Nationally Known Experts Encourage Voter Engagement at Event Hosted by Center for Politics and Race in America 

From left, James Jones, co-director, Center for Politics and Race in America, and authors Keith Boykin and Clay Cane

At an event hosted by Rutgers-Newark’s Center for Politics and Race in America, two experts on the past and present of Black political life acknowledged deep flaws in the two-party system but urged audience members not to disengage during a critical election year.

“You have to engage more. This thing called progress is a long game,’’ said Clay Cane, author of “The Grift: The Downward Spiral of Black Republicans from the Party of Lincoln to the Cult of Trump” and a Rutgers-Newark alumnus.

Cane and Keith Boykin, author of “Why Does Everything Have to Be About Race? 25 Arguments that Won’t Go Away” were part of a talk moderated by James Jones, co-director of the Center for Politics and Race in America and a professor of Sociology and Africana Studies.

It was, in many respects, the center’s introduction to the public and drew a full house that included students, faculty, staff and community members. The event was held at Ruth Bader Ginsburg Hall. Established last year with state funding, the center’s mission is to provide valuable data and insight into America’s political landscape, a goal that’s especially important during a turbulent election year, when race has been a central and often polarizing concern among voters.

In his introductory remarks, Jones, whose upcoming book “The Last Plantation” about racism on Capitol Hill will be published in May by Princeton University Press, described the center’s three-part mission to the audience. It will create and disseminate data and faculty scholarship, provide training in political research and data analysis, and diversify the field of young people who have access to careers in government and public service through paid internships and other programs.

The conversation between Cane, Boykin and Jones traced the history of African American involvement with the Republican and Democratic parties and how it has been used to advance, exploit or combat racist fears and agendas. 

Although Republicans were the party of Lincoln, Cane explained that Lincoln was initially opposed to abolishing slavery in the South, and that it was Black leaders like Frederick Douglass--co-founder of the Radical Abolition Party, which demanded immediate abolition throughout the nation--who influenced the party’s anti-slavery stance. 

“They held government accountable,’’ said Cane, a host of Sirius radio’s The Clay Cane show. He pointed out that in 1868, voter turnout was 80 percent as opposed to barely 60 percent today.

He criticized today’s GOP as the “party of white supremacy,’’ adding that high-profile Black GOP leaders  provide “racial cover” to policies and rhetoric that harm Black Americans and attempt to erase history. Both he and Boykin listed ways in which today’s Republicans undermined Black Americans by quashing efforts to support them, such as programs to aid Black farmers and support Black women business owners. 

The Republicans’ inverted logic portrays civil rights laws intended to offset the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow as preferential treatment, sayd Boykin and Cane.

Boykin discussed how Republicans have demonized and distorted the concept of critical race theory–a form of legal analysis created in the1980s and stipulating that racism is embedded in legal systems and policies–as a threat to K-12 education.

“It’s been totally blown out of proportion,’’ said Boykin. “Schools aren’t teaching critical race theory. But they are teaching something that does scare the Republicans: American history..They are scared of teaching that Thomas Jefferson raped his wife’s sister, that Lincoln was a segregationist.’’

Sally Hemmings, who bore Jefferson's children, was the half-sister of his wife, Martha. Lincoln was a proponent of sending Black people to Africa and in an 1858 debate with Stephen Douglas said, “There is a physical difference between the White and Black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.” 

Rather than abandoning an imperfect Democratic party in need of change–and contributing to the potential re-election of DonaldTrump– both Boykin and Cane urged the audience to work toward  creating the kind of party, and the kind of political system, they would like to see. They both stressed that working within political institutions can help transform them.

Boykin worked in the Clinton administration as a special assistant to the president, and even though he didn’t support all of Clinton’s policies, there were gains that wouldn’t have happened in a Republican administration, such as a ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation in federal workplaces. But Clinton has also been criticized for policies like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’’ which encouraged members of the military to remain closeted or risk being discharged.

Boykin believes that as a Black gay man, it was significant for him to have a seat at the table. “Sometimes, even if you don’t win, it’s important to have a voice and be present,’’ he said.

As a CNN commentator, Boykin constantly criticized President Biden, he said, but he voted for Biden over Trump, whose leadership continues to pose a grave danger to Americans, especially LGBTQ people of color, both Cane and Boykin agreed.

“I’m a Black gay man. My very right to exist is in jeopardy,’’  said Cane, creator of the acclaimed 2016  documentary “Holler If You Hear Me: Black and Gay in the Church.” 

“The Democratic party has people who look like you,’’ added Boykin, contrasting it with the GOP.

During the event, Cane credited Rutgers-Newark with inspiring, and preparing him, to become a writer and political commentator. “This school changed my life,’’ he said.