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How the Republican Party Drives Black Conservatives Away

Ron is a student of African American history. His writing highlights the stories of people who overcame prejudice to achieve great things.

How the GOP fails to appeal to Black conservatives.

How the GOP fails to appeal to Black conservatives.

The GOP Needs to Attract Minority Voters

After President Barack Obama won reelection in 2012, the Republican Party did a lot of soul-searching. It was very clear that demographic trends among the American electorate were putting the future of the party at risk. As South Carolina GOP Senator Lindsey Graham famously told the Washington Post, “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”

For the past half-century, the base of the Republican Party has been overwhelmingly white. In the 2012 election, the GOP candidate, Mitt Romney, won 59% of the white vote (39% voted for his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama). However, the incumbent president won the election by amassing 93% of the African American vote as well as 71% of the Latino vote and 73% of the Asian vote.

In the aftermath of that devastating defeat (President Obama won 332 electoral votes to just 206 for Romney), the Republicans conducted an “autopsy” to determine the causes of their loss and to give recommendations for rectifying those problems going forward.

The autopsy report, entitled “Growth & Opportunity Project,” noted that the percentage of whites in the electorate is shrinking year by year. The report concluded that if the GOP hopes to win presidential elections in the future, it must find ways of attracting more minority voters.

The Republican Party must be committed to building a lasting relationship within the African American community year-round, based on mutual respect and with a spirit of caring.

— 2013 GOP “autopsy” report

Fast forward to 2016 when, a few weeks before the November election, the Republican nominee, Donald Trump, was polling at between 0% and 1% among African Americans. Clearly, in the several years since receiving the hopeful recommendations of their autopsy report, the GOP actually made negative progress toward their goal of increasing their appeal to minority voters.

Yet it shouldn’t be that way.

Almost a Third of African Americans Self-Identify as Conservative

According to a 2009 Pew poll, 32% of African Americans describe themselves as conservative. That is only slightly less than the 37% of the general population who make the same declaration. Moreover, when it comes to hot-button moral issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, the poll found that the views of African Americans are more conservative than those of the population as a whole.

Yet, while white conservatives identify strongly with the Republican Party, very few African Americans do. Why is there such an aversion, even antipathy, among the vast majority of African Americans toward the GOP?

Why Don't Conservative African Americans Support the GOP?

Let’s be frank: many African Americans are convinced that the Republican Party is racist to its core. GOP leaders, of course, vigorously deny that charge. But the historical roots of that perception are well documented.

For decades after Emancipation, African Americans voted (when they were allowed to vote) almost exclusively for Republicans. After all, Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, had been instrumental in ending slavery. And in the years immediately following his death, the Republican Party worked hard to secure civil and voting rights for blacks.

The Democrats, on the other hand, were the party of racial bigotry and white supremacy. Before and even during the Civil War, the Democratic Party supported slavery. After the war, they worked to legalize and institutionalize racial discrimination and segregation throughout the nation. Understandably, “black Democrat” was a contradiction in terms.

But the GOP’s response to the Civil Rights revolution of the mid-20th century turned African Americans’ allegiance around. Because of GOP policies and actions that were initiated during that period (which continues today), many African Americans came to the conclusion that the Republican Party was not one in which they could feel welcomed and valued.

The Presidential Election of 1964 Drove Millions of African Americans From the GOP

The event that caused the most precipitous drop in black allegiance to the Republican Party was the presidential election of 1964. The GOP candidate that year was Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona.

Goldwater was far from racist himself. He was a founding member of the Arizona NAACP and had helped to integrate the Arizona National Guard. He declared himself to be “unalterably opposed to discrimination or segregation on the basis of race, color, or creed.” But, due to his conservative states-rights principles, he felt compelled to vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, considering it to represent a dangerous intrusion into state affairs by the federal government.

Once enacted, the 1964 Civil Rights Act (along with the Voting Rights Act of 1965) completely transformed race relations in the United States. African Americans, both then and now, consider it to be one of the most consequential pieces of legislation in American history. The GOP presidential candidate’s conservative opposition to this seminal measure caused African Americans to leave the Republican Party in droves.

1964 presidential campaign poster for Senator Barry Goldwater.

1964 presidential campaign poster for Senator Barry Goldwater.

The Republicans Become an Almost All-White Party

Even Richard Nixon recognized and lamented the direction in which Goldwater was taking the GOP. "If Goldwater wins his fight," Nixon told Ebony magazine in 1962, "our party would eventually become the first major all-white political party." Although he himself would eventually move in the same direction, Nixon's comment was prescient. More than a half-century later, the GOP remains an almost exclusively white party.

If Goldwater wins his fight, our party would eventually become the first major all-white political party.

— Richard Nixon in 1962

The GOP Initiates a Southern Strategy

Although some Republican politicians and operatives may not have been personally racist, they were quite willing to pander to racists for political advantage.

Recognizing that Southern Democrats were very unhappy with their party’s growing support of civil rights for African Americans, GOP leaders made a deliberate decision to go after those votes. Goldwater himself said, “We’re not going to get the Negro vote as a bloc in 1964 and 1968, so we ought to go hunting where the ducks are.”

In a 1981 interview, high-level GOP operative Lee Atwater, a major architect of the Southern Strategy, explained how it worked:

"You start out in 1954 by saying, 'N*****, n*****, n*****.' By 1968 you can’t say 'n*****' — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites."

After attending a meeting of the Republican National Committee in the summer of 1963, conservative journalist Robert Novak reported on the thinking of many party leaders: “A good many, perhaps a majority of the party’s leadership, envision substantial political gold to be mined in the racial crisis by becoming in fact, though not in name, the White Man’s Party.”

The Southern Strategy successfully encouraged whites who harbored racial resentments to leave the Democratic Party and join the GOP. When he signed the 1964 Civil Rights bill into law, President Lyndon Johnson commented that his doing so would cause the Democrats to lose the South for a generation. He was wrong. It’s been far longer than a single generation, and the South remains overwhelmingly Republican to this day.

The Southern Strategy Continues

As most African Americans see it, the Republican Party has never given up on its Southern Strategy and continues to follow it today. The necessity of placating the constituency brought into the party by that strategy has, in the view of millions of African Americans, turned the GOP into an institution that is very tolerant of veiled racism in its ranks.

Think, for example, of the kind of language African Americans have heard from Republican politicians over the last several decades.

In 1976 Ronald Reagan energized his campaign for president by bringing the term “welfare queen” into the popular consciousness. Since many whites associated welfare with poor black people, Reagan’s use of that term came across to African Americans, then and now, as a dog whistle appeal to whites who were beset by racial resentments.

In 1988 a political action committee supporting George H. W. Bush, whose campaign manager was the aforementioned Lee Atwater of “N*****, n*****, n*****” fame, ran ads that accused Bush’s opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, of having released on furlough a felon who went on to re-offend. That felon’s name was Willie Horton, and his mug shot photo was prominently featured in the ad. No one missed the fact that Willie Horton was black.

With the 2008 election and the 2012 reelection of Barack Obama as the country’s first president of African American heritage, Republican candidates and their surrogates used language that came across to African Americans as extremely demeaning and disrespectful.

For example, former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich became a rich source of quotes that played well to the Republican base but which deeply offended African Americans:

  • “[Obama] is the best food stamp president in history.”
  • “This is a person who is fundamentally out of touch with how the world works, who happened to have played a wonderful con, as a result of which he is now president.”
  • “And so I’m prepared, if the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention and talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.”

Former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, a surrogate for 2012 GOP nominee Milt Romney, expressed his sentiments about the first African American president with the following language: “I wish this president would learn how to be an American.” And when Obama appeared ill-prepared in his first debate with Romney, Sununu knew exactly where the president’s problem lay: “When you’re not that bright you can’t get better prepared.”

The culmination of what most African Americans perceive as a torrent of disrespect aimed at their race by Republicans is embodied in Donald Trump. Trump rose to political prominence by demanding that President Obama produce his birth certificate to prove that he is an American. Then, as the 2016 GOP presidential candidate, Trump began speaking to almost exclusively white audiences about his conception of the problems faced by African Americans, using language many blacks perceived as highly patronizing.

For most African Americans, episodes like these (and many more that could be cited) are evidence that the Southern Strategy remains alive and well in the Republican Party.

Even Some Black Republicans Are Concerned About Racism in Their Party

One high-profile black Republican was particularly blunt in calling out his party for their attitudes toward racial minorities. In an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press, former Secretary of State Colin Powell said: "There's also a dark vein of intolerance in some parts of the party. What do I mean by that? What I mean by that is they still sort of look down on minorities."

Rather than listening to and learning from Powell’s critique, most Republicans responded with outrage: “I think the case that he makes is weak, and it is an odd thing for a man who declares himself to be a Republican—and has done so well under Republican presidents—to say,” intoned conservative commentator Britt Hume on Fox News. Another Fox News show featured a panel discussing the issue against a backdrop proclaiming that Colin Powell was “unhinged.”

In no case did any Republicans of note ask to sit down with Colin Powell to gain some insight into how African Americans view their party. J. C. Watts, an African American who is a former GOP Congressman from Oklahoma and a former chairman of the Republican Conference, stated that his party was “in denial” about how it is perceived by minority voters.

Fox News set describing Colin Powell as "unhinged."

Fox News set describing Colin Powell as "unhinged."

Perceptions of GOP Voter Suppression Increase African American Distrust of the Party

Speaking to the 2013 state convention of the North Carolina Republican Party, Watts noted that although many blacks are no longer enamored with the Democratic Party, they still are not becoming Republicans. “They just don’t trust us,” he said.

A major factor in that growing distrust is the efforts of various Republican governors and state legislatures to enact voter ID laws and other measures that African Americans perceive as being aimed directly at suppressing the black vote. Well aware that none of the states that have enacted ID laws can point to any substantial amount of voter fraud that would be corrected by such legislation, African Americans are almost unanimous in their belief that the only purpose for these measures is to make it harder for blacks to vote.

And the courts are beginning to agree. In its 2016 ruling striking down North Carolina’s voter ID law, a federal appeals court took the GOP-dominated legislature to task for enacting a law that was intentionally designed to discourage blacks from voting:

"The evidence in this case establishes that, at least in part, race motivated the North Carolina legislature. . . Although the new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision, they constitute inapt remedies for the problems assertedly justifying them and, in fact, impose cures for problems that did not exist." (Emphasis added)

Can the Republican Party Ever Attract Significant Numbers of African Americans?

Unless it changes significantly, the Republican Party as it exists today will never be able to provide a welcoming political home for African Americans. Even among black conservatives whose outlook should make them a natural fit for the GOP, the level of distrust is simply too great.

A Black man voting for the Republicans makes about as much sense as a chicken voting for Col. Sanders.

— J.C. "Buddy" Watts Sr., father of former Republican congressman J.C. Watts

Attracting black people would require that GOP leaders—elected officials and candidates—significantly change their messaging to the base they have courted and depended upon since the start of the Southern Strategy a half-century ago. As long as African Americans perceive that many statements and policies put forward by GOP leaders carry a hidden meaning intended to appease people who are resentful of minorities, most blacks will continue to view the Republican Party as more enemy than friend.

What’s required is the kind of courageous statesmanship that is willing to speak the truth to constituents rather than pander to their prejudices. But true statesmen are always rare in any political party. Most politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, have their eyes fixed no further ahead than the next election. But for the Republican Party, politics, as usual, will never draw African Americans into the fold.

And that’s a shame. Republicans are fond of pointing out that the overwhelming affinity of black voters for the Democratic Party allows the Democrats to take them for granted. That’s one GOP message many African Americans would agree with.

We Need to Have More African Americans in the Republican Party

This country needs many more African Americans to find a political home in the GOP so that there can be real competition between the parties for black votes. I sincerely hope Republicans can find a way to start putting forward policy positions and campaign messaging that genuinely invite African Americans into the party rather than driving them away.

Given the party’s history, it won’t be easy.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2016 Ronald E Franklin