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How the Republican Party Became Almost All White

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

The Republican Party is overwhelmingly white

The Republican Party is overwhelmingly white

It was Richard Nixon, of all people, who first raised the alarm. In a 1962 interview with Ebony magazine the former Republican Vice President said:

It is a mistake for the party to accept the beliefs of Sen. Barry Goldwater and write off the Negro vote. If Goldwater wins his fight, our party would eventually become the first major all-white political party. And that isn’t good.

— Richard Nixon in 1962

The man Nixon thought was leading the GOP to become an all-white party was Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, one of the most influential Republican leaders at the time. He would be the party’s nominee for president in 1964.

Convinced that no matter what Republicans did, most African Americans would still favor the Democrats, Goldwater actively pushed the GOP away from any efforts to seriously engage with black voters. He summed up his attitude this way:

“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.”

And where the ducks were, as far as Goldwater and the Republicans who followed him were concerned, was in the South. The white, racist South.

Goldwater Ignores the Concerns of African Americans

At the center of national attention in 1964 was civil rights legislation that had been proposed by President John F. Kennedy the previous year. If enacted, the law would outlaw discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, and would end racial segregation in schools, employment, and public accommodations. It would also prohibit unequal application of voter registration requirements.

The importance African Americans placed on passage of this bill cannot be overstated. Yet when Goldwater entered the race for the Republican nomination for President, he saw no need to make any concessions to the concerns of black voters.

Knowing that Southern whites were adamantly opposed to any civil rights legislation, and having branded himself as a staunch Conservative and advocate for states rights, he made opposition to the proposed law a centerpiece of his campaign.

Poster of Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona for his 1964 presidential campaign

Poster of Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona for his 1964 presidential campaign

In contrast, Lyndon Johnson, who became president when Kennedy was assassinated, and who would be Goldwater’s Democratic opponent in the 1964 presidential election, gave his active, enthusiastic support to the bill.

Although it was initially filibustered by southern Democrats, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 received overwhelming bipartisan support in both houses of Congress. Johnson signed it into law on July 2.

The importance African Americans placed on passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 cannot be overstated.

The vote in the Senate to pass the Civil Rights Act was 73–27. The most prominent of the 27 Senators who voted against it was Barry Goldwater.

Goldwater Pushed African Americans Permanently Out of the GOP

When African Americans got the chance to cast their own votes in the 1964 presidential election, they did not forget which party seemed to have their interests at heart, and which seemed more concerned about attracting the votes of racist whites in the South.

When Richard Nixon ran as the Republican presidential candidate against John F. Kennedy in 1960, 32% of African American voters cast their ballots for him. But in 1964 Barry Goldwater received only 6% of the black vote, and lost in a landslide. Since that time, no Republican presidential candidate has received more than 17% of the black vote.

Richard Nixon received 32% of the black vote in 1960. But since Goldwater campaigned against the Civil Rights Act in 1964, no Republican presidential candidate has received more than 17% of the African American vote.

By 2016 only 8% of African Americans identified as Republicans vs 29% of the overall population. While African Americans comprise about 20% of the Democratic Party, they constitute only about 2% of Republicans.

Most Republicans Probably Didn’t (and Don’t) Think of Themselves As Racist

The interesting thing about Barry Goldwater is that he was by no means personally racist. Declaring himself to be “unalterably opposed to discrimination or segregation on the basis of race, color, or creed,” he had been a founding member of the Arizona NAACP, and had helped to integrate the Arizona National Guard.

But, as Dr. Martin Luther King made clear, not being personally racist was not enough:

While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulates a philosophy which gives aid and comfort to the racists.

— Dr. Martin Luther King

As Dr. King noted, the antipathy Republicans who followed Goldwater displayed toward African Americans and their concerns need not have been primarily motivated by racial animus. Many GOP leaders probably considered their stance to be just good, practical politics—the fact that it aligned their party with whites in the South and elsewhere who were fervently racist was just an unfortunate side effect.

Demonstration at 1964 Republican National Convention

Demonstration at 1964 Republican National Convention

The GOP Adopts a Southern Strategy

The political calculation that Republicans had more to gain from catering to white Southern voters than from African Americans was the impetus behind the infamous Southern Strategy the party openly adopted in the 1970s.

Recognizing that many Southern white Democrats were unhappy with their party’s growing support of civil rights for African Americans, Goldwater and the GOP leaders who came after him (including, by the way, Nixon) made a deliberate decision to go after those votes.

In a 1981 interview Lee Atwater, one of the major architects of the Southern Strategy, candidly 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.

— Republican strategist Lee Atwater, 1981

In other words, the Southern Strategy was all about dog whistle messaging and policies that had obvious racist connotations to members of the constituency the GOP wanted to reach, but for which “plausible deniability” could be asserted whenever the party was called out for its hidden racism.

The Southern Strategy Didn’t Start With Goldwater

For the sake of completeness, we should note that the first iteration of the GOP Southern Strategy occurred as far back as 1928 with Herbert Hoover’s successful campaign for the presidency. W.E.B. DuBois called Hoover out in the November 1932 issue of the NAACP journal, The Crisis:

“Mr. Hoover did not hesitate in 1928 to use the old methods of manipulating Southern delegates in order to secure his nomination. Notwithstanding this, when he was elected to the presidency, he adopted into the program of the ‘Lily-Whites,’ and sought to disfranchise Negroes in the councils of the Republican Party… In other words, Mr. Hoover tried to get rid of Negroes.”

Since Emancipation, black voters had uniformly considered themselves tied to the “party of Lincoln.” But Hoover began the process of freezing African Americans out of the Republican Party, forcing them to migrate toward the Democrats.

Most African Americans initially distrusted Hoover’s 1932 opponent, Franklin D. Roosevelt, believing that as a Democrat he would be beholden to the racist Southern politicians who dominated his party. So they still voted for Hoover that year. But by 1936 FDR’s New Deal policies overcame that distrust and African Americans began shifting their allegiance to the Democratic Party.

The White Man’s Party

Even before Goldwater made his declaration about ducks, the GOP was well on its way to marginalizing its African American constituency. In 1963 the trend was already very clear. After attending a meeting of the Republican National Committee that summer, conservative journalist Robert Novak reported on the thinking of 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.

— Conservative journalist Robert Novak in 1963

Prominent black Republicans, such as U.S. Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, are a rare breed

Prominent black Republicans, such as U.S. Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, are a rare breed

The Southern Strategy Is Alive and Well Today

Even today the messaging of the Republican Party, particularly as exemplified in the rhetoric of its most recent leader, former president Donald Trump, shows clearly that the GOP is still pursuing its Southern Strategy.

Mr. Trump started his presidential run by insulting the first African American president, Barack Obama, and falsely claiming that his presidency was illegitimate because he was not born in the United States.

The GOP leader continued by declaring that black people originated in countries that could only be described by the vilest of obscenities, and making clear his preference for immigrants with a Nordic racial lineage. And he has taken every opportunity to play upon the racial fears and resentments of those who consider African Americans and other people of color a threat to their own place in society.

In all this, if other GOP leaders did not overtly echo Mr. Trump’s declarations (and some did), neither did they clearly and forcefully rebuke them.

As most African Americans see it, the open disrespect so often directed at them by GOP politicians demonstrates that the Republican Party has never given up on its Southern Strategy, and continues to follow it today.

The necessity of placating the racist constituency brought into the party by that strategy has, in the view of millions of African Americans, turned the GOP into an institution that because of its tolerance for veiled racism in its ranks, offers little in the way of a welcome to even the most conservative of black voters.

Because of the treatment they have experienced or observed through decades of the Republican Party’s Southern Strategy, many African Americans would echo the somewhat humorous yet pointed observation made by J.C. “Buddy” Watts Sr., father of former black Republican congressman J.C. Watts:

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.

© 2022 Ronald E Franklin