As a crowd listened to President Donald Trump speak in the East Room on Friday, chants of “USA” and “four more years” reverberated amid the gold drapes and crystal chandeliers. There were curiously no MAGA hats. But one woman was wearing a “Black AF” pin on her gray suit.
In attendance were some of the hundreds of young black conservatives who came to Washington this past week as a show to liberal America that African Americans can be conservative and support Trump—that the conservative movement is not just for old white men.
“The media narrative is that African Americans don’t support the president,” said R.C. Maxwell, a 31-year-old Republican consultant. “We are happy to demonstrate that there is a larger African-American community that appreciates the job that the president has done.”
These young people, including Maxwell, had traveled to the capital for the second annual Black Leadership Summit, put on by Turning Point USA, a national conservative, often Trump-aligned campus group. More than 400 people from across the country attended, a Turning Point representative said. And the three-day summit featured 17 speakers, including YouTube stars, pastors, a Breitbart News editor—and an address from the president himself. Speakers pushed a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” narrative, and panels touched on conservative values like free markets, gun rights and the Bible. Attendees were encouraged to organize as conservatives and go back to their communities as leaders to help change the norm for black voters.
“This is the herculean effort of the century,” Charlie Kirk, Turning Point‘s 25-year-old founder and executive director, said in an interview. “How can you get black America to think differently ideologically?”
That’s, of course, a tall order. Only 8 percent of black voters identify in some way with the Republican Party, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey. And in a recent AP-NORC poll, only 4 percent of black people said they think Trump’s actions have been good for African Americans. Young people, too—more than two-thirds of them, according to a recent Harvard IOP poll of 18- to 29-year-olds—overwhelmingly disapprove of the president.
But attendees at the summit said they believe Trump—despite the “birther” conspiracies, his “both sides” comments about the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and his referring to parts of Africa as “shithole countries”—has done more for black America than any other president. To them, accusations of racism against Trump stem from the media, not Trump’s own actions. Many said they admire the president’s personal success and believe he shares their values—in strong families, faith, criminal justice reform, a border wall and opposition to abortion. And they believe fellow black Americans can be convinced of the same.
Kirk said the Black Leadership Summit was the brainchild of Candace Owens—Turning Point’s former director of communications. Owens has become a popular, and controversial, figure in her own right, advocating for a “Blexit,” or exit by black Americans from the Democratic Party.
“For decades we have been disrespected by the Democrats. We have empowered their party, lined the pockets of their politicians, and gotten positively nothing in return for our blind allegiance and faithfulness,” Owens said in her introduction for Trump at the White House.
Many attendees said they see the First Step Act, which enacted criminal justice reforms; Trump’s welcoming of Christianity in the White House; his tough stance on immigration; and his tax bill’s creation of “opportunity zones,“ which encourages investment in cities, as concrete steps the administration has taken to support the black community. They also pointed to the country’s record low black unemployment, which economists say can be attributed to more than Trump’s presidency. (The summit was sponsored by conservatives organizations including Liberty University and The Heritage Foundation.)
On the matter of race, attendees said they were proud to be rebuffing the political norm for African Americans, and their existence as an anomaly gave an energetic undercurrent to the summit.
“Race should have nothing to do with your choice of thought,” said Kearyn Bolin, 20, the Turning Point president at Texas State University. Bolin stood on Trump’s side while he delivered his speech in the East Room, and she gave her own remarks in support of president. While he shook everyone’s hand on stage, he kissed her on both cheeks and complimented her silver box braids that stretch to her waist. Bolin says people have called her racist for her conservative beliefs, but that helps her empathize with Trump when people call him racist. She also rejects the idea that white people are inherently racist: “If I am half-white, does that make me half-racist?”
A recent convert to conservatism, Jono Thomas, 26, said the summit offered him a respite from his liberal hometown, Houston, where he is starting a vegan comfort food restaurant. After returning from the White House, Thomas, in a top hat, white dress shirt, gray pinstripe pants and wool scarf, gathered with four other black men and one Latino man in the Capitol Hilton. (Turning Point says it paid for lodging for all attendees between the ages of 15 and 28, and gave scholarship money to more than a quarter of the participants to be able to attend; the price of admission was $10.)
The young men talked about their political opinions almost as if they were swapping war stories. They bonded over family members who refuse to talk with them and friends who no longer interact with them. Although they agreed on positions like tough immigration laws and abortion restrictions, they said they hadn’t come to the summit for political reasons, so much as to learn how to be better leaders and advocates for their values.
The men said they support Trump because they think of him as anti-establishment, and that the establishment has repeatedly failed black America. They said they reject what they believe is a “victim mentality” in the black community and proudly defy the Democratic Party, which they believe takes black America for granted.
Thomas said he does not believe systemic racism exists in America. But he does believe bias exists. “Representation matters because you have to be able to relate,” he said, when asked about the high mortality rate of black mothers compared with white mothers.
Corey D. Fields, an associate professor of sociology at Georgetown University and author of Black Elephants in the Room: The Unexpected Politics of African-American Republicans, said he believes in the sincerity of the conference’s attendees, but that they do not represent the majority of black Republicans. In his research on African-American Republican activists (who, he notes, are not necessarily reflective of all black Republicans), Fields has found that a majority believe institutional racism affects the black community and want the party to become more diverse. “The ‘blame black people types’ were in the minority,” Fields says.
In its seven years in existence, Turning Point, which says it now has clubs at 1,400 colleges and high schools, has been hounded by associations with white supremacy and has cut ties with several members who seemed to embrace the ideology. In May, the group fired the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, chapter leader after a video surfaced of him flashing the white supremacist “OK” sign, and saying racial slurs and “white power.” The group has publicly separated itself from at least three other members in the past year and a half for similar issues.
Kirk is quick to distance Turning Point, and Trump, from racism or white supremacy, which he calls a “wicked ideology.” “Anytime I encounter anything adjacent to that I repudiate it,” he says. (Turning Point also hosts a Latino and a women’s leadership conference each year.)
At their hotel after the Trump speech, attendees pulled out MAGA gear, flags and oversized foam hats while milling around and chatting. One wore a shirt that said, “Candance Owens is better than Beyoncé.” Some stayed and talked, networking and swapping tips about social media—how to get verified and comebacks to liberal arguments.
Among the crowd was Joel Patrick (who said he uses a fake last name to protect his family from doxers). musician and entrepreneur from Beavercreek, Ohio, Patrick, 24, has more than 50,000 followers on Twitter, where he calls himself, “THE LEGENDARY BLACK REDNECK!!!!” He stood out in his cream-colored cowboy hat and American flag-patterned Durango leather cowboy boots. (He had seemed in his element in front of the press at the White House when he laughed at a Guardian reporter’s question about the president’s potential impeachment. “Is that a serious question?” Patrick responded.)
Patrick said he believes the community he is from, outside Dayton, is more focused on “putting food on the table, going to work in the morning, staying healthy, staying fit,” as he put it, rather than the social justice issues and identity politics he attributes to the Democratic Party. Ultimately, he said, “I came to the conference to show that we are not a monolith, that African-American people can support whoever they want.”
And for him, that is Trump.