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Race In America: ’08 HuffPo Election Coverage Generates Online Debate

By Tara Graham
Oct 14
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I had the opportunity to report for The Huffington Post’s “Off-The-Bus” election coverage team while studying journalism on an Annenberg Graduate Fellowship at the University of Southern California. The following story highlights excerpts from my interview with L.A. radio host Joe Hicks, a conservative who said he intended to vote for then-presidential candidate John McCain. The story was one of the most popular on the HuffPo site at the time it was published, and it sparked a lively debate in the comments section concerning the status of race in America.

McCain’s African-American Vote: L.A. Conservative Joe Hicks Is A Race-Weary Republican

Joe Hicks has a voice that commands attention. Deep in tone, yet smooth in delivery, it punctuates every sentence with an audible period, pauses for commas along the way, and serves the man well when he leans across his desk to elaborate a point.

“Obama believes that racism is still a big problem in the lives of black Americans — something I don’t believe,” says Hicks.

His claim is uttered with such conviction that most folks would flat-out dismiss his three-year stint with Ron Karenga’s black cultural nationalist United Slaves (US) organization, his very vocal defense of affirmative action during the 1990s, or his past leadership of a civil rights group founded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

For most of his life, Hicks was a proud liberal, even a Communist. But today, he sits in his downtown L.A. office, with a tie around his neck and a fountain pen tucked deep into his shirt pocket, pledging his support to John McCain and the Republican Party.

“I kinda like the idea of a guy who loses his cool,” Hicks admits, referring to McCain’s notorious temper. For a fleeting moment, the young militant who once ruled the roost steps back into view. With that unwavering, convincing voice of his, he adds, “and Sarah Palin is a good pick too.”

The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies reports that the nomination of an African American to the Democratic ticket is expected to yield a 15 percent to 20 percent increase in black voter turnout (compared to turnout in 2004) and result in national numbers in the range of 65 percent to 70 percent this year, with well over 90 percent of black voters expected to support Barack Obama.

Though few in number, the 10+/-5 percent of black voters who will remain steadfast Republicans in this election is worth examining. These folks are the marginalized of the marginalized. The rationale and effects of their voting against the bloc complicates the identity politics at play in this historic election.

Joe Hicks is one of the loyal few. He works as a conservative radio host for KFI 640 in Los Angeles. He also heads up a non-partisan political think tank that rebuts predominant views on race and society.

He may be black and conservative, but don’t dare call him a black conservative.

“Why do people need to put on the racial identifier?” Hicks asks, slightly annoyed.

He argues that this country needs to look through a trans-racial lens — one that de-magnifies the prominence of race in society — in order to address its problems. The black population, in particular, needs to reject the victim-based racial identity ascribed to it by those “NAACP whiners and complainers.” Most black conservatives contend that affirmative action and similar Democratic policies only reinforce racial prejudice by advantaging certain groups of people over others.

“The notion of a color-neutral society may be idealistic,” says Hicks, “but I think most people already get up in the morning, go about their business, and don’t think about their race . . . we may not be completely there yet, but I think that’s the good fight to be fought.”

Why, then, isn’t Barack Obama a suitable means for Joe Hicks and black conservatives to achieve (or inch closer to) the racially transparent end they so desperately seek?

Although Obama has attempted to implement what Ange-Marie Hancock, an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Southern California, calls a “racelessness strategy” throughout most of his campaign, come November many voters will approach their ballots with race in mind. But Hancock says not all black voters will support Obama simply because he is a black candidate.

For Joe Hicks, the decision not to support Obama comes down to political principles. He is not willing to forgo his conservative stance on a number of core issues, including the economy, national security, small government, and personal liberty.

However, Hicks knows several black conservatives who are torn over whom to support this year. Notably, J.C. Watts, the former Republican congressman from Oklahoma and CNN political contributor, has admitted his uncertainty.

In a U.S. News and World Report article, Richard Ivory, the founder of the famed Hip Hop Republican website, acknowledged that “[his] heart is with Obama, but [his] brain is with McCain.” Hicks neither understands nor agrees with Ivory’s conflation of emotion and political positioning.

“How strongly do you really feel about your political principles, if you can be so blinded by skin color and so enamored by this notion of the first black president?” asks Hicks.

Nezar AlSayyad, a professor of Architecture, Planning, and Urban History at the University of California at Berkeley, notes that the confusion experienced during this election by a number of conservative Republicans is more than mere politics at play — it’s identity politics at play.

“Identity politics is about sameness, not about difference,” says AlSayyad. Thus, certain norms are projected onto people because of their race, religion, or gender, and these norms have the potential to greatly influence how people behave. Or, in this instance, how they vote.

Joe Hicks isn’t ashamed to check the box next to McCain’s name on the November ballot, just as he wasn’t intimidated by the reactions of his colleagues when he decided to “come out” and acknowledge his conservative alignment in the mid-1990s. He did encounter antagonism — from being called an “Uncle Tom” to a “race traitor” to a “sell-out” — but his strong grasp of the issues and ability to backup his abrupt about-face served him well.

Austin Dragon, a longtime friend and founder of the Southern California Republican Club, says that Hicks is one of the club’s most popular speakers “because he basically breaks that stereotype of a rich, racist, sexist, gun-happy Republican.”

Joe Hicks does indeed break the mold — but mostly because he’s black. His Republican leaning makes him an atypical black voter, and his blackness makes him an atypical Republican. In other words, if McCain succeeds, Hicks will be the object of the black community’s resentment; if Obama wins, Hicks and his Republican Party loses.

So can this man ever win?

“If I wanted to be on the winning side, I’d be sitting here telling you how great Barack Obama is. That is the winning side. That is the winning side,” Hicks laughs.

And Hicks is right. For a black man, Barack Obama is the winning side — win or lose — because, in the community, race trumps politics. A vote for Obama is a vote for black pride. The only problem is: Hicks doesn’t identify himself as black.

“I’m conservative. I’m a Republican. Beyond that, I find the whole racial component a bit odd,” he says.

From Hicks’s perspective, there is nothing black and white about being black or white. So, in this election, he intends to do his own thing, vote for McCain, and add a little gray to the big picture.

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Lose the shirt off my back? Nah.

When life got dicey, I opened my closet doors, bypassed the blouses, and earned a (modest) payday by selling used hangers in 25-pack bundles.

More recently, I put my hustle into play at 500 Startups, the world’s most active venture capital fund and startup accelerator, where I led content, branding, marketing, operations, and corporate partnerships for business development and global programs.

Before transitioning into tech, I worked in higher education, teaching online research and media production classes across a variety of disciplines at the University of California, Berkeley. During that time, I also worked as the Director and Executive Producer of Digital Media Projects at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, where I co-founded and led The #GlobalPOV Project, a mixed-media approach to thinking about poverty, inequality, and undertaking poverty action.

In addition, I was the Director of Media at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, where I had the opportunity to interview Bashar al-Assad in his presidential palace in Damascus, Syria, in late December of 2010. I asked Assad if he considered himself a dictator. He dodged the inquiry, but his actions in the immediate weeks, months, and years to follow answered the question . . . and then some. Sadly.

Before that, I was a practicing journalist and graduate fellow at the University of Southern California. During that time, I worked as a web reporter and photographer for KCET’s “SoCal Connected,”​ as an online editor for the London-based New Statesman magazine, and as the co-editor-in-chief of USC Annenberg’s award-winning digital news website. I got my start in journalism as a full-time associate editor (and employee #20!) at P✪PSUGAR, a Sequoia-backed content and commerce startup turned global media empire.

My freelance reporting has been featured in NBC, CBS, and ABC news broadcasts and in online publications, including The Huffington Post. I have also done manuscript editing for various authors with recognized commercial and university presses.

You can find me tap dancing in the dark corners of my imagination to a sold-out audience of — none. Like most everything else, it’s all for fun.

Let’s connect! Join me on Twitter or Instagram or LinkedIn.


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