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What the Cori Bush-Byron Donalds Clash Tells Us About Black American Politics

And about the complications of black solidarity.
January 11, 2023
What the Cori Bush-Byron Donalds Clash Tells Us About Black American Politics
U.S. Rep.- elect Byron Donalds (R-FL) speaks to the media during the second day of elections for Speaker of the House outside the U.S. Capitol Building on January 04, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

After fifteen attempts over several days, Kevin McCarthy finally secured enough votes to become speaker of the House, as was expected. But the fifteen minutes of fame enjoyed by congressional newcomer Byron Donalds, one of just eleven Black Republicans to serve in the House in the last 120 years, was rather unexpected. For eight successive rounds of voting, Donalds was the anti-McCarthy choice of as many as twenty MAGA Republican hardliners who held the process hostage as they extracted concessions from their speaker-to-be.

This was a major moment—not just because it was the most contested speaker election since before the Civil War, but because for the first time in American history, each party had nominated a black American to be Speaker. (Hakeem Jeffries, who succeeded Nancy Pelosi as leader of the House Democratic Caucus, was his party’s unanimous choice in every round of the speakership balloting.) Donalds’s ethnicity was a point of pride for the anti-McCarthy contingent, with Republican Chip Roy accompanying his nomination of Donalds by noting its historic nature before quickly pivoting to point out race had nothing to do with it. His colleague Scott Perry offered a pedantic history lesson a few rounds later to help justify his support for Donalds, noting that the Republican party of the mid-eighteenth century was the party of Frederick Douglass and the nation’s first black congressional members.

Many House members on both sides of the aisle were left unimpressed—the most vocal of whom was Democratic Rep. Cori Bush, who took to Twitter to express her dissatisfaction with the Donalds nomination.

Donalds responded to Bush on social media and then took his rebuttal to Fox News. He fiercely rejected Bush’s insinuation that he was little more than a token, an accusation similar to criticisms of Herschel Walker’s unsuccessful senatorial campaign and one that black Republicans have long encountered.

At the core of the tiff is the question of black solidarity. Bush stated that she had no problem with Donalds or the fact that he’s a Republican; rather, she was upset that Donalds had allowed himself to be used and, in the name of solidarity, counseled him: “Don’t let them do that to you. Make them treat you with dignity and respect.” Then, wielding black solidarity’s razor-sharp edge, she declared that he was undermining black America’s interests just to secure personal power. “[The speaker nomination] helps you politically at the expense of our community,” she tweeted. “THAT’S what’s shameful.”

Donalds responded by chastising Bush in turn for failing to uphold black solidarity. He denounced her for being a “crab-in-a-barrel,” a slight that has particular import in black America in its implication that one would rather see the whole group struggle than allow individual members to succeed. He suggested that, as a black woman to a black man, she owed him more grace than that and said it’s for that reason he would never publicly call her out as she’d done to him.

Black political solidarity is one of the defining features—one could argue it has been the defining feature—of American politics over the last 150 years. But it is not the product of a people with innately uniform worldviews and aspirations. Instead, it arose from the race-specific institutions of slavery and Jim Crow, serving as a people’s primary means of survival and security in the face of oppression and discrimination, de jure and de facto.

If the systems in place did not care about individual character and talents but only the color of your skin, then the best way to secure individual liberty was to ensure group liberation. For a black American to stray from that existential project is to declare oneself disloyal to the group.

Sociologists and political scientists have noted this attribute of black American life for decades. And it explains why since 1867, with the exception of several years in the 1920s and 1930s, black voters have voted overwhelmingly for one party—whichever supported the strongest federal civil rights protections. In a world of complicated politics and complex public policy problems, scholars have shown how prioritizing the group interest serves as a proxy for black individual political choices, in much the same way that party or religion operates for many voters. More recently, political scientists Ismail White and Chryl Laird found that the threat of in-group social penalties serves to constrain the political choices of black Americans because of the centrality of solidarity to the group’s history, progress, and social character.

What the nation caught a glimpse of in the Bush-Donalds row was the differing ways that black solidarity can be operationalized. On the left, solidarity is a collective project; on the right, it is bootstrapped. That is, black progressives tend to focus on structural fixes to even the playing field while black conservatives foreground self-determination and exemplars as the key to overcoming discrimination. The Bush-Donalds debate, to the extent a back and forth on social media can be called such a thing, is as old as Frederick Douglass and Henry Highland Garnet disagreeing about the best way to end slavery and W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington having different ideas about the most efficient path to racial equality.

If not for the rancor injected into the exchange by our hyperpartisan politics, the argument between Bush and Donalds could have been an important view into black American politics. Instead, the two second-term representatives leaned into the explicitly partisan rhetoric that feeds into the democratic decline the nation is presently facing.

Many black politicians and journalists of late have proclaimed that black Americans’ quest for equality has been a powerful democratizing force for the country. With the Congressional Black Caucus at its largest size in history and with the most black Republicans in Congress since 1877, this would seem to be an opportune moment for this cohort to model the kind of deliberation, bipartisanship, and civility the country desperately needs. But the fact that no member of either group belongs to the other suggests the corrupting influence that toxic partisanship has on solidarity and the whole of the American experiment.

Theodore R. Johnson

Theodore R. Johnson was a writer at The Bulwark and a senior advisor at New America. He is the author of the book When the Stars Begin to Fall: Overcoming Racism and Renewing the Promise of America (Atlantic, 2021). Twitter: @DrTedJ.