RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Among the new Republicans being sworn in today are two African-American lawmakers. It's been seven years since there was last an African-American Republican serving in Congress. That was J.C. Watts. The newcomers are Allen West of Florida and Tim Scott of South Carolina. And one intriguing question is whether they will join the all-Democratic, traditionally liberal Congressional Black Caucus.
For some analysis, we reached Jason Johnson. He's a political science professor at Hiram College in Ohio.
Thank you for joining us.
Professor JASON JOHNSON (Hiram College): Glad to be here.
MONTAGNE: Now, tell us a little bit more about these two congressmen, Allen West and Tim Scott. You know, what are their politics specifically?
Prof. JOHNSON: Well, it's interesting. When you look at the politics of Allen West, he is your quintessential Tea Party member. He's to the far right. I mean he has been known to sort of cavort with Birthers. You know, he claims that, you know, the vast majority of the government should be scaled back. You know, he's an extremely right wing candidate, which is fascinating given that he comes from Broward County, Florida.
Then you have Tim Scott, who, while he's from a significantly more conservative district, is actually seen as the one who's more likely to at least reach out to the Congressional Black Caucus, whether or not he actually officially becomes a member.
MONTAGNE: Both of these congressmen came from either white or predominantly white districts?
Mr. JOHNSON: Yes, yes, both of them did. I don't think that makes them any less concerned or any less sensitive to the needs of African-American voters who happen to be in their district.
MONTAGNE: On what issues could these two lawmakers find common cause with the Congressional Black Caucus?
Mr. JOHNSON: Well, the thing is, the Congressional Black Caucus's primary reason for existing is to have a collective group of political leaders who are interested in the unique circumstances of African-Americans, and that is something that in most cases should and often does transcend party lines.
So certain kinds of health care policies that may have to deal with sickle cell or hypertension, certain issues that have to do with schools - these are all areas where all of the members could actually share interest in policy. So while it's unique that the Congressional Black Caucus is primarily Democrat, it doesn't mean that the issues that they agree upon have to be specifically Democratic issues.
MONTAGNE: Now, we've been talking about the House. There is not a single African-American senator in this Congress. Is that significant?
Mr. JOHNSON: Not really, not to most African-American voters. Look, the fact of the matter is, you know, descriptive representation, which is having somebody that looks like you in office, it's not something that African-Americans are often privileged enough to have. I mean, reality is there have been very few African-American senators throughout this country's history.
And so most black voters are less concerned about the color of the person representing him than they are with the policies that that person will deliver to their particular constituency. So you know, that on top of the fact that there happens to be an African-American or a black American in the White House - I don't think most black voters are concerned about the Senate.
MONTAGNE: What do you make of the fact that while the African-American representation in the House of Representatives has gone up by two in this last election - if you want to put it this way - those two turned out to be Republicans.
Mr. JOHNSON: Here's the thing: If you look at three generations, you look at the baby boom generation of African-Americans, they're primarily Democrats. If you look to the Greatest Generation beforehand, you know, they voted Republican till the 1960s. If you look at Generation X, let alone Millennials, you know, there's a, you know, the African-American vote is much more up for grabs than many people expect. And white Republicans are much more likely and much more comfortable in voting for minorities, as we saw in the 2010 midterms, than they have ever been in the past.
So what we're seeing here is a change in many voter attitudes across race and across parties. So I think the significance of these two men demonstrates that not only are there changes coming to the CBC, but we may see more African-American, more Indian-American, as we saw Nikki Haley in South Carolina or what we saw in New Mexico - we will see probably a much more diverse Republican Party coming to Congress, coming to Senate, and coming to governors' mansions over the next 10 years.
MONTAGNE: Jason Johnson is politics editor for The Source magazine and also professor of political science and communications at Hiram College in Ohio. Thank you very much for joining us.
Mr. JOHNSON: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.