidential candidates often receive nearly 90 percent of the Black vote—President Donald Trump increased his Black support to 12 percent this year, but the overall pattern holds—Black support of Democrats is “a function of electoral pragmatism” and not a “devotion to left-wing ideology.”
According to the Pew Research Center, just 28 percent of Black Democrats consider themselves liberal, while 43 percent called themselves moderate and 25 percent called themselves conservative. And that’s just Black Democrats. A 2014 Pew survey of Black voters generally found that, on average, about 32 percent described themselves as conservative.
But what does this truly mean? Ideological labels are often in the eye of the beholder. “Conservative” can be hard to define. For some it means traditional, opposed to radical change; for others, it means support for limited government, or an emphasis on cultural issues.
To dig deeper into how this dynamic plays out at the local level—in Rochester—I reached out to Woodson, the former civil rights leader whom I’d heard speak.
Woodson is founder and president of the Woodson Center, a D.C.-based nonprofit that works to revitalize low-income communities. He’s familiar, he told me, with Rochester because in the 1980s, his organization worked closely with residents here to improve public housing.
Is it likely, I asked Woodson, that one would find a diversity of opinions—including conservative views—among some members of the local Black community?
“Absolutely,” he said, but then cautioned: “The problem is people in local communities will often be reluctant to speak out. That’s because the Left has made it unfashionable to be diverse. They talk about diversity as long as you agree with them, but they don’t believe in diversity of opinions and debate.
“You’ve got this cancel culture, too,” he continued. “People are fearful that if they depart from the liberal orthodoxy, they’ll have to pay a price.”
After speaking with Woodson, I began to make inquiries to find members of the Black community in Rochester who, regardless of party registration or how they vote, hold conservative views on some social or political issues.
Some, as Woodson had warned, declined to be interviewed. They said they feared the consequences—with family, friends, or employers—of going public with views that run counter to liberal positions.
But others were willing to speak. Our interviews, conducted by telephone or Zoom in the late summer and early fall with additional conversations following the Nov. 3 elections, covered a range of issues including affirmative action, welfare policies, policing and the deaths of George Floyd and Daniel Prude, public schools and school choice.
The accounts below are based on conversations I had with five individuals out of about twice that number with whom I spoke at length. Some of the individuals hold conservative views generally, but others express conservative values only on selected issues, so one should not infer anything about a person’s viewpoints beyond the specific issues addressed here. Also, some individuals do not choose to label their views as “conservative”—they are just their views, different perhaps from those commonly held in the Black community—but not necessarily aligned with any particular political philosophy. They represent a diversity of voices that, like those who sharply disagree with them, deserve to be heard.
SUNY college admissions adviser
“There’s no (local) platform for exchange of ideas among Black people who think like me,” says Michael Brown, who describes himself as a social conservative who leans Republican and libertarian. “So, people go underground; they don’t speak up, and they’re very rarely heard in the public discourse.”
And yet conservative viewpoints among Blacks are more common than generally known, he says. “A lot of people, even if they vote liberally, live conservatively.”
In the recent local elections, Brown mostly supported Republican candidates. In the national race, he voted for Trump.
Going public with conservative views, he says, risks a backlash.
“When you try having a conversation about it, it becomes an attack,” he says. “Even as I’m sitting here talking to you, I have to ask myself, ‘Am I willing to take the arrows that come my way?’ But, you know, so be it. I’m not a monolithic thinker; I don’t subscribe to groupthink. I’m not going to deny my own life experiences and the conclusions I’ve drawn as a result.”
Brown grew up in the 19th Ward, attended Joseph C. Wilson High School, and then SUNY Potsdam, where he earned a bachelor’s degree and completed coursework toward a master’s in education. For 25 years, he has worked as a college admissions adviser in the SUNY system.
“I’m not (so) naive to believe that all people have the same opportunity, the same advantages,” Brown says. “But I often challenge young people I interact with: With respect to the resources at your disposal, can you honestly look in the mirror and say, ‘I’ve done everything within my power to maximize the opportunities that have been afforded to me?’ That’s the real question.”
Brown has concerns about the use of race in making determinations about college admissions. “When we factor in race for admissions,” he says, “we’re presupposing there is some academic or socioeconomic disadvantage. But in my experience these conditions may also be due to personal decision making, attitudes, and effort. The best formula for making admissions decisions is assessing merit and academic preparedness. Otherwise, we’re employing an alleged ‘cure’ that’s the same, if not worse, as the disease.
“In conversations I’ve had, it’s clear that giving merit to a person who didn’t compete at the same level as someone else can create tension, hostility and frustration.
“I’ll use an analogy,” he continues. “There’re friends I play basketball with, but when I play in a game I want to win, some friends will never be on my team because when I select a guy, I don’t care about you’re white, you’re Black, or your socioeconomic background. I only care how skilled you are. With all the politics surrounding affirmative action, it’s become extremely contentious.”
I asked Brown about assertions of “systemic racism,” which has been generally defined as the cumulative effects of institutional factors that disadvantage people of color, Brown responds: “Do I believe racism exists? Absolutely, without question. Do I believe it’s so pervasive as to be systemic? For me to come to that conclusion requires evidence and data. I consider myself an objective, thinking person, and based on my life experience, I’m simply not convinced that’s the case.”
In the local case of Daniel Prude, whose death after Rochester police took him into custody has been ruled a homicide, Brown says the conduct of police may have been mischaracterized. “I was deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life of Daniel Prude,” he says. “And certainly, the police can be faulted for aspects of their conduct—particularly their lack of professionalism. But as a concerned citizen, I’ve watched very carefully the press conferences and the videos of how police are trained to respond in these circumstances, and though the media has swept the case up into an overarching narrative of other national cases like George Floyd, I haven’t seen to this point any evidence to suggest the police acted as they did solely because Prude was Black.
“There’s a lot of civil and political unrest going on in the nation right now,” Brown concludes, “but still—due in large part to Martin Luther King and many others who worked and struggled to transform our society—on this country’s worst day, there’s still not a place on the planet I’d rather live than the United States of America.”
Daryl Dickson states “emphatically” that she is not a Republican, and on many major issues her positions align with traditional liberal values. She believes, for example, that government should provide “basic access” to essential services—health care, housing, food, and education—without regard to one’s ability to pay. In regard to welfare, however, she holds what she describes as “probably a more conservative view.”
“I don’t believe in welfare just for the sake of welfare,” she says. “We need to educate and train people for jobs. I believe (welfare) should be a means to an end and that if someone is getting government support, then they have a responsibility to the community that is supporting them. That responsibility is to develop skills sufficient to qualify them for employment.”
The 1996 federal welfare reform law enacted during Bill Clinton’s presidency included some limits on assistance and stricter work requirements but gave states flexibility on implementation.
Dickson, formerly a human resource officer at Bausch & Lomb and other major corporations, now heads her own consulting firm, Dickson Consulting, working chiefly over the last nine years with a Maryland-based nonprofit, Management Leadership for Tomorrow, helping underrepresented minorities achieve career success.
She urges schools to make more vocational training options available.
“You have generation upon generation who dropped out of school, who are not employable,” she continues. “And why would we expect anything else from them besides relying on welfare or WIC (the federal supplemental nutrition program for women, infants, and children) or crime as a means of surviving unless we, as a society, take steps to rectify the issues? You can’t withhold the safety net, but what you can do is redesign it, so it brings about a more constructive outcome rather than a reliance that just perpetuates the status quo.”
Another issue on which Dickson holds strong views is public schools. A supporter of public education, she herself attended Detroit public schools, K-12, and holds a Ph.D. in educational psychology from a public institution, the University of Michigan. “I’m saddened,” she says, “by the fact that Rochester has such a long history of substandard graduation rates and I worry about the legacy we’re leaving for future generations in our community.”
She laments, for example, the failure of a recent string of Rochester school superintendents. “We’ve had a history of recruiting some very talented people who have found it difficult, if not impossible, to successfully navigate the system and to make a difference.” She cites “red tape associated with the school board” and “restrictions defined by labor contracts” as factors that have prevented school leaders from making improvements, including in graduation rates.
“Public education—and it’s not just in Rochester,” she says, “has turned into a political machine that for many individuals has created jobs or board appointments. But in the process, sometimes decision-makers undervalue the needs of children in deference to job security.”
In regard to local charter schools, Dickson notes, “there are successful charters that have improved student outcomes substantially, so what’s the difference between them and public schools? In most instances, charter teachers work outside the jurisdiction of the union and charter administrators are not subject to the public-school board guidelines, other than funding.
“I’m not an anti-union person,” she adds. “Unions have a place in society, and the teachers’ unions are doing everything within their power to protect what they consider to be the rights and privileges of their members. But the purpose of public schools is to meet the needs of children. My wish is that boards of education and teachers’ unions would both be more willing to look for ways to improve outcomes.”
Pastor, Church of Love Faith Center
“Within our congregation, we have Democrats as well as Republicans and independents,” says Terry Youmans, pastor of the Church of Love Faith Center, a non-denominational congregation in downtown Rochester. “Everyone has their opinions and you just celebrate those differences. Everybody gets along okay.”
On some social issues, such as abortion, the 400-member church holds clear views.
“We believe in pro-life,” says Youmans. “We believe every life that is conceived has a purpose according to the Bible.”
Youmans attended Edison Technical School, served in the Navy, and earned degrees from Monroe Community College and Northeastern Seminary at Roberts Wesleyan College.
He is accustomed, he explains, to diverse viewpoints. “I go to my own family reunions,” he notes, “and a majority of my family is Christian, but some are not. That doesn’t negate us from being family and fellowshipping and having fun with one another. We need to celebrate our differences, to be able to look at why we’re different and be able to discuss that, and not have conflict with each other.”
One of his aims, he says, is to help young members of his church learn to “sustain themselves economically.” In this, his approach aligns with a traditional, conservative view of free market enterprise and self-reliance.
“For all of (our youth),” he says, “the goal is to give them the tools to build a successful life,” including an understanding of finances and how to earn a living.
“We teach financial principles and about managing money properly within the family or by yourself. We have young people in our congregation—some still just in their 20s and now living in major cities—who have started businesses and that’s one of the things we encourage. Success includes financial independence, successful family relationships, and how to invest to be able to make good decisions.”
James McCauley Jr.
Director of community initiatives, Camp Good Days & Special Times
James McCauley graduated from St. John Fisher College in 1975. “If you weren’t a Democrat, then you could not be Black,” he recalls of that time. “Something was wrong with you. But when I graduated, the first thing I did was register as a Republican. People thought I was crazy. They said, ‘What is wrong with you? You must be an Uncle Tom.’
“But I’m an individual thinker,” he continues. “I’m not going to let anybody, Republican or Democrat—specifically Democrat—dictate how I’m going to think. And why do I say specifically Democrat? Well, let me see. You’re a Democrat. Your mother was a Democrat. Your mother’s mother was a Democrat. Your father’s father was a Democrat. And you still eatin’ welfare food? Your parents still can’t find a job to support their family? Something’s wrong with that.”
McCauley grew up in Rochester and attended East High School, where he was voted “Most Likely to Succeed.”
“My dad,” he recalls, “was the hardest-working individual I’ve ever met, and I thank God for him every day. He worked 16 to 17 hours a day, six days a week at Domine Builders Supply, and taught me by example how to be a man. That’s why I get up and go to work every day. I’m married (to Carolyn L. McCauley) for 39 years, have two sons and a daughter, and five beautiful grandchildren.”
For 25 years, McCauley worked for Monroe County, first as deputy director of child support enforcement and later as manager of employment services and affirmative action. He now runs Homework Huddle, an after-school tutoring program sponsored by Camp Good Days & Special Times for middle and high school students.
He takes a special interest in education and is concerned about removing police from city schools. Last July, the Rochester City Council voted as part of police budget cuts to remove school resource officers from RCSD schools.
“I cringe,” says McCauley, “at the thought that there may no longer be policemen in schools in the city of Rochester. The presence of school resource officers made a lot of folks—not just students, but teachers and administrators—feel a lot safer. If they’re going to be gone, that’s going to be a big issue in this community.”
As to the larger issue of “defunding the police,” which refers to the reallocation of funding away from the police department to other government agencies, McCauley strongly objects.
“There are some bad people in law enforcement and the incident with George Floyd will be burned in our minds and our hearts and souls forever, but to say ‘defund law enforcement’ is like taking the locks off the doors,” he says. “If we’re going to live in a civilized society, we need qualified, righteous law enforcement and I’ve met a ton of them. What we need instead is to increase the salaries of law enforcement officers to draw a better pool of individuals and to put more money into training. We should also remove law enforcement from civil service and run it more like a business—so that bad actors can be identified and removed instead of being protected by the civil service process.”
Police shootings also should not obscure concern about Black-on-Black crime, he says. Recalling the September shooting in northeast Rochester that left two dead and 14 wounded at a backyard party, he asks, “Where are the marches and closing of (Interstate) 490 until we find who did it? … It makes no sense to protest only police shootings and not Black shootings.”
Rev. Rickey Bernard Harvey
Senior pastor, Mt. Olivet Baptist Church
I asked Rev. Rickey Harvey, senior pastor since 2008 of Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, whether there exists within Rochester’s Black community a wide diversity of political views.
“Absolutely,” he says. “We may not be heard. We may not all get to speak, but when we do speak, we’re not monolithic. We don’t think the same on all the issues, whether it be social, racial, financial, or political.”
Currently, in addition to his pastoral duties, Harvey sits on Rochester’s Police Accountability Board, a part of city government charged with ensuring transparency and accountability of police conduct. In September, during nightly protests over the death of Daniel Prude, Harvey was on the scene, monitoring police conduct and urging both demonstrators and police to remain calm and nonviolent.
“I am concerned about those who want to defund the police,” he says, “and who are disrespectful of the police. I’d like to see our police department and our community have a better relationship, where the community trusts the police and the police can feel good about serving the community and not feel enslaved—by that I mean inhibited from doing their job—because of criticism of bad decisions some police have made in Rochester and other cities. Instead, I want the police when they leave home to feel good about serving and protecting us, as each resident of this community hopes and expects them to.”
An issue on which Harvey holds what he describes as a “diverse opinion” is the notion that today’s youths cannot succeed because they are victims of barriers—racial or otherwise—placed before them by society.
“Many are victims,” he notes, “of the barriers of education, of employment, of the environment, and of opportunities for our community that are less than opportunities for other communities.
“Many are victims, but not all who claim victim have really been victim,” adds Harvey. “Victim can be a result of incidents, but victim can also be a result of mentality; it can be connected to your thoughts.
“I don’t preach, and our church does not teach, victim. We teach success, we teach progress, we teach all things are possible if you believe.”
Harvey’s own upbringing echoes this view.
Born in 1964 in Memphis, Tenn. he was the eighth of nine children. “I was born to un-degreed parents,” he says, “parents with no degrees. I have five degrees (including doctor of divinity from Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School) and the majority of my siblings have multiple degrees.
“We were raised in a home where we never heard of race in terms of a hindrance to our success. (My parents) were able to get us all educated, all self-reliant, and all self-motivated. We were taught to work hard, get an education, get jobs or create streams of incomes for ourselves, and live our lives as we wanted to live them. All of us did exactly that.”
In the end, my conversations with members of the Black community in Rochester revealed not only some views that don’t align with liberal political positions or groups but also a diversity of opinions that can’t easily be labeled “conservative.”
As McCauley Jr., reflecting on his social and political viewpoints, put it: “I am an independent thinker. If you want a meeting for bobbleheads, don’t invite me because I do not just shake my head and agree. That’s not the way I roll. And I’ve been that way most of my life.”