Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. was raised by a family of Democrats on what was referred to as "the wrong side of the tracks" in little Eufaula, Okla. So why and how did Watts become the first African American to hold a Republican Party leadership position in the history of the U.S. Congress?
Watts, who is bringing his high-profile tenure in Congress to a close by retiring this year, shares his amazing story in his new book, What Color Is a Conservative? Read the excerpt from his book below.
Chapter One: Family Is the Rock on Which We Build Our Lives
Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go. — James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, 1962
Donna Brazile, Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign manager, and I ought to be friends, but we're not. We're about the same age. We're both proud African Americans who are involved in public service and fascinated by the political arena. Both of us can lay claim to a few "firsts" — she is the first black woman presidential campaign manager, and I am the first black to serve in the House Republican leadership.
Our upbringings are also surprisingly similar. Our fathers both did odd jobs, and we were both raised on the poor side of the tracks. Growing up, love was a lot easier to come by than money. We both felt the sting of racism and exclusion, and I suspect that she too was called "nigger" a few times, as I was. Despite a less than easy road, however, each of us managed to graduate from college and go on to make our mark in politics and government.
Yet with all that we share, Donna Brazile decided to use me to play the race card in the 2000 presidential campaign. Attacking my integrity, my motives, and my commitment to African American children, she told a reporter, "The Republicans bring out Colin Powell and J.C. Watts because they have no program, no policy. They play that game because they have no other game. They have no love and no joy. They'd rather take pictures with black children than feed them."
I may have given up boxing years ago, but telling a youth minister he doesn't care about his kids is fightin' words. No one likes to be on the receiving end of a partisan barrage, but if I was going to get shot at, I was glad Colin Powell was in the foxhole with me.
I've never met Donna Brazile. She certainly doesn't know me or what motivates me. Maybe our paths will cross one day, and I'll get to ask her why she chose to single out General Powell and me for what I've come to affectionately call the "full Donna." But knowing her penchant for headline-making remarks (it was an off-hand comment that got her fired as Michael Dukakis's political director in 1988), I found her intemperate comments hardly a surprise.
Ms. Brazile is typical of many black leaders and political operatives today who simply can't accept the notion that there are independent-minded African American men and women who disagree with them, who have rejected their liberal philosophy and approach to problem solving. For them, group identity is more important than individual principles because for them, maintaining the group identity assures the continuation of their power.
Like any group that has endured much, African Americans have created a strong and mutually reinforcing sense of group identity. That's not a bad thing in and of itself. Once the exhilaration of emancipation had worn off after the Civil War and the reality of being free but black in America had sunk in, that group identity comforted, protected, and encouraged us as a people to move forward in spite of the barriers put before our progress. That group identity gave us new strength and courage during the civil rights movement of the 1960s that ended the reign of Jim Crow and began a new era of black educational and economic upward mobility.
Sometimes, though, this group identity can limit us more than it protects us. Just as the Irish, the Italians, and the Jews still take pride in their roots, African Americans today should be proud of their heritage and never forget the difficult path our people have been forced to walk. But when the group identity becomes more important than the individual, it can blind us to valuable viewpoints, options, and opportunities. I embrace my blackness, just as I do my conservatism and my Christianity, but I don't want to be defined or pigeonholed by any one of the many elements that make up my character.
That refusal to be stereotyped and cast into certain beliefs and behaviors is what gets people of color who take another path, particularly a conservative path, into a heap of trouble. It doesn't matter whether it is Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice, Shelby Steele, Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, or yours truly — we have all been labeled expedients, Uncle Toms, oreos, sell-outs, traitors to our race, and other equally uncomplimentary characterizations.
Most of all, however, critics of black conservatives say we've forgotten where we came from. I may forget a federal budget number or, God forbid, to set the alarm clock for my weekly 6 a.m. flight to Washington, but I know exactly where I came from. I know because every decision I make every day is based on the values and lessons I learned growing up on the poor side of the tracks in a dusty little Oklahoma town that most people have never heard of and nobody can spell right the first time.
I like to call the ethos I grew up with "Oklahoma values." But you'd be just as accurate if you said "American values." Except for our lack of a seacoast, Oklahoma has a little bit of just about everything that's American. We call the southeastern corner "Little Dixie" because it touches Arkansas and almost reaches Louisiana. The northern part of the state has a shared border with Missouri and Kansas. The northwestern section is a gateway to Colorado and New Mexico. And, of course, our entire southern boundary defines the northern edge of Texas. We're southern, and we're western, and Great Plains, too. Every weekend when I fly home from Washington, I never get tired of seeing the beauty and bounty of my home state.
From What Color Is a Conservative? Copyright © 2002 by J.C. Watts, Jr. All rights reserved. HarperCollins Publishers. Used by permission.