Recently, I suggested that African-Americans in the Republican Party suffer from a lack of leverage. Some friends asked me to clarify. I’m happy to.
My point is the same as the one made by Justice Thomas 30 years ago in a speech he gave to the Heritage Foundation in 1987. Thomas described his experiences with colleagues in the Reagan Administration and the Republican Party, generally. Thomas told his conservative, Republican, and surely almost all-white audience the following:
“Unfortunately, I would have to characterize the general attitude of conservatives toward black conservatives as indifference–with minor exceptions…there was a general refusal to listen to the opinions of black conservatives…if advice was given, it was often ignored.”
The reason was political. African-Americans, contributing few votes to Republicans, are viewed as a voting bloc Republicans don’t need because they can win without, therefore why bother courting.
“It was made clear more than once that, since blacks did not vote right, they were owed nothing… Blacks just happened to represent an interest group not worth going after.”
“Vote right,” meant not voting for Republicans. And on “worth going after,” FOX’s Bill O’Reilly had this exchange with Tavis Smiley in 2014:
“You say that the Republican Party is apathetic? They don’t really care [about black voters]?…That might be true. I think they’re more intimidated, though, than uncaring. I think they’re afraid. I think they’re afraid of black people…the white Republican power structure is afraid of black Americans. They don’t know how to treat them. They don’t know how to speak to them. They don’t know anything about the culture…so they stay away.”
Asked by Smiley why not engage black voters to remove their fear, O’Reilly made the most important point:
“…because they [Republicans] feel it’s not worth the trouble, the few votes they might siphon off, to get involved with it. That’s how they feel. I know that for a fact.”
In that, O’Reilly was expressing a longstanding view in Republican politics, held by many. The party’s 1964 nominee for president, Barry Goldwater, exacted this argument for re-positioning the GOP away from black voters and concerns, and instead going all-in on a whites-only approach in the 1960s. The GOP should “quit trying to get Negro votes” because “Democrats are getting more and more of their votes,” Goldwater said. For this reason, he concluded, “Party leaders should face up to the fact that…we’re not going to get the Negro vote as a block in 1964.” So, instead the GOP ought to concentrate on white voters. “We ought to go hunting where the ducks are,” is how Goldwater put it – meaning, go where they were most likely to get votes.
After going down in an historic 486-52 Electoral College defeat, losing 44 states, two years later, Goldwater insisted on William F. Buckley’s show that he still had no regrets:
“I have no question had I voted for that bill [Civil Rights Acts of 1964], I might’ve soften some of the Negro opposition to my candidacy. But I’m not foolish enough to think that I would’ve won over the NAACP.”
…or won enough black votes to make it worth his time and effort. This begat the Southern Strategy. It’s been described by Kevin Phillips, one of its architects, and author of the book on how Republicans took the South from the Democrats – 1969’s The Emerging Republican Majority – this way, in 1970:
“From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that…The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are.”
There are many things to marvel about in that statement. First, the deterministic, nihilistic fatalism – the GOP will “never” do any better. As if this were a law of nature, like gravity – inalterable. Second, he makes a shrewd, Machiavellian, realpolitik mathematic calculation. We’ve cracked out paper, pencil, and calculator. We ran the numbers. We can win with minimal black votes and minimal investment in getting them, so why bother doing anything more? Thus, fatalism marries laziness. Finally, came the deal with the devil. Let’s court all the white folks who don’t like black folks – “Negrophobe whites” – and build our party on that base. This is no longer a matter of debate (if it ever was). In 2004, the GOP, through then-Chairman Ken Mehlman admitted as much and apologized for the party adopting this strategy:
“Republican candidates often have prospered by ignoring black voters and even by exploiting racial tensions…Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.”
The then-Bush White House backed Mehlman. President Bush’s spokesman said:
“Ken said it was wrong to try and benefit from racial polarization. We agree fully.”
“The first lesson of economics is scarcity,” Thomas Sowell observes. “There is never enough of anything to satisfy all those who want it.” Like any company, organization, or family, the same is true of political campaigns. There’s a finite amount of money. There’s a finite number of places a candidate can be at once. There’s a finite amount of time til Election Day.
Moreover, campaigns look for return on their investment (ROI). In the grand scheme of a budget, if every ad dollar, for example, spent in white, suburban Ohio returns a few dozen votes, but that same ad dollar spent in Detroit returns fewer votes, then campaigns are going to chase the highest ROI. “…resources expended to attract black votes could be spent wooing other ethnic groups,” is how Justice Thomas put it in ‘87.
In my professional opinion, this remains the dominant view in the Republican Party today. One consequence of this, Justice Thomas outlined in that same speech:
“[Liberal friends] could smirk at us black conservatives because they felt we had no real political or economic support…It was as though there was a conspiracy between opposing ideologies to deny political and ideological choices to black Americans.”
What Justice Thomas is describing is to be a “captured vote.” Janet Krentz coins the term in Uneasy Alliances, which shows how the combination of racism and the two-party system encourages African-American voters to be “’captured’ (taken for granted) by one of the parties.”
Today, in a post-Southern Strategy apologist GOP, it is the ROI, not racism, that is the biggest obstacle in outreach efforts to voters of color. Faced with this situation, Republicans of color have employed two strategies to leverage influence within the party. The first strategy is, lacking a major voting bloc of the GOP to represent, Republicans of color have leverage the power of their individual, personal relationships with individual powerful Republicans, in order to affect change. For example, Condoleeza Rice was reportedly a driving influence on President Bush’s creating the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Frederick Douglass changed President Lincoln’s views about colonization, and letting black men serve in the military. Last year, Nikki Haley notably moved the mostly-white Republican power structure of her state to take down the Confederate flag. And, venerable conservative godfather Bob Woodson is credited with opening Speaker Paul Ryan’s eyes on issues of poverty, which led to his notable walk-back of his “makers” and “takers” comment.
Also, Justice Thomas changed Justice Scalia’s vote on a 2002 cross-burning case, Virginia v. Black. After a litigant downplayed the symbolism of a cross burned on a black couple’s lawn, Justice Thomas’s Savannah, Georgia Jim Crow upbringing – and witness to ride knight racial terror – shown through. “[A]ren’t you understating the effects of the burning cross?,” he pressed. “[W]e had almost 100 years of lynching and activity in the South by the Knights of Camellia and—and the Ku Klux Klan, and this was a reign of terror and the cross was a symbol of that reign of terror.” One of the attorneys there later recalled:
“I have never seen the atmosphere in a courtroom change so quickly. Justice Breyer, who sat next to Justice Thomas, put his arm on him…Justice Scalia was staring at Thomas with extraordinary intensity—the sense of empathy and support was virtually palpable. Justice Scalia’s eyes left his friend Justice Thomas and he looked down and scowled at me, as I was only minutes from getting up to make my argument, and I immediately knew, from his look, that his views on the entire case had just pivoted, and that he was about to come after me—which proved entirely prescient.”
Finally, outside of personal relationships, the second strategy minority Republicans have employed, faced with the ROI challenge, is apply the lesson of Sabermetrics and Moneyball minority outreach. We have – as black folks have done since we made delicacies of the throw-away parts of the pig in slave shacks – made a dollar of 15-cents, and silk purses out of sow’s ears. In 2016, what that looked like was, the RNC’s visionary black outreach; staff organized black “barbershop chats,” which have been credited with moving numbers of 18-45 year-old black men by notable margins in key swing states.
As long as black voters remain “captured” – betwixt one party that takes their vote for granted (as in 2016) and another that usually competes, at best inadequately, if at all – people of color in the GOP will continue to suffer from a lack of leverage at the negotiating table.
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Photo: Getty Images
Previously posted on Medium.