Black September, Part Three: Blacks and Republicans - Can We Reconcile?

Tavis Smiley had the Republican Party in his sights and he wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to take aim and fire. The first of two live presidential forums sponsored by the Public Broadcasting Service and moderated by Mr. Smiley, a noted black author, journalist and commentator, took place on June 28th on the campus of historically black Howard University in Washington, DC. All eight of the Democratic candidates were there, elbowing each other to see who could curry more favor with voters of color. Behind the scenes, Mr. Smiley and PBS had also spent months in preparation for a similar forum for the Republican candidates, and Maryland’s former lieutenant governor, black Republican Michael Steele, and former national GOP chairman Ken Mehlman encouraged them to host the event at another historically black university, Morgan State University in Mr. Mehlman’s hometown of Baltimore.

A funny thing happened on the way to the forum, however, and Mr. Smiley wasn’t laughing. In fact, he was fuming – in print, on TV, and on the radio. The men considered the four major Republican contenders at the time – former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Senator John McCain and former Senator Fred Thompson – had all declined to participate, citing scheduling conflicts. Some indicated that scheduling a forum in the last week of the fundraising cycle left them with a difficult choice between participation in the debate or raising desperately needed funds for their campaigns.

Mr. Smiley wasn’t buying it, and neither were the Republicans who worked with Mr. Smiley to arrange this forum. Michael Steele insisted that the GOP front-runners come to the table, saying "I think it's an important opportunity for Republican candidates to put up or shut up, when it comes to minority communities in the country." Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp, a Republican with a notable track record of outreach to minority voters since his days as a U.S. Congressman from Buffalo, said, “…we sound like we don't want black people to vote for us. What are we going to do—meet in a country club in the suburbs one day? If we're going to be competitive with people of color, we've got to ask them for their vote."

Newt Gingrich, in my opinion the greatest thinker and intellectual force in the conservative movement today, was direct and unflinching in his criticism:

“For Republicans to consistently refuse to engage in front of an African American or Latino audience is an enormous error. I hope they will reverse their decision and change their schedules. I see no excuse — this thing has been planned for months, these candidates have known about it for months. It’s just fundamentally wrong. Any of them who give you that scheduling-conflict answer are disingenuous. That’s baloney.”

Finally, Mr. Smiley himself said to the Washington Post, "When you reject every black invitation and every brown invitation you receive, is that a scheduling issue or is it a pattern? I don't believe anybody should be elected president of the United States if they think along the way they can ignore people of color. That's just not the America we live in."

I was also annoyed, but not just at the four candidates who declined to participate. I was also annoyed at the pundits and commentators for casting aspersions on the entire GOP because of those who didn’t attend the forum rather than pointing out and praising the five candidates – former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, Representative Dr. Ron Paul, Senator Sam Brownback, Representative Tom Tancredo and Representative Duncan Hunter – who did. Do a Google search using the term “GOP minority candidates” and see how many references come up that are highly critical of the GOP in its entirety for their lack of participation in the forum, but practically dismiss the participation of the “lesser-known” candidates. If we as people of color are sincere in our desire to have more choices in the political process, we need to resist the urge to smack down all Republicans regardless of their efforts and build up the ones who are trying to build bridges to us and our communities. Given that at least one of those “lesser-known” candidates has now surged to the top tier in the months since the forum, we dismiss the Republicans who seek a dialogue with us at our own peril.

I also think it’s instructive to look at this through the lens of the absentee Republicans themselves. As a card-carrying Republican since 1978 except for one year where I was disgusted with both parties and switched my registration to independent, I feel somewhat qualified to put words to how Republicans feel about reaching out to the mainstream black community. Frankly, the belief among most Republicans is that black leaders and much of the black community immediately launch into insults and vitriol with the mere mention of the word “Republican” and they never get past that emotional reaction to actually have a constructive dialogue. They witness the verbal pounding taken by blacks who have the audacity to present themselves to the electorate as Republicans, and the sheer hypocrisy of white liberals using racist language and imagery to excoriate black conservatives while black liberals either let it happen or encourage it, and their reaction is “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Let’s be honest with ourselves; politicians are not inclined to go where they believe they’re not welcome. When was the last time you saw a leading Democrat in front of a convention of pro-life, pro-traditional marriage evangelicals like the thousands who gathered in Washington, DC a few weeks ago for a Values Voters Summit? All the Democratic contenders were invited but they didn’t come. When I was running for office, I was routinely advised not to fill out a particular survey or attend a specific event because it was a no-win situation – I couldn’t win them over to my point of view and I’d probably say or write something that would end up in the papers and do more harm than good to my campaign. Moreover, when you have very little time to win people to your side, it’s a poor use of time and resources to court people who are hostile toward you before you even open your mouth because you carry the wrong label.

There’s another reason why Republicans are reluctant to appear before black audiences.  When the Democrats failed to show up at the Values Voters Summit, there may have been an outcry similar to that over the PBS forum in Baltimore but I’ll bet no one heard about it – I certainly didn’t. Republicans believe it’s because their message is marginalized within the mainstream media, while blacks have a louder megaphone and are given ample opportunity to use it when they are aggrieved. They think if they screw up in front of a black audience, they will hear about it in 7.1 channel surround sound and it will be played over and over again on the evening news and in the front pages of the major newspapers.  Again, ask a campaign strategist whether or not they want to take that risk, and he’ll look at you sideways with a patronizing look before he walks away to consider more sensible options.

So the bottom line is Republicans are afraid that blacks hate them just because they’re Republicans and they won’t be able to say anything without being publically pilloried on all major news outlets. To those who wish to see a greater dialogue between the black community and the Republican Party, and I count myself in that number, we need to figure out how to change the culture between these two groups. In my opinion, both sides have some growing up to do. Republicans need to get a backbone and stand before all the people they hope to serve. Blacks need to get over their emotional attachment to one political party and become free agents in the political process if they don’t want to be taken for granted. Politics isn’t “family,” as one black constituent declared to a black Prince George’s County Council member who dared to buck the black orthodoxy and endorse a black Republican last year for the U.S. Senate. Politics is business – it’s a give and take between people who want something from each other, and it takes dialogue to reach a consensus that works for both sides. If you refuse to talk, then reconciliation isn’t possible.

I use the word “reconciliation” quite deliberately. Those who think the Democrats have always been the party of favor in the black community and the Republicans always on the margins haven’t examined the history of racial politics in America. Blacks probably know that Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, “freed the slaves” – he wasn’t alone and he wasn’t exactly a champion for equal rights for blacks, either, but let’s go with that. The GOP until the early 1960s was considered the party of civil rights –every major amendment to the Bill of Rights addressing equal protection under the law and equal citizenship was sponsored and passed by Republicans. Every major piece of civil rights legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1956, was enacted by Republicans. It was a Republican President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who enforced the integration court order at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas by calling out the National Guard to escort the “Little Rock Nine” to classes that fateful September day in 1957. Even the 1964 Civil Rights Act would have been defeated if the then-Senate minority leader, Republican Everett Dirksen, hadn’t rallied the Republican Senate caucus on President Johnson’s behalf to thwart Democrats opposed to the measure, one of whom, Senator Robert Byrd, still serves in the Senate today. Republicans were also instrumental in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Even Richard Nixon, considered by many to be one of the least likable Republicans, got 32 percent of the black vote in the 1960 Presidential election. The next Republican nominee for President in 1964? Four percent. No Republican presidential candidate has gotten more than 15% since then.

So what happened?

The GOP began to lose its grip on the black vote under President Herbert Hoover, a pro-business Republican who many say failed to engage government to rescue those suffering from the Great Depression. President Franklin Roosevelt oversaw a massive expansion of government to lift the nation out of the Depression and, while scholars and political analysts continue to debate over the long-term consequences of his “New Deal,” it’s clear that the black community, which suffers the most during national economic downturns, benefitted greatly from it.

Another factor was the Republican Party’s philosophical embrace of federalism, the division of roles and responsibilities between the federal and state governments to prevent the abuse of power by a centralized government. The Tenth Amendment states, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” While the amendment was written to protect the people from an overly intrusive and paternalistic central government, it was abused in practice by states, particularly in the South, which declared “states rights” and condemned federal intervention in their affairs in order to defend legalized segregation. The term “states rights” comprised the official name of the “Dixiecrats” who broke away from the national Democratic Party in 1948 and created the States’ Rights Democratic Party to defend the Southern “way of life” which included depriving blacks of their civil liberties under the Constitution.

Throughout most of the GOP’s history, it emphasized liberty and equal justice and used the power of the federal government to ensure the rights of all people were protected. When Republicans underwent a philosophical shift in the early 1960s, however, and began to preach the supremacy of state governments over the federal government, blacks left the GOP in droves because they perceived “states rights” as anathema to their interests.

Senator Barry Goldwater, the leader of the new conservative movement within the GOP and an ardent proponent of states rights, made a statement in Atlanta in 1961 that eventually turned the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the most prominent black leader of his time, against him and the Republican Party:

“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.”

Despite the fact that, up to that point in his tenure as a U.S. Senator, Goldwater had supported every major civil rights bill that came before him, the black community was critical of his comments. In their opinion, he was effectively saying “GOP to Blacks: Drop Dead.” When Senator Goldwater subsequently voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ostensibly because he considered it federal intrusion into state matters, and became the Republican nominee for President in 1964, Dr. King was compelled to speak out. In The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., he writes:

“While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulated a philosophy which gave aid and comfort to the racist. His candidacy and philosophy would serve as an umbrella under which extremists of all stripes would stand. In the light of these facts and because of my love for America, I had no alternative but to urge every Negro and white person of goodwill to vote against Mr. Goldwater and to withdraw support from any Republican candidate that did not publicly disassociate himself from Senator Goldwater and his philosophy. I had no alternative but to urge every Negro and white person of goodwill to vote against Mr. Goldwater and to withdraw support from any Republican candidate that did not publicly disassociate himself from Senator Goldwater and his philosophy. While I had followed a policy of not endorsing political candidates, I felt that the prospect of Senator Goldwater being President of the United States so threatened the health, morality, and survival of our nation, that I could not in good conscience fail to take a stand against what he represented.”

Senator Goldwater’s philosophy did not win him the election but it planted the seeds of a Republican political strategy which sought to attract disaffected white Southerners to the party. This was the birth of the “Southern strategy” that Richard Nixon’s political advisors employed to break “the solid South” and move voters into the GOP column. Nixon picked up five Southern states in the 1968 presidential election despite the independent candidacy of avowed segregationalist and Alabama governor George Wallace. In 1972, Nixon swept the South, an unprecedented feat for a Republican candidate of recent vintage.

In 1980, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan gave a speech near Philadelphia, Mississippi, the scene of the June 21, 1964 murder of three civil rights workers, in which he declared, “I believe in states rights.” The use of what many people considered a code phrase for legalized segregation and the location he chose to give his speech led many to accuse Reagan of appealing to the latent racism of Southern voters. The separation between blacks and the GOP was complete and apparently irreversible.

There are some Republicans who are critical of any minority outreach that first requires an apology for the “Southern strategy.” They say the strategy was not racist but sought to reach out to all Southerners who felt abandoned as the Democratic Party began embracing positions that disrespected their religious values, economic interests and their support for national security and public safety. Others believe apologizing to a group of people who will never respect the gesture is humiliating and meaningless. I have two responses to this line of reasoning.

First, if you think race wasn’t at least a key factor in the “Southern strategy,” then you’re not paying attention. Even if one accepts the argument that these contenders for the Presidency were ignorant of the emotionally charged nature of their words and actions,their advisors certainly weren’t. When the GOP nominee kicks off his general election campaign in a location infamous in civil rights history and uses the term “states’ rights” to describe his beliefs, it’s virtually impossible to conclude that race had nothing to do with it.

Second, a sincere apology is a great starting point for a constructive dialogue that will benefit the GOP and the black community. Those who adopt the principle of politics as war may never accept this idea, viewing an apology as tantamount to surrender. I believe, however, it’s time for both sides to acknowledge that they need each other and someone has to make the first move. The GOP needs the black community if it’s to become a true mainstream party. There is plenty of diversity in the black community and moderate to conservative blacks will give the Republicans a serious look if they pay more than lip service to black issues and concerns. Blacks need the GOP so they can expand their options on the political menu and keep both major parties attuned to their agenda. Their overwhelming allegiance to the Democrats means they can be taken for granted by one party and ignored by the other. Whatever one may think of the GOP, this is not the most advantageous political arrangement for the black community in the 21st century.

So can blacks and the GOP reconcile? I think it can happen but a generational change is going to have to occur first. I think the hard feelings between the blacks of the civil rights era and the Republican Party run too deep. Even so, I believe that some concrete steps can and should be taken today to reconcile these two warring factions:

Discard all “50% Plus one” electoral strategies – Today’s politics is based less on building a consensus among as many people as possible and more on maximizing the support of those who agree with you and discarding the rest. That needs to stop. As a former candidate for public office, I understand that a campaign has limited time and resources to deliver its message and needs to concentrate on communities where they can generate the greatest return. The margin of error today, however, is so slim that I don’t believe either party can afford to ignore anyone. Electoral strategies that seek to polarize are not only unlikely to work in the end, they are not consistent with American values.

Go if you’re invited – If you’re a Republican and the NAACP invites you to speak to them, go. Don’t miss an opportunity to speak to audiences that don’t traditionally embrace you. Look at it as a teaching and learning opportunity for both sides.

Find common ground – Blacks and GOP social conservatives share a deep religious conviction and hold the same views on many issues which have their origins in the faith community. Other surveys suggest common ground on offering parents more choices for educating their children and protecting private property rights. The rising class of black entrepreneurs are open to economic policies that expand opportunities for minority business ownership and the creation of generational wealth that can be passed on to their children. Developing a GOP agenda for the black community doesn’t require a compromise of Republican values, just a broadening of the mind to view issues from another’s perspective. Those who object to an agenda which caters to a particular segment of society are either naïve or worse. Politics is all about building coalitions to achieve victory and that means communicating in the language and approach of those whose support you seek.

Pick your battles – There are issues which have great significance and meaning in the black community but have been rejected by Republicans on philosophical grounds or for political expediency. Each rejection adds another brick to the wall dividing the GOP and the black community. For example, the District of Columbia’s pursuit of a voting representative to the U.S. Congress has consistently been blocked time and again by Republicans who hold up the Constitution in defense of their position, but it just reinforces their brand identity as racists in the eyes of the more than 580,000 people, mostly black, who want the same voice in the U.S. Congress as their fellow Americans. I don’t believe that our Founding Fathers intended for hundreds of thousands of American citizens to be regulated and taxed without representation in their federal government. It was a Republican, Representative Tom Davis of Virginia, who most recently introduced legislation to grant District residents a voting representative in Congress, and two prominent black Republicans, Michael Steele and former U.S. Congressman J.C. Watts, have called on the GOP to pass the legislation. The Republican Party should honor its historical heritage and free the citizens of the District from taxation without representation.

This is just one example of how a change in position could earn the GOP some goodwill in the black community. Another would be correcting inequities in the criminal justice system that punish poor black drug addicts more than rich white ones. Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee embraces this position and also supported rehabilitation and reentry into society for non-violent drug offenders while governor of Arkansas. He believes in sentencing reforms based on equal justice rather than revenge, a policy which in the eyes of the black community would correct what they perceive as an inherent bias in the system against blacks. The bottom line is Republicans need to remember that a hand extended in friendship is better received when there’s a gift in it.

Embrace your heritage – Some people see no relationship between the Republican Party created in 1854 and the GOP of today. I disagree. The one characteristic that is consistent throughout the party’s history is its emphasis on individual liberty, whether it’s liberty from the chains of slavery, the oppression of Jim Crow laws, or a paternalistic government that stifles individual initiative and industry. In that context, I see no incongruity with the black community’s ongoing quest for equal justice. There is no liberty without justice, and the administration of justice to uphold our nation’s most cherished ideals is a fundamental function of government. When institutions within our borders fail to honor individual liberty, the GOP ought to be at the forefront of enforcing liberty as an inalienable right not only of Americans but all of mankind.

Thicken your skin – We Republicans can do all of these things and demonstrate a genuine commitment to reconciliation with the black community, yet we’ll still be heckled and insulted, we’ll still be the targets of racially charged language not normally allowed in civil discourse, and we won’t get any credit for the things we do in support of the black community. That’s just the way it is; we’re not going to change the tone and tenor of this fractured relationship overnight.

I am optimistic about the opportunity for reconciliation because I’ve witnessed more people on both sides willing to ask questions and examine issues based on their merits rather than react with their emotions. The GOP is reassessing itself after the electoral defeats of 2006 and this presents a golden opportunity for us to rethink assumptions and policies that have guided our party for over 40 years. The black community is beginning to suspect that their unfettered allegiance to one party isn’t in their long-term best interests and is waiting for the Republicans to give them a proposal to consider.

My optimism notwithstanding, it’s still not going to be easy or fun, especially if you’re a black Republican. You have to decide right up front that it is important enough to the well-being of blacks and the GOP to bring these two historical allies together again. Once you’ve made that decision, you need to gird yourself for battle and fight the good fight until you’re no longer able to do so. You may not see the fruits of your labors, but your children will, and it is my hope and prayer that they will see a nation more unified and respectful of all people than at any time in its history.

Next: Can we talk?