The Republican Party knows it cannot continue to compete nationally if it remains the party of old white men. In order to not be the party of old white men, it cannot afford to look racist. It’s not so much interested in distancing itself from the racist elements within the party or abandoning racist policies, but it would like to not appear racist. To that end, it has come up with a solution wherein the few black and brown faces that dot the party are deployed to regurgitate the staid policy and rhetoric.
The newest member of this club is the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor of Virginia, Bishop E.W. Jackson. He’s a pastor from the Chesapeake area of Virginia with extreme right-wing views on homosexuality and abortion. In other words, he fits right in with the modern Republican Party. But he’s also joining the ranks of Herman Cain, Allen West and Ben Carson as the next great black hope of the GOP, the singular figure that will provide a counterweight to the Democratic monopoly on the black vote. It’s a long shot, as Jamelle Bouie points out, “African Americans have yet to give support to anyone from this wing from the Republican Party, but this hasn’t stopped white conservatives from embracing them.”
Republicans fail to grasp that the rejection they experience from black voters is not due solely to the lack of black faces but because of their actual record. Despite the attempts by conservatives to cherry-pick Republican Party history to highlight the good times (they’re the party of Lincoln, don’t ya know), they refuse to atone for their misdeeds.
Law and order, welfare queens, the war on drugs, Willie Horton and Hurricane Katrina aren’t ancient history. These are the living memories of the Republican Party’s engagement with black America. Republicans are still pulling from the discarded playbook of Lee Atwater, as if Atwater himself didn’t leave a warning before his death about where that path would lead. They are also still running away from the legacy of the last Republican elected president, one George W. Bush, though a generation of voters were politicized during his presidency and are now living in the wake of the wars and financial crisis over which he presided. Some cosmetic changes are in order, but they will hardly be sufficient.
Ironically, the person they should turn to in order to understand how to sell conservatism to black people is the same person they so desperately have tried to defeat: President Obama. They can take notes from the commencement address Obama gave at Morehouse College this past weekend. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Aura Bogado and Kiese Laymon have done a great job of explaining what was problematic in Obama’s speech, but I think it’s also worth looking at why he feels comfortable delivering personal responsibility lectures to black people. First, on issues of race, Obama has never been particularly progressive. Even his famed Philadelphia race speech from the 2008 campaign trafficked in the kind of false equivocation between black radical politics born out of a reaction to racism and actual racism that we generally associate with the Fox News wasteland.
But beyond that, he knows this kind of message will, generally, play well in front of black audiences. As Kai Wright notes, “There’s always been a deeply conservative strain of black politics that embraces the American ideal that we get only what we earn.” Whether we’re talking about Booker T. Washington, the Nation of Islam, Bill Cosby or Condoleezza Rice, there is long tradition of prominent black public figures and organizations touting lifestyle “improvements” as an adequate rejoinder to systemic racism. As wrongheaded a philosophy as it is, it continues to resonate in black communities, as it appeals to the intellect and sense of self-determination. It also makes for rousing speeches that touch the ethereal, especially when coupled with the bravado of the black Southern Baptist church. It shouldn’t be mistaken for a substantive critique of white supremacy, but it is anyway and Obama has mastered it. He makes it sound almost revolutionary.
This is where the GOP could find its opening if it was willing to talk to more than one black person at a time. The party’s black representatives have made the mistake of insulting black folks, like when they call the Democratic Party a “plantation,” and they’ve been using the issue of racism, which to their minds is no longer relevant, to keep blacks on that plantation while never seeing any actual benefits. In the process, Obama has beaten them to the right, tapping into the conservatism of black communities that recognizes racism but positions it as simply an extra hurdle on the path to black achievement. But he’s only one man, and he won’t be running for elected office again, so a window of opportunity will eventually be open.
If I had it my way that wouldn’t be the case, but I also only one man and can’t force the whole of black America to adopt my politics. The GOP, however, won’t win over many black voters if even their black representatives behave as if black folks don’t have eyes, ears and minds of their own.
Voting Rights Watch takes readers past the ballot box and into the community.