‘I’ve had family members that disowned me’: Inside the mind of the black conservative TV pundit

Rare in nature, ubiquitous on Fox News.

CREDIT: Diana Ofosu/ThinkProgress
CREDIT: Diana Ofosu/ThinkProgress

Kevin Jackson, one of a handful of black personalities to make frequent and repeated appearances on Fox News, remembers his media breakthrough on the right-leaning network as a divine moment.

“Oh yeah,” he said during a recent phone interview from his home office in St. Louis. “I’ll never forget how it happened because it was like a call from God. I’d been trying for the longest time to get on with Fox, thinking it was the holy grail.”

Fate struck him on September 10, 2009 — he remembers it because it was the day before the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack on New York — as Jackson visited his grandmother, who lived on a farm so remote cell phones couldn’t get clear signals. His phone rang with a remarkable, heaven-sent message.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Jackson said. “My phone had five bars, the voice was clear as day. Andrew Breitbart was on the other line, saying he wanted to get me on Fox News to do a segment with Glenn Beck. I talked about a Tea Party rally.”

Jackson jumped at the opportunity, going on live from a rally in Quincy, Illinois to describe his presence in the ultra-conservative crowd as “a great time to be here” because “I’m here to find the racists they keep talking about and I’ve yet to find them.” An amused Beck chuckled as Jackson spoke, obviously pleased that he discovered a potential star in the making.

The comments weren’t out of step with the rest of the network’s talking heads; Beck had emphasized the same sentiment to his audience before introducing Jackson. What was different, sensational even, was that an African American was saying it, rendering a message inside the news of the moment. Indeed, the story was Jackson himself, pushing him center stage as one of a small but growing cadre of black news commentators finding success espousing conservative talking points on Fox News and other right-wing media outlets.

What makes them special is that their mere presence — a rare black face in a ocean of white conservative commentators — provides a dollop of symbolic cover to validate the often racially insensitive claims and arguments made by others appearing on the cable shows.

“It was like a call from God.”

Highly promoted within the echo chamber of conservative media — namely Fox News, and other cable outlets, as well as regional, right-wing talk radio shows — the older and better-known roster of conservative black commentators includes journeyman journalist Juan Williams, who has been a fixture at Fox for more than a decade; Omarosa Manigault, who parlayed her appearances on The Apprentice into a prominent spokesperson and minority outreach role for the Trump White House; Alveda King, a niece of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, who stridently pushes an anti-abortion agenda through books, public speeches, and appearances on conservative talk shows; Larry Elder, a lawyer turned radio and television talk show host; and Armstrong Williams, who has moved from his role as combative on-screen personality to owning conservative news programming and promoting the careers of other black news personalities.

But during the past decade or so, a fresh-faced generation of conservative news talkers such as Gianno Caldwell and Eboni K. Williams at Fox News have found their voice as analysts who attempt to bridge the racial divide separating black and white news consumers — and, in the process, reveal the overlooked streak of conservatism hidden in plain view of black America.

Conservative cable networks target willing black participants because it advances their agenda and helps them fend off charges of racial insensitivity. In effect, a conservative black commentator can say things that would draw much harsher rebuke if a white person had said them.

The timing couldn’t be better for black commentators on conservative talk shows as issues of race and diversity are hot topics in media circles. As a leading point of political conversation in conservative circles, Fox News, in particular, can inoculate its broadcast against charges of racial bias or insensitivity by pointing to its black performers.

According to Newsweek, only 1 percent of Fox News’ audience are African American viewers, reflecting the widely believed idea that the network caters to a white audience. But, of course, the network — and its sponsors — are sensitive to charges of racism, so having a black commentator join in the racially controversial segments or praise the policies of conservative political leaders serves as a shield to fend off bias-claiming critics.

Strains of conservative thought among African Americans is nothing new and there’s always someone within black communities willing to voice them. Going back as far as the early 20th century, public debates between the conservative views of Booker T. Washington and the more progressive ideas of W.E.B. duBois were cloaked within the community of black public intellectuals and, for the most part, completely hidden from white observers.

As such, it was easy — and erroneous — to believe that all black Americans shared uniformly liberal political views. In reality, there have always been black conservatives who stand out like a flickering lighthouse beams sweeping across an unnoticed beach.

“Not all of us are liberal,” said Shermichael Singleton, who served briefly as an aide to HUD Secretary Ben Carson and is now making a name for himself as a right-leading pundit on CNN, C-SPAN, and other cable news shows. “I think it’s time that people understand the political diversity that exists in our community, just like it exists in all other communities.”

“I think it’s time that people understand the political diversity that exists in our community.”

Mistaken notions of lock-step political ideology among black Americans has been bolstered by the fact that since the late ’60s, racist ideas and policies been woven so tightly into the perceptual fabric of the GOP. As a candidate for president, Donald Trump collected 6 percent of the black vote, a figure that’s 1 percent less than the number of blacks who told Pew Research Center they were affiliated with the Republican Party.

But modern-day Republican struggles to garner double-digit support among black voters overlooks the fact that large numbers of black Americans hold profoundly conservative views on such issues as religion, criminal justice, abortion, and gun control. By emphasizing these topics, along with the occasional criticism of black leaders and Democrats, black conservative commentators are able to draw attention to themselves and earn a living.

In effect, a conservative black commentator on Fox News, for example, can gain public exposure faster and make a bigger media splash by saying things that aren’t expected of black and liberal pundits on, say MSNBC or CNN. Good television thrives on drama and conflict, and nothing is more dramatic and conflicted than having the tension of a black person saying or doing something that might upset other black people.

To be fair, black conservatives are often coveted as guests on other cable networks as well. For example, Florida business owner Mark Lee, a Trump supporter, became a short-lived media sensation when he appeared recently on CNN’s New Day, saying he trusted the president over all that’s on earth or in heaven. “Let me tell you,” Lee said, appearing on a panel discussion about Trump. “If Jesus Christ gets down off the cross and told me Trump is with Russia, I would tell Him, ‘Hold on a second. I need to check with the president if it’s true.'”

In interviews conducted over the past month, several emerging black commentators and pundits told me it’s a golden moment for them to be employed in conservative media during the Trump administration because audiences want to hear their point of view. Yet, nearly all expressed frustration over the loneliness and isolation that comes from a job that is generally praised by conservative and white audiences and condemned with suspicion and scorn among black viewers.

“I’ve had family members that disowned me,” said Gianno Caldwell, a conservative pundit who frequently appears on Fox. “Some of them won’t talk to me or will give me attitude for what I’m doing at family gatherings. But I’m OK with it because I’m doing what I want to do.”

“I’ve had family members that disowned me.”

Caldwell worked for more than a decade in a series of unsatisfying Capitol Hill jobs and decided to create his own lobbying, public affairs, and consulting firm. His behind-the-scenes work led to some on-camera appearances shortly after the election of America’s first black president, Barack Obama.

“[Conservative news outlets] needed voices that could actually understand the point of view of African Americans, but wasn’t angry or hostile to them,” Caldwell told me. “You’re beginning to see a lot of us on the air now because [white] people wanted to know what we think ever since Obama became president.”

Caldwell pointed to his criticism of Trump’s comments, following the violence sparked by a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia earlier this year, as proof that his is an independent voice — even if its one of the few black voices — on Fox. “I will speak up,” he told me. “I go on and say what I think and I don’t say anything that I don’t believe. I’m thankful that’s the relationship I have [with Fox].”

Eboni Williams, who was promoted earlier this year from regular contributor to co-host of Fox News’ The Specialists, believes it is her calling to appear on television in places where white audiences aren’t accustomed to hearing a black person talk about current events. Williams has said her role is to bring change from within the media.

“I wanted to get in front of audiences that usually don’t see us,” Williams said in a recent interview with The Root. “I have decided that for me, it has some value to correct the record on occasion. My experience has been the longer I am in front of the Fox News audience, the more I get that opportunity [to correct the record]. A gentle but consistent reminder of what the facts really are.”

Cristina Lopez, a senior researcher Media Matters, a progressive-leaning media watchdog organization, believes it’s wrong to criticize Fox and other conservative news outlets for inviting black, Latino, and other members of diverse groups to appear on its shows — or to condemn as “sell-outs” those who do appear.

“It’s not like, as I know from my own community, all Latinos think the same or that all African Americans are liberals,” Lopez said in an interview. “It’s great that our communities’ diversity is represented on Fox News and other places.”

But Lopez wondered if the network, in its pre-screening and choice of non-white guests, presents an unarticulated narrative that allows viewers to feel comfortable in their bigoted opinion, simply because they have a person of color who agrees with them. “The real question is how does Fox use these people,” Lopez said. “Sometimes you wonder whether they [black commentators] are coming on to provide cover, to say things that a white person on their shows would get some backlash for saying, but still perpetuates some very racist tropes.”

Lisa Fritsch agrees and has a personal story to prove it.

A one-time member of Project 21, a national network of black conservatives, Fritsch was an active and aggressive proponent of the Tea Party in Texas and made regular appearances on conservative news programs. “They screen you,” she explained. “If you say the right trigger words, criticize Obama or Hillary, then they use you. As my voice got stronger, I was called in dozens of times. It was never about the money, I really in my heart believed everything I said.”

She believed it enough to be invited to appear on Fox News with Glenn Beck in 2009, an opportunity for her to criticize the recently inaugurated black president, which led to still more guest slots on conservative television and radio outlets.

As her media celebrity grew across Texas, Fritsch was a popular attraction on the conservative rubber-chicken-dinner circuit and drawing rave ovations from her large, white audiences. Those experiences persuaded her to announce a run for the GOP nomination for Texas governor in 2013. Her campaign failed miserably, as Greg Abbott dominated the five-person field with nearly 92 percent of the votes cast; Fritsch was a distant second with 4 percent of the statewide vote.

During an animated and profane conversation, Fritsch told me her campaign experience taught her a humiliating lesson about the role she had played as a “black conservative, whatever that means, in the current context of our nation’s politics.”

Fritsch believes she and other black conservatives are called to validate opinions that often are at odds with black people’s social and political progress. “We don’t get called in to these conservative talk shows because they think we’re so smart,” she said. “No, our contribution is to how well we contribute to their team, but it’s never about our team as black Americans.”

“We don’t get called in to these conservative talk shows because they think we’re so smart.”

Don’t say that to Kevin Jackson, who views his place in conservative media as a shooting star that’s poised to blaze a path for all to see and marvel. Jackson told me steadfastly believes in his media work make a positive impact in the national dialogue over race and politics. His self-described success on Fox and other conservative outlet proves that there’s space for African American perspectives in the unlikeliest places.

For much of the early part of 2009, before the divine call came, Jackson had been a successful business management consultant with hard-right conservative views. Seeking an outlet for his opinions, he created a website, The Black Sphere, which found a following among Tea Party activists. His association with the Tea Party led to his self-publishing autobiographical books that attack liberals, Democrats, and their so-called political correctness.

Before long, producers for various Fox News programs called him, seemingly out of the blue, whenever they needed a voice like his — smart, quick-witted, glib, and African American — to express a conservative opinion about a breaking news event. Jackson rarely said no. He would drop whatever project he was engaged in to show up in a television sound stage or sit before a remote microphone with little notice. His agreeable manner and hassle-free attitude brought him repeated calls from producers, enough to create what he called “a certain body of work” through the first half of 2009.

Now, with Trump in the White House, Jackson’s phone rings constantly as a regular Fox contributor. One day, soon he predicts, another divine call will tell him that it’s time for him to star in his own, long-overdue conservative talk show.

“Look, I’m pro-Trump,” Jackson told me. “But if I’d long ago renounced my affiliations with Republicans and conservatives, and if I’d come out tomorrow and say that Donald Trump is crazy, I’d be picked up on all the liberal news cable channels. But that’s not what I believe and I’m not going to do that, so the left ignores me. That’s OK because I know I’m right and my time is coming.”