In an op-ed in Tuesday’s New York Times entitled “Can the G.O.P. Ever Attract Black Voters?”, Jelani Cobb, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut, offers a possible explanation for why, despite efforts at the national, state and local levels, most African Americans refuse to consider the Republican Party.
Her thesis is that blacks are fully aware that the Republican Party was an early promoter of racial equality, and that the party of Lincoln was willing to risk a civil war in an effort to eliminate slavery. However, that history is irrelevant because of the efforts of Lee Atwater and others to use racism to grow the Republican base.
The late Lee Atwater was a political consultant in the 1980s. He served as the campaign manager for George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign, and later became chairman of the Republican National Committee. The Bush campaign was famous for a third-party attack ad featuring Willie Horton, a black convict, about which Atwater said, “By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’ running mate.” Atwater is also known for his thoughts on the GOP’s Southern Strategy, which was an effort by the Republican Party to appeal to the racial fears of southern whites.
In her op-ed, Cobb argues,
[B]lack voters recognize a point that is consistently lost on the G.O.P.: It is one thing to tell the children in one’s own community that racism is no excuse for failure, and quite another for a party invested in the electoral yields of racism to make the same claim.
In his first speech as R.N.C. chairman, Lee Atwater announced an initiative to attract black voters. But critics suspected, with good reason, that the real audience for his words were white people who felt uneasy about the party’s racist political appeals. That element of Atwaterism, the leavening of insult with invitation, has survived to the present.
The party that hopes to attract black students is the party whose congressional leadership filed a baseless lawsuit against the first African-American president. It is the party whose representatives allied with birthers who demanded that the president prove his citizenship. It is the party that has endorsed the evisceration of the Voting Rights Act and made it more difficult for the very people it is courting to actually cast a ballot for its candidates.
As the op-ed notes, the GOP is trying to engage young African-Americans, especially on college campuses. Here in Georgia, the College Republican chapter at Morehouse College was rechartered last fall. At Georgia State, the CR chapter this year will be led by a native of India who hopes to become an American citizen. Its leadership and members reflect the diversity of the campus population.
Last weekend, Leo Smith, the Georgia GOP’s Minority Engagement Director, made a presentation at a Republican breakfast about the party’s efforts to involve more African Americans. He talked about how there are 44,000 black Republicans in Georgia. He described how he was trying to create ‘safe places’ where blacks could go to learn more about the GOP and what it stood for. He handed out a new pushcard designed to appeal to blacks by putting faith first.
Yet, all his efforts could be for naught if those to whom he is trying to appeal think that the Republicans are still the party of Lee Atwater.
Some of the party’s candidates aren’t helping to shake that image. The State School Superintendent candidate talks about videotapes of The Color Purple. A Senate candidate tells his audience that, “It’s time to take our country back.” Tea Party members use the phrase “states rights” to call for less federal government involvement in what they think should be local issues. Social media isn’t helping either. My Facebook feed yesterday morning included a post questioning President Obama’s birth certificate. I regularly see ad hominem attacks on the President from well-meaning Republicans.
None of it will help persuade African Americans to consider the Republican Party.
The op-ed’s author concludes by noting that the Democratic Party during the days of F.D.R. was no friend of African Americans, yet that party was able to attract the support of blacks by proposing and enacting the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts. In the most recent polling of Georgians, 50% of African Americans surveyed indicated creating jobs was the most important issue facing the country today. African Americans were the biggest supporters of Georgia’s 2012 Charter Schools Amendment.
Working towards these reforms and getting them implemented as law or policy is a start. Governor Deal is already doing that with prison reform. But, Republicans also must pay attention to the messaging they use to promote their ideas and candidates.
Doing those things would be a start towards removing the sad stain of Atwaterism from our politics.