He’s Black, Republican and working to reelect Trump. It’s not easy
Immanuel Jarvis has spent most of his life in sales. Cellphones. Life insurance. Real estate.
He comes at it naturally, with a warm smile, clever wit and outgoing personality. He’s hard not to like.
And yet Jarvis gets taunting emails, nasty phones calls, dirty looks. He recalls people standing so close he felt their hot breath on his face as they told him, “If I was your mother, I’d be ashamed of you for who you are.”
Jarvis is a Republican. He is Black. And he’s a staunch supporter of President Trump.
After 3 1/2 incendiary years in office, the president is deeply loathed by many Black Americans. Polls suggest fewer than 10% of Black voters back his reelection and more than 7 in 10 of those surveyed not only disapprove of Trump’s job performance but do so strongly.
Still, there are millions of Black Americans who will cast their ballots for the president in November, many enthusiastically. As chairman of the Durham County Republican Party, one of Jarvis’ goals is to increase that number.
It may be the toughest sales job the 43-year-old has ever faced.
GOP lawmakers, Trump surrogates tread carefully on president’s inflammatory remarks over the Fourth of July weekend, denounced by Democrats.
Durham County, located near the dead center of North Carolina, is nearly 40% Black. Trump lost here to Hillary Clinton by a crushing 78% to 18%. There is not a single GOP member of the County Board of Commissioners or Durham City Council.
“Not just Democratic,” Kerry Haynie, a Duke University political scientist, said of the local political breed. “It’s a progressive kind of Democrat.”
Trump won’t come close to winning Durham County in November. At best, he might lose in a less-big landslide. But the president hasn’t helped himself by doing things such as retweeting a video of a supporter shouting “white power,” equating the words “Black Lives Matter” with hate speech, or defending the heritage of the slave-holding Confederacy. And that’s just of late.
Jarvis, however, is undeterred.
He harbors no illusion about the racist roots of this country, the inequality that Black Americans persistently face, the rampant discrimination and the casual bigotry that has become so normalized that, for some, it’s almost second nature.
“My heart grieves for where Black America is going,” he said during one of several long conversations about politics and the presidential campaign.
He sees one remedy residing in the White House.
“How many people do you know that are standing up for us?” Jarvis asked rhetorically. “I know one. It’s a person that the media hates. His name is Donald Trump.”
Jarvis grew up in a household where the pieties of the Democratic Party flowed as plain and clear as water.
His father was an executive chef and entrepreneur who founded and profitably sold a number of high-end restaurants as the family moved between Texas and Virginia. His mother was an elementary school teacher.
When he turned 18, there was never a question which party Jarvis would join. He cast his first (and last) Democratic presidential ballot in 1996, voting to reelect Bill Clinton. It was reflex, not a matter of conviction. He didn’t much care about politics; Jarvis’s greater interest was launching his career in sales, capitalizing on the booming cellphone market.
His perspective began changing in the late 1990s, after a hurricane threatened Virginia Beach, Va.
Jarvis figured the best source of information was on the AM dial, so he tuned in for the periodic news updates, figuring he would “stomach through” the rat-a-tat on right-wing talk radio. What he heard — an assertively conservative view on taxes, education, race, guns, abortion and other social issues — was a revelation.
“I would listen, sort of, ‘OK, that’s stupid, whatever,’ and the point would be made and I’m like” — his face froze and eyes grew wide as he paused dramatically — “That is right ...
“And over the course of just a couple days, as the storm is coming, I’m listening to more and more of this stuff, and I’m like, ‘Well, that’s true, too.’ But, wait a minute, who are these guys? And why is this something different than I’ve ever been taught?”
Jarvis launched on a course of independent study, a journey through the works of Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois. He found particular resonance in Washington’s up-by-your-bootstraps philosophy of Black improvement through education and self-reliance.
The more Jarvis read, the more distaste he felt toward the Democratic Party and, in his eyes, its destructive paternalism. Democrats, he came to believe, don’t really have the best interests of Black voters at heart, but prefer a transactional relationship: Here’s some government aid; vote for us and we’ll see you again in October of the next even-numbered year, when election time rolls around. It is part of a pattern, Jarvis suggested, as old as the country itself.
“Black people have been exploited,” he said, “and manipulated and used as pawns for this entire time. Today it’s just more sophisticated than it was before.”
His true home, Jarvis felt, was in the God-fearing Republican Party, which he saw as more interested in helping raise up Black Americans by providing inspiration and, through education and economic incentives, the tools to succeed on their own rather than fostering dependence on never-ending relief programs.
“There’s no reason generation after generation should live in public housing,” Jarvis said. “One generation, I get it ... hard times, bad luck, death in the family, loss of a job, disability.... Republicans help you at the same time they restore you, so you don’t stay there forever.”
In 2000, Jarvis moved to Durham, where his then-fiancee had accepted a nursing position. Today the couple lives on a farm where they raise pigs and chickens with their two daughters and a son they adopted — not from Russia or China, Jarvis pointedly noted, but from right here in the Black community.
When the couple first arrived, Jarvis said, he considered it best to keep his political beliefs to himself. “I just felt I didn’t need to be sticking out like that as an African American,” Jarvis said, so he registered as an independent.
How many people do you know that are standing up for us? I know one. It’s a person that the media hates. His name is Donald Trump
A few years later, a postcard arrived in the mail. It came from the chairman of the county GOP and was addressed to Jarvis’ wife, a Republican who made no secret of her political allegiance. Did you know, the postcard stated, there were 1,067 registered Black Republicans in Durham County? The chairman invited her to a meeting at his home across town. She went, joining about 50 others, and texted her husband as he sat in class at the local community college.
Jarvis has a theatrical streak, with a range of voices and expressions used to play out different scenes, and sitting in a booth at an upscale seafood grill in Raleigh he reenacted the moment: He glanced at his phone over and over. He shook his head. “Oh man,” he recalled thinking, “I wish I was there.”
It was an epiphany, Jarvis said, realizing he and his wife were not alone, a moment akin to a gay person “coming out of the closet” back in the 1970s and finding “a place that you could go and, quote-unquote, ‘be yourself’ without being ostracized.”
Jarvis grew politically active, promoting the Republican Party and conservative candidates while building a real estate investment firm. In 2015, he was elected chairman of the county GOP, beating a fellow Black Republican to win the position. He is now serving his third two-year term, though it hasn’t been easy.
“I pick my battles,” he said. “A little potshot here, a little potshot there. I take it. I just keep moving on.”
But his ardent support of Trump is not at all grudging, or a matter of blind party loyalty.
In Jarvis’ view, the list of the president’s achievements on behalf of Black America is long, if underappreciated.
He cites legislation Trump signed to bolster black colleges and universities, the creation of “opportunity zones” to help economically distressed areas, education grants in the farm bill, and reforms aimed at ending racial disparities arising from federal law that includes a crime bill written by Trump’s Democratic opponent Joe Biden.
“These are the kinds of things that help our folks,” he said, adding that it was more than the nation’s first African American president, Barack Obama, ever accomplished.
Jarvis views the eight years of the Obama administration, historic though they may have been, as a thudding disappointment. People were so focused on having “a Black man in the White House,” he said, “that we forgot that the most important thing is getting a Black man in his own house, and that actually has more impact than anything else.”
The police killing of George Floyd and resulting protests have led white Americans to reckon with racism more vigorously than at any moment in recent history.
Some look at Obama’s successor, his history of offensive remarks and stoking of racial tensions, and see a racist seated in the Oval Office. Nearly 9 in 10 Black Americans surveyed in a Washington Post-Ipsos poll said they believe Trump is “biased against Black people.”
Jarvis is not among them. Rather, he shares Trump’s view that Democrats and the media purposely distort the president’s statements, or wrench them out of context, to undermine Trump and paint him as a racist.
His voice flinty, Jarvis offered one example after another.
The president was not incorrect, he said, in pointing out a number of Black and brown leaders around the world horribly abuse their citizens, turning their countries into “s-holes.” (Jarvis did not say the word Trump employed.)
He noted that Trump deleted the Tweet in which a supporter shouted “white power” after he became aware of the bigoted language. Had Biden done the same thing, Jarvis asserted, it would have been treated as a non-story.
He defended the president’s criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement, which, in Jarvis’ estimation, was a noble effort overtaken by anarchists and anti-capitalists bent on advancing their own agenda.
“The phrase itself is not hate speech,” Jarvis said. “If you sat down with [Trump] and asked that question, I’m sure he’d probably answer the same way.... It’s the organization and the way it’s been hijacked.”
Many condemn Trump for criticizing immigrants who come to the country illegally, Jarvis continued, but what he’s really doing is standing up for Black people who are disproportionately hurt by the competition for jobs and limited government resources. “We’re talking about giving healthcare ... and other freebies to people who are not supposed to be here, when our ancestors came over in chains,” Jarvis said. “Think about it.”
There are things that bother Jarvis, such as when Trump attacks individual reporters, or goes after local leaders. That, he said, is beneath the president.
But Jarvis welcomes what he sees as Trump’s refreshing outspokenness and candor. He says things, Jarvis suggested, that many people — including many Black Americans — believe but don’t dare utter aloud.
Just wait, he said: Polls are deceiving. Black people are keeping quiet. He can easily see Trump getting as much as 17% of the Black vote nationwide, which would more than double his 2016 performance and be the best showing for any Republican since President Richard Nixon won 18% in his 1972 reelection campaign.
Many consider that forecast to be wildly optimistic.
“It’s fantasy,"said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who has spent years surveying Black voters. “It is based not in reality.”
But Jarvis is adamant. Like any good salesman, he deeply believes in what he’s pitching.
Even if it’s no easy sell.
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