By Barnett Wright
Times staff writer
He’s a die-hard Republican in the red state of Alabama. He supports billionaire businessman Donald Trump, front-runner in the race to be nominated as his party’s candidate for the upcoming U.S. presidential election. He’s at the ready to debate anyone who backs former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Democratic-party-nomination favorite. And he’s African American.
Phillip Brown, chairman of the Alabama Minority GOP, said he’s not afraid to stand up for what he believes—that his values are more closely aligned with Republicans as opposed to Democrats.
“I looked at the values my dad instilled in me,” Brown said. “The importance of integrity, the importance of faith in God, the importance of personal responsibility, the importance of working hard and paying for what you get. I began to look at the political landscape.”
A Natural Fit
Brown, 52, was born in Detroit, Mich., and his family moved to South Alabama when he was in the sixth grade. His dad was a minister who “believed that in order to be a real Christian you had nothing to do with government,” Brown recalled. “If you voted at all … that meant you were part of the problem.”
Brown said he began to assess the values of the Republican and Democratic parties and “felt like [the GOP] was a natural fit.”
“I didn’t realize that black folks weren’t Republicans,” he said. “If you look at the black church, 90 percent of what you see is conservative. We believe in personal responsibility. We believe life is precious, so therefore abortion is wrong. We believe in the traditional concept of marriage. Most in minority communities believe in conservative thought, so why do we have such a disconnect between our faith in God and our actions in the voting booth?”
More than 90 percent of blacks who vote in the upcoming U.S. presidential election (Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016) will cast their ballot for the Democratic candidate. Brown believes he knows why so few African Americans back Republicans.
“I teach high school, and peer pressure is a big thing. Somehow we get the feeling that when you become an adult, peer pressure is not that big of a deal. But it is, and it gets even worse,” said Brown, an automotive technology teacher for the Jefferson County school system. “You get pressure from your peers in the neighborhood. You get pressure from your peers in church. You get pressure from your peers at work, as well as other social environments. You’re catching it from all directions.”
Emory Anthony, president of the Jefferson County Progressive Democratic Council, said he knows why blacks shy away from the Republican party.
“You can start with Donald Trump and people with that philosophy,” said Anthony, with a laugh.
Brown, however, proudly supports the New York City businessman whose campaign has become one of the most divisive in recent memory—even for Republicans.
“When I first heard about Donald Trump, he caught my attention because both the establishment Republicans and the establishment Democrats hated him,” Brown said. “It’s almost like having the principal come into your school and most of the kids don’t like him, but you figure he’s a pretty good guy. It’s like a classroom teacher who most kids consider mean and tough, which means he’s probably doing a good job.”
Brown, who said he’s not speaking for his organization, added, “We keep saying Washington, D.C., is broken. It’s not broken. It’s a well-oiled machine that needs to be broken. I believe Donald Trump is the type of person who will break it up, who will make a change. He’s a businessman, not a politician. He knows how to deal with politicians. He’s not going into the job to get rich, he’s already rich.”
A Lot of Work to Do
Brown acknowledges that minority Republicans in Alabama have a lot of work to do. The Alabama Minority GOP has a membership of fewer than 200—a number he and his group are determined to increase.
“Our whole effort is to break down the stereotype that Republicans are old white guys who hate black folks,” Brown said. “Black people may not necessarily feel real comfortable going to an all-white Republican convention, especially after being told all their lives that Republicans don’t care about them. They may feel comfortable, however, if they come hang out with us, where there are a lot more folks that look like them.”
Brown became state chair of the Alabama Republican Steering Committee in 2012 and is now serving his second term, but is has not been smooth sailing: He was almost ousted from his seat last summer.
“The party is growing,” Brown said. “It’s becoming large, so there is conflict. I think conflict is a part of life, so I embrace it rather than run from it.”
A New Direction
Last week, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley signed an executive order creating the Governor’s Office of Minority Affairs (GOMA) to advise on issues affecting minorities, including women. The group will focus on areas like education, health, housing, employment, civil rights, and race relations.
Brown said it is a “good gesture.”
“It’s hard to say what it can do until we find out how much pull it’s going to have,” he added. “I think it’s a step in the right direction, but it’s like so many other steps in the right direction—do we really intend to go there, or do we want to just look like we’re heading in that direction?”