November 23, 2008

Black Republicans Not Feeling the Love, Because It's Not There

Kindred black republican Sophia Nelson has fired up a post election analysis on the GOP defeat, its causes and where the GOP goes now. Her starting premise:

"After such a devastating loss, Republicans will have to do some retooling. We'll have to decide whether we want to be the party that believes in smaller government, lower taxes and less regulation, or whether we're going to be a litmus-test party that responds only to the demands of social conservatives. But most important, we'll have to confront our most disastrous modern legacy: our poor relationship with black Americans, the very people the party was formed to protect from the expansion of slavery into Kansas and Nebraska in 1854"

Nelson suggests that this defeat came because the McCain campaign conceded the black vote. That would be accurate only if you assumed that they ever intended to make a play for it in the first instance. I would contend they did not. Early on, McCain, along with the other front runner republicans, blew off Tavis' Smiley's debate, a prime opportunity for the front runners and the party itself to make a case to black America. Later on, McCain traveled to Atlanta for King's big memorial event and apologized for opposing his holiday, a transparent and tepid attempt to curry goodwill with blacks. Clearly a harbinger of the decrepit cogitation going on in the republican party when it comes to blacks. That kind of gesture might have got you some love in the 50's. It means diddly squat now. Out of 2,000 delegates at the republican convention, a mere 36 were black Americans. It continued downhill from there. The fact is, McCain and the republican party writ large, never even gave it a shot. They figure they can win without blacks, particularly since they were banking on the hispanic vote to come their way. For all his various and sundry apostate stances which put him crosswise with the base, principled attention to the issues of black America was not one of them. Nelson suggests republicans may have lost the black vote for a generation, but it's hardly fair to suggest that its McCain's fault. His abysmal performance is merely a symptom of the GOP's political indifference to black America.

Nelson points to RNC leadership hopeful Michael Steele's succinct analysis of the problem. "The problem, former Maryland lieutenant governor Michael Steele told the Washington Times last week, is that party officials "don't give a damn." To them, he said, "outreach means let's throw a cocktail party, find some black folks and Hispanics and women, wrap our arms around them -- 'See, look at us.' And then we go back to the same old, same old."

This is so blisteringly accurate its heartwarming. Coming from the guy who is vying for leadership of the RNC, it's almost a sign of hope for the GOP. Alas, this is the same guy who thinks the McCain campaign should have vigorously hammered away at Obama with Rev. Wright. Tactically, such behavior might have been effective with base republican voters, but it would certainly have only widened the chasm between the GOP and black Americans. Steele wants to lead the RNC back from the wilderness, but doesn't seem to see such tactics as the same old he identified as the problem.

Sophia echoes a common lament of the black conservative and/or republican existence. "My black GOP colleagues and I endure endless ridicule and questioning from other African Americans, including close friends and family members who wonder how we can belong to a political party that is so overwhelmingly white, male, Southern, conservative and seemingly closed to ethnic minorities. And truth be told, it's sometimes an ill fit."

Tis all too true. My mother in law routinely described me as the "whitest black man" she ever knew. When the conversation turns to politics in social company, you find yourself defending conservative viewpoints and catching the raised eyebrows that signals that your conversation partner is thinking "sellout". This is actually become less the case I think on social issues, where blacks have some natural conservative bent, but on policy issues, still a tough sell. Ill fit? Try no fit. GOP outreach to black American's has never seemed more than half hearted and when they began to think there was electoral gold in them hispanic hills, their attention really did drift.

Steele's prescription to fix this problem and presumably Nelson's as well? "Talk to them. Actually engage the black community where they are. Stop thinking you're going to get by by having a handshake and a photo-op, and actually go and listen to black folks in the issues and the concerns they have and . . . make them important to the [party's] overall strategy."

It sounds good. The problem? The GOP has never given any indication that they considered politically addressing the needs of black folks as important to their aspirations for governance. In fact quite the opposite. Year after year, the GOP has hammered away at affirmative action in ways that indict blacks as unqualified recipients of its largess, championed get tough law and order approaches in the war on drugs without regard to the consequences and now we reap the re-entry whirlwind, and fueled election races across the land with racially coded messaging for extra punch. They've done these things quite knowingly, to win the republican base, thinking that the base was large enough to keep them in power.

This is where I think Nelson is off track. Nowhere in her analysis does she confront the GOP's repeated, knowing and intentional utilization of racial messaging, a method of political attack that is used by party apparatus at a variety of levels. The continued use of such tactics and scapegoating of blacks and hispanics (for example, the CRA forced banks to lend to poor black people meme or the we will be overcome by a brown invasion meme) that is done with every intention of firing up the base and appealing to white base voters by using these issues constructed in wedge fashion. This is purposeful, and it seems to me that Steele does not want to acknowledge that piece and Nelson is avoiding it because its an inconvenient truth she would rather not speak.

Being a black of conservative political bent and nominally a republican (reluctant is my preferred term) I do so with a clear understanding that the party has been communicating for some time now its lack of interest in black America as a political entity. The GOP does not make any real effort I am aware of to effectively apply conservative principles to the major policy challenges facing black America despite ample opportunity and fertile ground to do so. Even beyond that, the party has demonstrated that it is more than willing to pursue electoral and political victories in a manner that cuts against the political interests of black Americans with regard to how it conducts its messaging.

As the GOP tries to rebuild, it shows little to no sign that it will confront this fundamental disconnect and black conservatives do not do the GOP, themselves or black America any favors by not calling out the issue squarely.