Q&A with Kendall Qualls: ‘It’s insulting to hear that Black people can’t get ahead because of systemic racism.’

Republican who lost congressional race has started group aimed at lifting up Black families without government

Kendall Qualls has started a new group called TakeCharge Minnesota focused on promoting two-parent families. Courtesy photo.

In November, Republican Kendall Qualls lost a race to represent Minnesota’s 3rd District to U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips. Two months later on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Qualls launched TakeCharge Minnesota: “A new organization committed to countering the prevailing narrative in popular culture that America is structured to undermine the lives of Black Americans,” according to the group’s website.

Qualls recently spoke to the Reformer about race in the U.S., his proposal to combat poverty and disparities, and how former President Donald Trump was able to improve his standing with Black voters.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Tell us a little about yourself.

My father served in Vietnam. Unfortunately, when he came back, my parents divorced. I moved from Fort Kimball, Kentucky, to my grandparents’s apartment in Harlem. On the day we showed up with our luggage in hand, we were held up, gun and all, one block from their apartment. I was 6 or 7 years old. 

My mother had five kids. My older brothers and sisters were getting absorbed by the street culture of the inner city, and I was fighting nearly every day in elementary school. My father had to come get me and my younger brother. We moved to Oklahoma, where all he could afford was a trailer because he was paying alimony and child support.

I paid my way through college, worked full-time, I was in the Army Reserves, as well. I got my undergrad degree in ’85. I got two masters degrees while I was in the Army, and 11 years ago, I got my MBA.

People who helped me in life were Black and white, rich and poor, male and female, gay and straight. Americans help each other when they see someone trying to better their lot in life, and most American’s don’t put a filter on it based on skin color.

To me, it’s insulting to hear that Black people can’t get ahead because of systemic racism. I was able to get this house and this car because, guess what? They use a credit score. There are institutions that opened their doors, who want to help people like me. But you gotta get to that point.

Tell us about your new organization, TakeCharge. Is it an extension of your congressional campaign, or a new endeavor?

Although I didn’t win, I got 5% more of the vote than former President Trump or (GOP Senate candidate) Jason Lewis. A first-time candidate outperforming the top of the ticket is virtually unheard of. The qualitative feedback was “Kendall, your message resonated with people. Americans need to hear it. Minnesotans need to hear it.” 

What is that message?

After Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, the government offered a financial incentive for women to have children outside of wedlock and remain unmarried: welfare. That was the catalyst that changed the Black community, and that was the beginning of disparity.

[Editor’s note: You can find some history here and here of the federal program called Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which was first established with the Social Security Act of 1935.]  

Up until the 1960s, nearly 80% of Black families were two-parent families. One of the things we’re going to address is to get back to historical norms. We’re going to fix this, and we’re going to do it without interventions by government and elites from Ivy League schools. 

By the end of the year, you’re going to see more than 120 mothers in the community advocating for faith, family, education and marriage as a standard for men and women; with a multimedia platform to help with air support.

You’re trying to reach Minneapolis’ Black community with this message, many of whom are progressive. How do you respond to progressive critiques?

I don’t. To be honest, I don’t care what progressives think, Black or white. 

We need to get back to our cultural roots of faith, family and education. We get back to that, we’ll address 85, 90% of the problems we have in our culture. Anyone who wants to tell me that I’m wrong for focusing on the No. 1 issue, they have lost their freaking minds. 

Progressives have been in our major cities 50, 60 years. They oversaw this decline, and they did nothing to reverse it. You know why? When you can get people dependent on government, you can count on more votes.

You launched TakeCharge on MLK day. What is Dr. King’s legacy?

He was looking to give us access, as citizens, to the constitutional rights we didn’t have. 

The last major piece of civil rights legislation passed four months after his death. What he wanted from his ‘I Have a Dream Speech’ was structurally there. Obviously, there was residual racism, but those things dissipated over time. We were heading there as Americans. All of a sudden, we’re looking at disparities. It all became about skin color from people on his side of the political spectrum. 

When you have nearly 80% of kids growing up with no father in their home, no structure, no guidance, do you think they’re going to Harvard, Princeton, Yale? You think they’re even going to graduate from State U? There may be exceptions, but we have a pipeline problem, not a racial discrimination problem. Every company wants to see more people like me at senior levels. We’re not producing them as a culture.

There is evidence that, in the 2020 election, Donald Trump did as well or better with Black voters than any Republican presidential candidate since 1980. As a Black conservative man, what about Trump’s message do you think resonated with a broader section of the Black community than other recent GOP presidential candidates?

First, I want to push back on your definition. You called me a conservative. When did wanting to improve your lot in life, raise your family, raise your kids to be productive, when did that become “conservative?” That used to be the American thing. 

Here’s the thing Donald Trump understood more than anything, because he’s a business guy: There is nothing more dignified for a human being than to have a job, earn a living, be independent and provide for their families. That’s universal. That used to be a universal thing in the Democratic Party as well. It used to be.

The late Democratic Sen. Paul Tsongas said Democrats love employees, they just hate the employers. That’s what Donald Trump understood. 

The GOP is increasingly making space in the conservative coalition for people who have views that are at least adjacent to white supremacism. Many such individuals have spoken at the Conservative Political Action Conference in recent years. How do you navigate the tension of being in coalition with these types of people?

I can tell you exactly who the Republican party is. It’s the party of Abraham Lincoln. It’s the party of Ulysses S. Grant, who sent troops into the South to protect Black Americans from the Ku Klux Klan. It’s the party of Dwight Eisenhower, who sent federal troops to the South to ensure Black Americans could get to an equal access school. It’s the party of Ronald Reagan, who appointed the first Black person as National Security Advisor. And on and on.

You’re not going to get 100% from either party on their behavior, but the Republican Party still gets an ‘A’ from my perspective for what they’ve done for the Black community and this country, regardless of skin color.

I hear you saying you don’t feel that tension.

Because it’s not prevalent, it’s not the norm. One of my favorite actors is Tom Hanks. Not every one of his films was that great. That one island movie, “Castaway”? That doesn’t cause me to cast away Tom Hanks. Same scenario. 

Given the historic levels of division in our society today, what do you think are possible areas of compromise between conservatives and progressives?

When I remember liberals, I remember when the American grizzly bear was near extinction, the American bald eagle was near extinction, and they brought them back. In my lifetime, the American Black family has gone from 80% two-parent families to less than 20%. Literally, the American Black family is near extinction. In our lifetime, on our watch, and there is barely a whisper about turning it around. 

My no. 1 focus is to start that movement here in Minneapolis, and we’re going to spread it around the country.