If the GOP still wants to connect with minority voters, showing up would be a good place to start.
Earlier this week marked the 50 year anniversary of the historic “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” It was celebrated in Washington as a national day of reflection and remembrance for a watershed moment in both the struggle for civil rights and American history. There were of course a number of speeches, including a pretty good one by the President, at the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate the occasion. Unfortunately, one group hugely important to both the history of race in America and how we can collectively work on turning King’s vision from a dream into a reality was missing. I refer of course to the Republican Party.
According to veteran civil rights activist Julian Bond, this wasn’t an oversight by the GOP or a conscious decision by the organizers of the anniversary events. Bond told Roll Call, “They [event organizers] asked a long list of Republicans to come…and to a man and woman they said ‘no.’” The list included John Boehner the current Speaker of the House, Senator John McCain and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who apparently had decided that touring energy sites in North Dakota and Ohio was more important. Talk about misplaced priorities.
For some time now the Republican Party has been of two minds when it comes to their public engagement with minority voters that they themselves say is hugely important to returning to electoral success. Half the time the GOP seems to be trying to court minority, especially African American, votes with plans like a slick $10 million ad campaign or more substantives ideas about how to address issues minorities care about. In fact, none other than Eric Cantor has vowed to lead the charge in coming up with a legislative fix to the Supreme Court’s unfortunate decision to greatly weaken the Voting Rights Act. But sometimes the Republicans’ message and engagement takes a very different tone. Deciding to ignore the March on Washington anniversary event was unfortunately an example of the latter kind of outreach, not the former.
The irony here is that the Republican Party is completely capable of doing reasonably effective outreach when it comes to the African American community. Jamelle Bouie recently wrote a nice piece about his own personal experience attending luncheon commemorating nothing less than the March on Washington that was a showcase for how Republicans can reach out to the African American community. The trick? Just focus on the issues that African American voters care about by:
…working to invest in black neighborhoods and black businesses, and helping historically black colleges and universities recover from the damage of the recession. For James Kemp, son of Jack Kemp—one of the few Republicans to work closely with African-American leaders—it’s using free-market ideas to revitalize cities like Detroit. And to Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R–Wisconsin) it’s bringing congressional power to bear on key issues like the Voting Rights Act, which he pledged to “fix so that it’s impervious to legal challenges from the usual suspects.” Republicans who want to win black voters should take heed, since this looks like a viable agenda.
This is just politics 101, if you want some group to support you, you should focus on the issues that its members care about.
The problem for Republicans here is that while events like the luncheon that Bouie went to may be a good first step for the GOP to reach out to African American voters, they won’t count for much if a few days later Congressional Republicans snub the same group in a much more visible way. Which is exactly the point that Julian Bond made to Roll Call, “And that they would turn their backs on this event was telling of them, and the fact that they seem to want to get black votes, they’re not gonna get ‘em this way.”
The GOP is right to reach out to minority voters, both to ensure its own political viability as American society grows more diverse and to ensure it is capable of representing that new diverse America when it comes into political power. But skipping the March on Washington anniversary because of a fracking tour is an example of precisely what not to do. Showing up won’t guarantee a Republican foothold in the African American community, but it is a necessary first step.
Photo by Charles Dharapak/AP