The Republican Party wants more Black voters. They’re not likely to get them. After humiliating defeats in the last two Presidential elections propelled by unprecedented Black voter turnout, as well as the “purpling” of several previously solid Red states, the Republican Party is frantically looking around for a way to reach out to minority voters.
Obviously the Republican Party is having severe public relations problems with women, Latinos and gays, so Blacks may seem like a relatively easy target demographic in comparison.
The only foreseeable obstacle to a future in which minorities flock in droves to the Republican Party are its messaging, its policies, and the generally acerbic language used by its party members. In addition, their continued attacks on and general level of disrespect for the sitting President of the United States, who happens to be Black. And the widespread reports of its efforts to suppress the Black vote.
Nothing that the Party of Lincoln can’t overcome, right?
After all, the argument goes, just look at the historical relationship between the GOP and Black Americans. For example, Abraham Lincoln, the President responsible for freeing the slaves (most of whom are rumored to have been Black) was a member of the Republican Party. There is credit deserved for that, isn’t there?
Yes, there is, although that particular executive order was issued in way back in 1863. Lincoln’s edict also did not actually emancipate slaves held in the five Union states that engaged in the heinous practice. It also had no real power to affect slaves in the Confederacy, as there was a civil war in progress at the time, and the Confederate slave-holding states did not recognize the authority of the federal government. It would take the Thirteenth Amendment to create an enforceable policy to free the slaves.
Still, it’s the thought that counts, right? Doesn’t the Republican Party deserve the credit for trying? Not to mention the fact that the term Radical Republican had a very different meaning back then, especially during the Reconstruction Era, when their faction sought to enhance the position of former Black slaves through actual policy.
These Radical Republicans had waged a vigorous abolitionist campaign during the Civil War, and they did not believe the ex-Confederates could be trusted to deal equitably with their former property (the slaves). They were, of course, correct in this belief, as was quickly evidenced by the rapid dismantling of all the gains Blacks made during Reconstruction.
Forty acres and a what? No, no, no…
Still, there was a time when this faction of the Republican Party was far more zealous in their protection of voting and human rights than the moderate element led by good old Honest Abe.
Those were the days, huh?
Lest we be accused of judging them unfairly, it must be mentioned that during the tumultuous civil rights struggles of the 1950’s and 1960’s, the Republican Party was a fairly staunch supporter of the movement. 80 percent of Republican legislators voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, beating the Democrats out by double digits.
It was the Democratic Party, not the Republican Party, that formed an ill-conceived segregationist movement in the late 1940’s under the moniker of the States’ Rights Democratic Party. The Dixiecrat Democrats, as they came to be called, are far from blameless in the course of the history of racial justice in America. They sought to protect the pastoral way of Southern life they saw as being threatened by an overbearing federal government. They were in favor of the American apartheid that represented by Jim Crow laws, and members openly espoused White supremacist values.
That is all history, all fact, all true. It is also true that the contemporary Republican Party is barely scraping double digits out of the millions of Black American voters. So what happened to this match made in heaven?
Where did it all go so terribly and irrevocably wrong?
Well, the Republican icon and possible resurrected messiah Ronald Reagan didn’t help the situation much, even though modern Republicans would sacrifice bald eagles on pagan altars imported from China if they could conjure even an ounce of The Gipper’s charismatic strategy to reach out to Black voters. Even though he only pulled down marginally more of the Black vote in 1980 and 1984, Reagan considered himself a Big Tent Republican and went out of his way to interact with groups on the order of The Urban League and the NAACP.
The Republican Party believes they have a messaging problem, and that if they could just penetrate the Democratic force-field surrounding the Black vote, especially now that the Democrats have ushered in the first Black president, they could win them over.
After all, as so many Republican Party politicians are wont to say, it isn’t as if they are collectively more racist than the Democrats.
The Republican Party is, however, in support of a political platform that can be problematic to articulate to Black voters. They have never come up with a popular plan for addressing what amounts to the permanent economic gap existing between Black and White Americans. In 2009, the average net wealth of White households was over a $100 thousand; the corresponding figure for Black households was just over $5,000. The Black unemployment rate has been double the national average for decades.
To be fair, the Democratic Party has not exactly been effective at combating the poverty divide, but at least their messaging is stronger. The Republican Party has consistently opposed what they have labeled entitlement and welfare programs, which are immensely popular among Black Americans. Some of the Republican arguments against such programs are actually quite reasonable and worthy of debate, but this level of the critique is too often drowned out by vitriol spewed by politicians interested in appealing to the extreme right-wing of the party that forms their base.
Affirmative Action, as an example, is arguably more beneficial for White women than it is for Black men, and further damages the employment potential of Blacks by casting a shadow of doubt over their qualifications for a given position. But this is not how the rank and file of the Republican Party presents it, so the opposition comes across as mean-spirited racism.
In some cases, the opposition is simply mean-spirited racism.
Also the absolute deluge of voter repression measures passed in Republican-controlled districts has not gone unnoticed. In a desperate, futile attempt to thwart the election and re-election, of Barack Obama, the Republicans have pulled out virtually every old racist political trope in the book. They have attacked the Sunday early voting tradition known as Souls to the Polls, instituted ID policies, and some have even been accused of simply purging voter rolls.
The message of “colorblindness” that the Republican Party seems to have tried to embrace, or at least portray, also does not serve to attract Blacks, or any other minority group for that matter. The concept just doesn’t jibe with people’s experiences with lived reality.
Allowing the Republican National Committee (RNC) to send out tweets declaring that racism is over is also less than helpful to their cause.
Yet, the GOP is not giving up without a fight, bless their sweet little hearts. Up and coming political icons of the party like Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky are leading an effort to siphon away Black support from the opposition. Paul has recently spearheaded an outreach movement designed to bring Black voters into the party.
The Republicans have opened an office in the middle of the ghetto in Detroit, assuming that being on the ground will give them an organizing advantage in the community.
There are Black Republicans who try to carry the torch for the party. Herman Cain, Michael Steele, Ben Carson, Clarence Thomas and a host of others show that the party is not completely beret of appeal to Black Americans.
Just mostly beret. Like 90 percent bereft.
So, what can the Republican Party do to convince Black voters that they are not the party of old, rich, racist White men? Well, they can stop accepting the hundreds of millions of dollars supplied to them by the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson and Harold Simmons. They could distance themselves from the offensive bile of the Donald Trumps, the Birthers and the Tea Partiers who want the President to “put down the Quran and go back to Kenya.” They could seek to understand the perspective of the Black electorate and engage it on it’s own terms. They could become the party that represents economic justice instead of economic inequality. They could become the party that seeks to address the educational achievement gap widening in American schools and the massively disproportionate incarceration of Black males through the criminal justice system.
They could listen, learn and react with strong policies and effective leadership. After all, the Republicans share common ground with the average Black American on issues ranging from LGBT rights to immigration.
The Republican Party could do all of this, and more. But, if one honestly believes that they will, if one thinks that, given the events of the last six years or so and the direction the party is electing to take, that they can effectively pull support away from the Democrats. Well, if you believe the Republican Party is capable of such a turn around, I applaud the optimism. I would also, however, like to talk to you about buying a bridge in Brooklyn.
By Mark Clarke