How a South Bronx conservative shook up the right
The first thing people notice about Reginald Jones is that voice. Even in the clamor of lunch hour at Jim’s Steaks on South Street in Philadelphia, the voice pulls passersby into conversation. It begins with a basso profondo—“My father was a hard man,” he’d recall, drawing you into an anecdote. But as his sentences rush at you, an alto squeal crests at the top—“And he’d tell me, ‘You must be cra-zy!’” The effect is a little bit like listening to Levi Stubbs’s performance as the ravenous blood-eating plant in “Little Shop of Horrors,” if he were a street-corner conservative.
This was the voice that, coming from a caller, so captivated Rush Limbaugh that it dominated an hour of the most listened to talk-radio show on the planet and led to Jones’s discovery by the conservative movement. It was the voice that made him, according to Time, “one of the most popular figures among the young right.” At his zenith as a speaker on behalf of conservative and libertarian ideas early in the last decade, when many of his talks were broadcast on C-SPAN, people would recognize him by his voice while he was on the street or in line at the grocery store. And during the “big-government conservative” years of the Bush administration—an endless war here, a new prescription drug benefit there—his was a voice of protest on the right. And so the same movement that nurtured him, silenced him.
The second thing you notice about Reginald Jones is that he may be the only black man on earth decked from head to waist in NASCAR star Jeff Gordon’s logos. Jones not only loves a sport that is often ridiculed as a sublimated Klan rally, but he adores its most loathed, ultra-white-bread star. Everything about him screams contrariness. “If ten say this, I always said that.” Jones is a black conservative, and among conservatives he calls himself an anarcho-capitalist.
Jones grew up in the South Bronx. “I had lived in government housing my whole life and it was a real crap-hole. The elevators smelled like beer and urine.” To this day, he can barely stand the smell of beer. “We didn’t know we lived in the projects until we moved to Co-op City.” Jones’s family relocated to the newer development in the North Bronx in the spring of 1977, just ahead of the blackouts. Co-op City had its own power plant. “Thank God we moved there,” Jones says, “I couldn’t get over the green grass and bicycle paths. It was a whole new world. They had instruments in the schools.”
Jones makes no pretensions to being an intellectual in his own right. He did not excel in his studies at Truman High School and was surprised to learn that he could have qualified for college. But he was a precocious young man. He read F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom while a freshman in high school. “Reading Serfdom really locked me in,” says Jones. It connected with his father’s work-hard-and-make-no-excuses ethic at home. It also connected with his experience at the dawn of a revolution in popular culture.
There are many things to lament about growing up black in the South Bronx in the mid-1970s—the living conditions, the spreading drug use—but Jones speaks of it as a privilege. “It was the time of DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grand Wizzard Theodore.” This was the birth of hip-hop, and Jones took from it a lifetime of political lessons.
“The South Bronx at that time was like Hong Kong,” he says, “a totally unregulated economy. The market policed itself. If you sucked, you were gone. You didn’t need copyright laws because if you were biting on someone else’s rhymes, that was a no-no. No one would buy your tapes.” Jones recalls fondly that music parties were organized in abandoned buildings: “Brothers that worked on Wall Street would use the copy machines at work to create flyers. People that knew electricity would siphon it off and run it into these places; I still don’t know how they did it.” Jones maintains that everyone thought it was just a party, but in reality they were building “a multi-billion dollar industry.”
Jones was a talented drummer and quickly found work at the boutique hip-hop labels that were springing up to record this new sound. But technology quickly outmoded his original contributions. “We drummers didn’t have a union to fight record sampling—you either changed with the technology, or you were out,” Jones says. He went on to work in the mailroom at MCA. “I wanted to be where the information came in,” he says. By the 1990s, he was a promotions man working for the Philadelphia quartet Boyz II Men. His modest successes in the music business vindicated his resistance to the advice he was so often given as a young man: “Get a civil service job.”
But Jones didn’t find his true calling until the late 1990s. Firebrand black conservative Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) had just called Jesse Jackson and other holdover civil-rights leaders “race-hustling poverty pimps.” The media firestorm that created had House Speaker Newt Gingrich demanding that Watts make an apology. It was then that Jones, in anger, called Rush Limbaugh’s show and unexpectedly found himself speaking for an entire hour of the program.
“Suddenly Rush was asking me about my philosophy, my thoughts on civil rights,” recalls Jones. The segment drew a huge response, and things began to move quickly. New Right stalwart Paul Weyrich got in touch with Jones and eventually gave him a spot on his fledgling conservative cable network. Young America’s Foundation, a group that arranges lectures on college campuses by prominent conservatives, recruited Jones as a speaker. He quickly became one of their top talents.
The time was ripe for Jones. Bill Clinton’s record as Arkansas governor made an easy target for a black New Jersey conservative. The “first black president” had earlier as governor supervised the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a brain-damaged black man incapable of understanding his punishment. Clinton had defended racial profiling. Meanwhile, college conservative groups were doing “affirmative action bake sales” to demonstrate the bigotry of low expectations.
Reginald Jones’s talks were a combustible mix of F.A. Hayek and Malcolm X. Jones dislikes W.E.B. Dubois and other black leaders who he sees as asking for a “fair share” of white America’s institutions. Instead, his speeches recalled Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, and Elijah Muhammad, black leaders who preached the building of black businesses, black universities, and black economic power. “Black progress means white students are suing to get into Morehouse and Spelman,” he’d say.
Jones became the most requested Young America’s Foundation speaker, and his post-event bull sessions with students would often last from 10 p.m. to near sunrise. He’d rattle off ways that government regulation stifled business initiative among blacks. For instance, black women who braided hair professionally were shut down because they had not obtained licenses available to them only at great cost and with many course hours of learning to cut and style white people’s hair. “I don’t know a single black woman who needed official training in hair-braids,” says Jones. He gave talks titled “Why Puff Daddy Is a Capitalist.” He was the rarest of rare birds, a black conservative who could speak convincingly to black audiences.
Once Jones became a fixture on C-SPAN he attracted the interest of televangelists. “Kenneth Copeland’s people got in touch with me,” he says, “They told me they’d give me seed money. They started telling me that with my voice, my connections to the music business, my good looks, that I could do very well.” These were the same men that launched Creflo Dollar and T.D. Jakes. But, says Jones, “they never once asked me what I believed, they weren’t even interested.” Jones, a devout man who quotes Scripture with the felicity of a preacher, rejected them. “They told me I had a gift, and I told them I wanted to keep it.”
Unfortunately, the changing politics of the conservative movement made that more difficult. Jones had always been willing to surprise; he was audacious enough to criticize an “enterprise zone” scheme at the very event J.C. Watts was using to unveil and endorse the initiative. After a Young America’s Foundation retreat in Washington in which Jones fired up a group of students to be critical of the Iraq War and the Bush administration’s education policies, the invitations to speak began to dry up. Jones also dealt with health problems that prevented him from taking to the podium again.
But the season looks ripe for Jones to make a comeback. America had imagined that the election of Barack Obama could help heal the nation’s racial divides. Instead, his popularity and liberalism only temporarily masked them. How much more need is there for real diversity within black politics? The conservative movement is also becoming more habitable for a political creature like Jones. The organized right is now welcoming in a much more staunch and younger libertarian wing, one as apt to criticize Obama’s intervention in Libya as his healthcare plans. Jones could be a man of the moment. If Young America’s Foundation cannot take him back, why not the Campaign for Liberty that grew out of Ron Paul’s following?
“I do miss it,” Jones says of his speaking days. “I would be hated before I came to a campus. They’d greet me with protests. But by the time I left, they respected me even if they didn’t agree.” Reginald Jones’s life in and out of the hip-hop community is a powerful testimony to the right’s ideals. And his presence in the movement was a powerful rebuke to the charge that conservatism is the apologetics of white privilege. The right could use a voice like Jones again.
Michael Brendan Dougherty is a TAC contributing editor.