Politics Mondays: The Problem with Black Republicans by Darryl Cox
Black Republicans need to get off the talk show circuit and begin doing real political work in the black community if they expect to gain the support of black voters.
The struggle over which political party – the Democrats or the Republicans – deserves to be the dance card favorite of black voters presents one of the more intractable, if not paradoxical, problems on the American political landscape. The more that black voters are told that their votes as a block matters less because of the demographic increase in Hispanic and Asian voters in America, the more tenaciously it seems that the Democrats and Republicans pursue and squabble over their votes. Black voters are like the girl that nobody wants to be seen accompanying to the dance but once everyone is safely inside the hall and the music begins nobody can keep their hands off of her.
No group of political party pundits and activists seem to secrete more sweat and angst over this issue than black Republicans and black conservatives who, incidentally, are not always one and the same. Their anxiety is understandable and not just because they might be feeling a tad bit lonely given the lack of support black voters give to Republican Party candidates at all levels. Most black Republicans are smart enough to realize, regardless of where they shake out on the party’s political spectrum, that they will have to bring more than their appetites to the table if they want to influence the party’s direction on public policy issues. In other words, they will have to have some black feet under them if they expect the GOP to listen to them and respond to their interpretations of the issues and concerns of black voters.
The Republican Party’s immediate prospects for recruiting more black voters to punch a chad or touch a screen on behalf of its candidates seems remote at best these days. This seemingly glacial reality causes no end of dismay and hand wringing on the part of black Republicans. Jack E. White, who is black and writes for Time magazine, has declared that the Democrats “virtual monopoly on the black vote is bad for African Americans… a demeaning form of political serfdom.” One black conservative analyst, La Shawn Barber, recently attributed the sway that Democrats have over black voters to “years of damage caused by liberal ideology and misinformation pumped into the black community for the past 25 years.” Barber conveniently forgets or may be too young to remember that the black vote was in play during the 1960 presidential contest between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy; neither candidate took black voters for granted despite the fact that blacks were increasingly voting for Democrats in the national elections.
In truth there was no liberal fairy dust sprinkled over the heads of black voters that caused them to flee from the arms of the Republicans. The more likely cause, as many blacks recall, was the unapologetic embrace of American apartheid by the Republican Party’s presidential nominee Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964 and the party’s efforts to establish a new base for itself among disaffected southern white Democrats. Although a higher percentage of Republicans in the House and Senate voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Bill than did Democrats, Goldwater, armed with the legal and intellectual arguments provided by two of his aides, future Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist and Robert Bork, voted against the bill.
No liberal ideologues caused Ronald Reagan to kick-off his campaign in 1980 by visiting the notorious Philadelphia, Mississippi - where three civil rights workers were murdered - and declare his support for states’ rights. The reality is that Democratic Party liberals did not destroy the relationship between black voters and the Republican Party. White Republican political conservatives, many of who left the Democratic Party in disgust in1964, managed to accomplish this dubious achievement on their own; and, they and their fellow black Republicans need to own up to this fact if either hopes to persuade more blacks to vote for Republican candidates in the future.
If black Republicans truly desire to recruit more black voters to their party then they will need to create a political agenda that moves beyond attempting to use issues such as abortion, gay marriage and prayers in school to drive a wedge between African American voters and the Democratic Party. The fact that an overwhelming majority of African American voters profess a belief in a divine force animating the universe does not mean that a similar number look to heavenly or Biblical guidance when making decisions about who will represent them in the state house or the White House. Consequently, there is only a certain amount of guidance and direction that they will take from their ministers.
Black voters, given their unique history and experiences in the United States, are particularly adroit at understanding and navigating the complexity of American electoral politics and they are not likely to throw over their allegiance to one party or candidate based on issues that they view as tangential to their lives. They may not have approved of Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky but she wasn’t their daughter, niece or cousin. This may seem coldly selfish but it is also extremely pragmatic and rational. Most black voters are aware enough to know that the fate of the world and its people does not turn on moral or theological issues alone. People need bread, literally and figuratively, to survive.
Black Republicans might employ, for example, an organizing tactic that was used to great success by the Civil Rights movement: engaging in direct action within the black community. If black Republicans genuinely care about persuading more black voters to cast their ballots for GOP candidates then they will have to be willing to get in the trenches and dig hard for black votes. In operational terms this means, for example, walking the streets in black neighborhoods, knocking on the doors of black voters and helping black people organize around issues directly affecting their lives and communities. Republican candidates, black and white, are not going to get black votes by simply doing S&Ws (smiles and waves) at black churches or getting endorsements from the black clergy or black business groups.
The political correspondent Juan Williams recently argued in op-ed piece in the New York Times that younger black Americans – 18 to 25 year olds – “seem ready for a forthright conversation about race and politics.” Williams may be right but this age group is probably a lot more interested in talking about the need for developing more entrepreneurial and economic opportunities in African American communities than in pursuing further dialogue about America’s racial problems. Black Republicans might consider looking upon this group’s concerns not as a means to talk abstractedly about the benefits of the marketplace but to actively promote and assist their efforts to become business owners.
Far too many black Republican commentators and pundits seem to be as deeply afflicted with the same strain of political myopia that they so often and loudly accuse black Democrats of having contracted. Black Republicans appear, however, to have forgotten or never learned that the most assured way of gaining political legitimacy in American politics is to win an election. As long as the Republican Party, for whatever reasons, seems not able or not willing to recruit and sponsor attractive black political candidates who can either win or run extremely well in predominantly black or substantially black voting districts then the Republican Party will make little or no headway among black voters. Until that time comes, if it does at all, comments and speculations about the motivations (and, by implication, the intelligence) of black voters will seem like nothing more than the childish whining of sore losers.
Former Representative J.C. Watts and others may be correct in asserting that blacks have a greater affinity for the values embodied in the platform and legislative agenda of the Republicans than they do for the Democrats. The truest test of his contention lies, however, in the voting booth. The potency and credibility of these claims cannot be established through the op-ed pages of newspapers and the pronouncements of black intellectuals affiliated with various conservative foundations and “think tanks.” Black voters may be acting contrary to their best interests by putting all of their political eggs into the Democratic basket but, to date, too many black Republicans seem baffled and turned off by the heavy lifting required to move any black eggs into their party’s basket.
Darryl Cox can be contacted via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Monday, August 9, 2004