(NEW YORK) — Sophia Nelson became aware very early in life that race could impact how others treated her.
As a young, African-American girl growing up outside Philadelphia, Nelson recalled accompanying her white grandmother to a department store.
“People would look at us strange, like, ‘why is that white lady holding that little black girl’s hand?” said Nelson. “Somebody said something smart – I don’t know – racial. And my grandmother went ballistic. I don’t remember the conversation, but I remember that.”
Nelson is quick to point out that this happened in the 1970s — “a different world,” as she calls it. But during the course of our conversation, she shared her concerns about the many ways in which our country — specifically the GOP — has not changed.
“Look at the numbers in the Republican Party,” Nelson lamented. “They’re terrible for people of color and African-Americans in particular. It’s abysmal. It’s horrible. It’s embarrassing.”
Nelson went against the political grain in her family, who are lifelong Democrats, when she decided to become a Republican after meeting then presidential-candidate Jack Kemp in college.
“Kemp talked about the great legacy of Lincoln,” said Nelson. “He was talking about the importance of African-Americans in the history of the Republican Party.”
She went on, “He talked about pulling yourself up, but that government does play a role … he really wanted to empower African-Americans and people of color in a way that they had their own destiny in their own hands.”
As a lawyer, Nelson worked within the party for decades, on the legal and advisory teams of Christie Todd Whitman, Pete Wilson, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. Eventually, she said, she grew disillusioned. Her white peers, she explained, were given opportunities for advancement that she — as a qualified, loyal, woman of color — was never offered. When she voiced her concerns, she was labeled a “troublemaker,” she said.
Eventually, she became an independent, even going so far as to vote for Barack Obama in 2004 and 2008. But Nelson believes the divisions laid bare in the 2016 presidential campaign show most clearly how far the Republican Party still has to go when it comes to including all Americans.
“What did you think the evolution of your party was going to be when you basically don’t really understand women and women’s rights?” said Nelson. “When you don’t have any agenda for people of color or African-Americans, which used to be your most natural constituency, from Lincoln all the way until the 1960s? And you’ve built the party on Nixon’s ‘Southern Strategy’?”
She views with skepticism the calls for unity coming from President Trump and his administration, and has now written a book focused on how Americans can come together at this point in history: “E Pluribus One: Reclaiming Our Founders Vision for a United America.”
“It’s one thing to give a speech and to have talking points and to say ‘we care,’ but love is a verb, as my grandmother used to say. It’s action,” said Nelson. “So don’t tell me that you care about communities of color, but you have rallies where people of color are getting punched in the face.”
To hear Nelson’s story, check out the full conversation on this week’s episode of “Uncomfortable.” Download and subscribe to the “Uncomfortable” podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Stitcher, and ABC News podcasts.
Nelson was interviewed as part of a series called “Uncomfortable,” hosted by Amna Nawaz, that offers in-depth honest conversations with influential figures about issues dividing America.
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