This is what happens when a white woman wants to chat about race

Kim Ruff, who is running for the Libertarian Party nomination for president, admits to having a limited understanding about broad swaths of the country she hopes to lead — particularly the parts with large numbers of black Americans.

But she is open to learning. To her credit, as she mounts her moonshot campaign, Ruff is willing to consider, discuss and examine her lack of knowledge about the nation’s turbulent racial history with almost anyone, including strangers, like me.

I became aware of Ruff and her presidential ambitions while reviewing data from more than 700 people who have filed paperwork with the Federal Elections Commission in pursuit of quixotic, long-shot efforts to win the White House in 2020. I called her to discuss her campaign.

Unlike so many of the gadflies and crackpots on the FEC list, Ruff was, as I described her in the column, “sober and serious” about her campaign. She said in our interview that she didn’t expect to win the general election. Rather, she’s seeking the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination to promote the party’s fundamental views on individual civil liberties, non-interventionist foreign policies, comprehensive immigration reform and strong advocacy for gun rights.

“What little bit of media attention we can get, we should use to speak unapologetically and very boldly about who we are as Libertarians,” she said when I asked why she was running what seemed to be a hopeless effort. Fair enough, I thought, as I turned to work on other stories. But Ruff didn’t move on.

“I did some research after speaking with you, and it appears you cover politics and (its) impact on race,” Ruff said in an email sent to me about two hours after our phone interview. “If you’re amenable to it, I would love to pick your brain and get your perspective.”

So I called her back, and we spoke for nearly an hour.

“Obviously, I’m a white woman,” Ruff said, kicking off our second conversation with a playful chuckle. Then, she bluntly asked the political question at the top of her mind.

“I guess what I want to know is why black people vote almost exclusively for Democrats?” she asked. “I think I understand about their distrust of Republicans, given how things are now, but Democrats are for big government and the government hasn’t been supportive of black people. So why keep voting for them?”

I mentioned to Ruff that Joe Feagin, a noted sociologist and social theorist who has studied racial and gender issues for decades, once told me that is impossible to have an hour-long discussion of U.S. race relations without having a preceding five-hour history lesson.

So Ruff and I talked about the history of black American struggles, progress, and setbacks. I explained that any success black people have attained in this country was intertwined with federal protections. I discussed with her how federal military intervention was necessary to end slavery in the United States, federal courts brought about an end to segregated schools in 1954, and federal legislation provided housing, voting and other civil rights advances in 1960s.

We talked about how, once upon a time in the nation’s history, Democrats opposed and Republicans favored using federal power to protect the interest of black Americans. I reminded her of how the racial views of the two major political parties flipped after President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs promoted civil rights legislation, sending Dixiecrats into the racist, southern-strategy embrace of the GOP.

“It’s not like black Americans believe Democrats are perfect,” I told her. “But of the two parties, one clearly has our interests more at heart than the other — especially in the current Trump era.”

I also told Ruff that it was true that much had been done through federal polices to discriminate against and cripple black Americans from full participation in the society. But, I explained, I believe — unlike Libertarians — that it requires federal intervention to correct the disparities that continue to impact black Americans. Democrats share some of my views, while not nearly as strongly as I’d like, but certainly more than any alternative political party.

Ruff listened intently, occasionally offering an opinion grounded in her educational experiences (she’s a 2009 graduate of Arizona State University) and Libertarian philosophies.

For example, she noted that Libertarians are full-throated in their support for the rights of citizens to own and bear guns and that the Black Panthers decades ago called for arming black people to protect them against the government. I agreed and we both laughingly bemoaned the idea that the federal government would almost immediately institute gun control policies if black people owned and used guns as recklessly as white Americans do nowadays.

At the end of our chat, Ruff admitted that our conversation was a rare opportunity for her to expand on her social interactions with black Americans. She said it was rare, certainly among her circle of friends and probably beyond, for such conversations to take place.

“Race, and any other group identity for that matter, is such a fascinating topic and one that we fail to address appropriately or adequately because of our own ignorance – willful or otherwise – of our long, difficult, and oftentimes horrifyingly ugly history with this issue,” Ruff said.

Just before we hung up, Ruff asked if I might suggest some books on race relations that she should read, noting that she’d have plenty time on the campaign trail to continue her education on the subject. I was more than happy to share with her some titles from my own library.

A 38-year-old project manager for a Phoenix, Arizona, manufacturing firm, Ruff came of age as a Republican but grew disillusioned with the GOP’s neo-conservative tilt and joined the Arizona Libertarian Party in 2005.

Last year, she mounted an unsuccessful, write-in campaign as a Libertarian for Arizona State Mine Inspector, a run that she said was a prelude to her seeking the party’s presidential nomination.

“I subscribe to a political ideology that always keeps the focus on the individual above the group,” she told me.

“That being said, group identity and its impact on the individual, society, and their impact on each other, cannot be dismissed. It is part of who we are, even if only a part, and that’s why it is important to me to try to understand, even if I never can completely.”

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