CLEVELAND—John Burnett is the lone black delegate from the state of New York at the Republican National Convention. He feels that puts black Americans at a political disadvantage.
For black people to maximize their bargaining power politically, they need to be sitting at the table in both parties, Burnett, a financial adviser from Harlem, told me on the floor of the convention.
Yes, he does support Donald Trump, and, no, he doesn’t believe he is racist. But Burnett doesn’t want us to get bogged down with our views of the Republican nominee.
As he sees it, each party shares a history of discriminating against black people, and both can do a better job of serving black communities. That’s one of the main reasons he is a Republican: The party needs people like him on the inside demanding that it address our issues.
“We need to work the system, so we can spread our political weight around,” Burnett told me. “So no matter who wins, we’ve got representation on both sides. It isn’t worth waiting another four to eight years to get your guy in. That’s too much time wasted. And the negative impact is exponential for us. We don’t have time to wait around.”
There are only 18 black delegates here, a tiny fraction of more than 2,400 overall. But that was the tone of most of the black Republicans I spoke with on the floor: Why throw your support behind a party that, they argue, has been in power in major cities where black people are still being shot dead by police and Democratic prosecutors are finding ways to excuse their behavior?
It’s a great point. Though it’s also fair to say the Republican Party has not presented any better options.
But even that outlook is relative. For some black people, social issues drive their devotion to the GOP. Take Charlotte Bergman, a delegate from Tennessee. The Republican Party’s stance on social issues, especially abortion, is one of the main reasons she joined the party. As for Trump, she says he may not be the “smoothest-talking guy,” but he still “speaks my language.”
I asked Bergman whether she feels that Trump's disparagement of Mexicans, immigrants, and people from the Middle East were racist and whether they were inappropriate.
“I believe in the 80-20 rule,” she told me. “I support 80 percent of what he believes in. And if it’s 20 percent, I’m not gonna make a big deal out of it because my mind is on the bigger things: job creation, economic development, security for this country, and protection for our veterans.”
Of course, their support of Trump is out of step with most black voters, who are largely Democratic. The Republican presidential nominee is doing so poorly with black voters that he is polling at zero here in Ohio and in Pennsylvania.
Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, however, has had overwhelming support from black voters since the primary season began, and it has not wavered; black women make up most of it.
Linda McCall, a delegate from South Carolina, said Trump can appeal to black women by arguing he can use the White House to ensure they will make the same about of money as everyone else.
“I would think black women would want jobs that pay well,” she told me. “I think he would reach out to them and talk about equal pay. Women are making less than men, so I think, as an African-American woman myself, I want equal pay. My friends are looking for jobs first. And they want jobs that are comparable in pay to men in the same job.”
Job creation. That was the most consistent taking point I heard black delegates made about Trump: He can get black people working. None of them, though, brought up that Trump has used undocumented workers to build some of his properties. He has also argued against raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, saying, “Our taxes are too high. Our wages are too high. We have to compete with other countries.”
Still, black Trump supporters were resolute that he can pull black voters in significant numbers in November.
Glenn McCall, husband of Linda and also a delegate from South Carolina, told me he is confident Trump will get 10% to 15% of the black vote in his state. Again, he spoke to the candidate's business experience.
“I talk to black males who have the drive and desire to be entrepreneurs and succeed in their business of choice that really like him and what he speaks to and would like to emulate him,” he told me. “I truly believe he will get more African-American votes than any Republican in modern times.”
Johnnie Morgan, a delegate from California and Trump supporter, was not as optimistic as Mr. McCall when I asked him if thought it would be a challenge to get black people to vote GOP with Trump as the headliner of the party.
“It’s a challenge, but we’re up for it,” he said. “There are several black delegates from Los Angeles, and we talk to people. We just have a conversation. And we talk about how things are now, who’s in charge and how things can and should be improved. And who’s going to do it. And who hasn’t done it.”
Morgan discussed how many police shootings and high urban poverty rates that black people experience have all taken place under Democratic administrations.
As he sees it, his role in the Republican Party is bigger than Trump. It is about ensuring that neither side is taking black people for granted.
“More African-Americans need to be registered Republican,” he told me. “We can’t afford to put all of our eggs in one basket. When we do that, what happens is that the Democrats take us for granted and the Republicans ignore us.”
John Bennett, the black Republican from Harlem, agrees, adding that the party needs to stop directing so much negativity toward Hillary Clinton. In the end, none of the partisan back and forth is helping black people thrive politically, socially, or economically.
“Let’s stop with bashing Hillary and let’s get down to business,” he said. “Let’s talk about the platform and talk about how it’s going to empower everyone, including the urban community. We’re not going to get votes or make change talking about Hillary.”
Terrell Jermaine Starr is National Political Correspondent for Fusion. You can follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.