What does it mean to be a Black Republican?


Battle Creek native Terris Todd is a prominent name in the Michigan Republican Party as the executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans within the U.S. Department of Education.

As a former Democratic leader in Calhoun County government, his path to working in the Republican Party under President Donald Trump is unexpected to some, but Todd has said that the Republican Party is where he belongs. 

In this Nov. 3, 2004 photo, Terris Todd (left) talks with Lynne Haley at the Calhoun County Democratic Party headquarters. Todd switched to the Republican Party in 2015. (Photo: Enquirer file)

Although polls and other election data show Black people overwhelmingly vote for Democrats, there are some who support the Republican Party. 

Many Democrats have criticized the the Trump Administration and the Republican Party for the way they have responded to social justice issues such as the Black Lives Matter Movement and the protests against police brutality and systemic racism following the death of George Floyd.

 For Todd, being a Republican isn’t about Trump or any individual politician. It’s about supporting the values of his faith and the policies he believes will help people prosper. 

For others, the most important issues are economic advancement. Still others are focused on making change happen, regardless of party affiliation. 

Black Republicans are in the minority

Nationally, the number of Black voters who identify as Republicans is small. 

Among registered voters in 2018-2019, only 5% of Black voters identified as Republican, according to a survey of more than 12,000 registered voters conducted by the Pew Research Center.

That’s compared to 65% of Black registered voters who identified as Democrat and 26% who identified as Independent. When asked to identify which way they leaned politically, 83% of Black voters surveyed said they favored the Democratic party, while only 10% said Republican, according to the survey. 

In Michigan, Black voters favor the Democratic Party, too. Only 3% of Republicans or people who said they leaned Republican in the state are Black, according to a  2014 Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Study that examined party affiliation among adults in Michigan.  

In Calhoun County, more people of color have taken an interest in backing Republican candidates in the last four years, according to Calhoun County Republican Committee Chair Jeannie Burchfield.

“Not every Republican of color is a huge fan of Trump, and yet, it is President Trump and his policies that are really starting to awaken that awareness in our broader community,” she said. 

Still, Burchfield said most people who are active in the local Republican Party are white. 

Can the Republican party create positive change for Black Americans? 

Carey Whitfield is the President of Battle Creek’s NAACP Branch. For him, the Republican political platform is not the best way to go about bettering the lives of Black people. 

“I’m disappointed with the Republican Party,” he said. 

The Republican Party’s stance on social justice issues was not for him, Whitfield said, though he believes everyone should follow their own convictions. 

He said he was specifically uncomfortable with the partisanship he saw within the Republican party.

“I do believe they have the right to have such partisanship,” he said. “This is a free country.” 

Whitfield was at Battle Creek’s Let’s Get Real Conversation Series last Monday, advocating for change in the way the police and Black residents of Battle Creek interacted. 

“People don’t trust the police because they have reason not to. They have history,” he said. “It isn’t something that happened overnight, and it isn’t something that is going to go away tomorrow. … There is too much history. There is too much memory. We need to build that bridge.”

Read more: Let’s Get Real Community Conversations about the experience of Black people in Battle Creek 

During the event, Whitfield spoke about the need for meaningful and sincere changes in the system so that everyone would be given the same treatment.  

Although Whitfield disagrees with many Republican policies, he stressed that Black people in the community should support the policies and the politicians they feel represent them best. 

“There are several conservative Black people in our city, and I respect that,” he said. “… That’s their choice.” 

Harry Bonner is a community activist in Albion. He said he knows very few Black people who would identify as a Republican or a conservative. 

“As an African American Republican conservative … how much influence and power can you have in your community?” he said. 

Bonner said that politically, he doesn’t identify with either party, nor does he lean Democratic or Republican. 

“When you’re trying to impact the community, should party matter?” he said.

Rather than leaning toward a party, Bonner said he considers politicians on their merit as individuals.

His advice to those who want to get active: “Work with the people who can make change in your community.”  

Values are a key factor for the Todds

When it comes to political identity, values are central to Todd.

“My faith is at the very core of who I am and what I tend to be all the days of my life,” he said in a March 2020 video for the Frederick Douglass Foundation of Michigan, a Republican public policy and educational organization.

The U.S. Department of Education did not make comments from Todd available prior to publication of this article. 

Todd served on the Calhoun County Board of Commissioners from 2005-2014 as a Democrat, but that political identity had more to do with race than beliefs or policies, according to his wife, Karen Todd. 

Karen Todd currently works as the director of district affairs for Republican state Sen. John Bizon of Battle Creek. She also was formerly a reporter for the Battle Creek Enquirer.  

Before her husband got involved in politics, Karen Todd said they didn’t think much about party platforms or policies.   

“My husband and I, we just kind of went along with the status quo, identity politics. Everyone who we knew that was Black mostly was a Democrat,” she said. “That’s what you are. You’re a Democrat because you’re Black.” 

Karen Todd said that often, the political identity of Black people is viewed as being intrinsically tied to their racial and cultural identity. 

“That’s what really hit home hard when recently Presidential Candidate (Joe) Biden made that remark, you know, ‘You’re not Black if you’re not a Democrat,'” she said. “It really stung hard because all these years I was walking blindly as a Democrat, not really knowing what their platform was, but on the inside, I always had the same values, and so I realized that my values never lined up with the Democratic Party.” 

When then-presidential-candidate Barack Obama’s campaign stopped in Battle Creek in 2008, Todd was asked to do the opening prayer, but said he was asked not to mention the name of Jesus. 

Todd later spoke about the effect the request had on him for the Frederick Douglass Foundation of Michigan.

“I was really devastated,” he said. “How could you ask a man of faith to do the opening prayer — for then the possible first elected African American president — and ask him not to mention the name of Christ?”

That experience, along with his growing involvement in politics, led him to start looking more into party platforms. 

“I started looking at different platforms and what people believe and where are they at when it comes to the African American journey and us prospering and progressing in life,” Todd said in the video. “What’s their strategy in really lifting us up and getting us out of conditions that we’re in, in our neighborhoods and schools?” 

Todd ran for the state House of Representatives in 2014 as a Democrat in the 62nd District, but he lost his primary bid. After Republican candidate Dr. John Bizon won the house seat that year, he asked Todd to join his team in Lansing to do community outreach. 

As Todd learned more about the Republican platform, his political identity began to change, Karen Todd said.  

“That’s when the switch came,” she said. “Throughout those nine months that Terris worked with Sen. Bizon, he became entrenched in the Republican Party.” 

As a family, the Todds started talking more about what it meant to be a Republican, and although Karen Todd is still not a member of the party, she sees her Christian faith, particularly her stance against abortion, reflected in the GOP platform.

“I do have conservative values, so everything just kind of lines up,” she said. 

In 2017, Terris Todd was elected as the Michigan Republican ethnic vice chair, and earlier this year he was appointed to his position in the U.S. Department of Education. 

For Karen Todd, being aligned with the Republican Party does not mean ignoring the Black Live Matter Movement or other social justice issues. 

“At the beginning of the movement, I think that it served its purpose in bringing awareness to the pockets of racial inequities that we have in our country,” she said, mentioning the way some police officers treat Black people and inequity in housing and the prison system. 

“I think it did serve its purpose in bringing an awareness to that and saying ‘Country, hey, we’re suffering here. We need something to happen, and we need something to happen now.'” 

Ultimately though, Karen Todd feels that change will come through conversations between individuals rather than government-directed systemic change. 

“Conversations are at the heart of being able to get something done,” she said. “The other thing, I think, is taking personal responsibility in making changes in our own world. … The break down of the black family has crippled our community, our Black community, and the best way to repair that is by us.”

Although she believes the government has its place helping people, individuals first need to work to help themselves. 

“Ultimately, we have the power over ourselves. We don’t have any power over how everyone else acts and how everyone else reacts, and how they run their businesses,” she said. “We don’t have any power over any of that, but if we had our own, we can do what we want.” 

Todd said she and her husband don’t focus on actions or statements of individuals within the Republican party.

“A lot of people say a lot of things that are untruthful, and not the whole truth and people skew things on both sides and in both parties,” she said. “Our focus is on conservative values.”

The way she votes is not about who is running, she said, it’s about the platform they’re representing.

“We have just kind of made this pact that that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to continue to vote for in favor of where our values are, and not listen to all of the rhetoric,” she said.”You have to look at your family. Look at your values. Look at the things that are important to you. Look at how you want future generations, you know, your grandchildren, how you want them to live. Owning their own businesses and making things happen for themselves.”

‘Everything is economics’

Economic independence is important for Bishop Tino Smith, who runs Kingdom Builders Worldwide ministries in Battle Creek. 

Smith identifies as an Independent but said he often supports conservative Republican politicians because he agrees with their policies.  

“I don’t agree with the conservative of keeping things the way they were, because we’ve got to change. New times,” Smith said. “So, when you ask me, am I a conservative? I am a person that practices some of the similar values that keep family structures strong.”

The values that keep families strong are those that allow people to have an opportunity to be successful, Smith said. He’s in favor of tax cuts, policies that protect generational wealth, and he supports the idea that individuals should be able to decide what’s best for them and their families without government involvement. 

For Smith, it’s about individual people working hard to get ahead. 

“Nothing is wrong with aiding,” he said. “But any policy that keeps you crippled, I’m against because God didn’t make us that way. God told us to become doers. So I believe I should get you started, you mess up, I should give you a break, but I can’t keep giving you that break because then guess what, you’re dependent.”

He said he sees social issues as a distraction from the real problem of unequal economic opportunity.

“I think those social issues just keep us all from dealing with the real story the real truth. … Everything is economics,” he said. “Deal with the economic disparities and the social stuff will work itself out.” 

Although Smith sees the system as unfair, he doesn’t expect it to change, and he sees asking other people to change it for him as maintaining an imbalance of power.  

“I see myself as an equal, that’s why I don’t expect anything,” he said. “I don’t believe they can make me behind.” 

Smith said he believes that the best way to solve racial inequality is for Black people to work their way up through the current system by owning businesses and operating in positions of power.  

“In a capitalist society, you’ve got to have a business if you want to progress. Or you’ll be in a social program and you’re just dealing with the social issues,” he said. “I didn’t create that, but I’m going to learn how it works.” 

Looking ahead to the November presidential election, Smith said he’s still undecided. He said he’s not necessarily fond of Trump, but that’s not what matters.

“We really value the policies and not the emotion. Donald Trump is not my pastor. So whatever he’s doing, he’s doing it,” Smith said. “His policies are going to be when he’s gone.”  

Smith said he sees Terris Todd as an example of Black people being empowered. 

“Terris Todd is hope,” Smith said. “I’m really proud of Terris.” 

He said that hard work and building relationships was the way to bring about long term change in the country. Smith said he sees focusing on systemic issues as a waste of time because those problems are too big to solve. 

“America’s history does not prevent Tino Smith from being the best I can be,” he said. “I can’t change what happened 20, 30 years ago, and I can’t keep wasting my time on what happened 30 years ago. I can’t. It does nothing for me. I just get depressed, sad and a headache. I want to live for now.”   

Contact Elena Durnbaugh at (269) 243-5938 or edurnbaugh@battlecreekenquirer.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ElenaDurnbaugh. 

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