Sunday, February 17, 2008

Are blacks really returning to the party of Lincoln? (By Melissa Harris-Lacewell) 9-2-04

By Melissa Harris-Lacewell. Melissa Harris-Lacewell is an assistant professor of political
science at the University of Chicago and the author of "Barbershops, Bibles, and BET:
Everyday Talk and Black
Published September 2, 2004 Chicago Tribune

African-American Republicans seem to be everywhere these days. Here in Illinois, the
Republican Party is fielding conservative Alan Keyes against rising Democratic star
Barack Obama. Nationally, the GOP is reporting that African-American representation
among Republican National Convention delegates has nearly doubled since 2000. The
GOP will prominently feature African-Americans such as Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael
Steele, Secretary of Education Rod Paige and even Princella Smith, the 20-year-old essay
winner of MTV's "Choose or Lose" campaign to encourage young people to vote.
Reporters covering this week's convention have focused on black Republicans holding
office everywhere from Mississippi to Ohio. All this media attention on a few black faces
generates a severe misperception that black Americans are swelling the ranks of the GOP.
Many Americans have wrongly assumed that all black people are Democrats. Under this
assumption, the existence of several hundred black Republicans on the convention floor
seems like a shocking new development. But 10 percent of the African-American vote
has been solidly and stably Republican since the end of the New Deal. Although the vast
majority of the black vote goes to the Democratic Party, the Republican minority has
been a consistent reminder that not all African-Americans think alike politically. But
there is no evidence to suggest that this minority is growing among black voters. In fact,
presidential candidate George W. Bush received less than 10 percent of the black vote in
2000 and has maintained low approval ratings among blacks throughout his White House
tenure. In the past four years, the Republican Party hasn't gained ground with black
voters despite high-profile black Cabinet appointments and convention appearances.
Observers may genuinely be confused by this seeming contradiction. How can blacks be
so much more visible in the GOP if the party has less support among black voters? The
answer is strategic. The Republican Party has developed a new racial strategy that
recognizes the value of cultivating and advertising its limited constituency among
African-Americans. During the racially tense decades of the civil rights movement and its
aftermath, the Republican Party pursued a thinly veiled strategy of distancing itself from
black voters and their interests in order to cultivate the white Southern vote. This strategy
allowed Republicans to successfully infiltrate and break the tenuous coalition of FDR's
New Deal that had uneasily combined conservative Southerners and progressive
In the past decade the country has moved toward a new racial politics that rejects
explicitly racist public statements and positions by elected leaders. In response, the
Republican Party has shifted its strategy. While it was once advantageous to hide black
Republicans from the view of white voters, it is now strategic to elevate black
Republicans to visible positions within the party. The goal of bringing these black faces
to the foreground is not to increase the share of African-American votes, but to signal to
moderate white voters that the party is not racist. The logic is cunning and simple.
Republicans argue: How can Democrats level a charge of racism when there are so many
black people in our party? Individuals such as Alan Keyes, Colin Powell and Rod Paige
have the effect of reassuring "Soccer Moms" and "NASCAR Dads" that they can support
the Republican Party without signaling that they are racially biased. This is not so much
about attracting blacks as it is about reassuring moderate whites in a world with changing
racial attitudes.
These black Republicans are not new, they are just newly visible. The increased visibility
of an existing African-American constituency does not reflect a changing level of support
among black voters. Individual black Republicans are more visible within and better
supported by the GOP, but the Republican Party itself is not gaining votes among
ordinary black Americans. The distinction is subtle, but crucial. The black faces at this
week's convention are an indication that a few African-Americans are benefiting from
their rare position within a party largely hostile to the policy preferences of the majority
of African-Americans. It is not indicative of growing support for the GOP among
ordinary black folks. It is misleading to suggest that Bush and the GOP platform are
somehow wooing black voters.
It is not impossible for Republicans to increase their vote share among blacks. The overt
evangelical, moral language and social conservatism of the Republican Party reverberates
in deeply religious black communities. While blacks continue to vote overwhelmingly for
the Democratic Party, these same African-Americans are less emotionally attached to the
party. This suggests that blacks may be available for partisan realignment. But
Republicans will not win black voters through racial sleight of hand. Most black voters
are interested in progressive public morality and in conservative personal morality. These
voters remain distrusting of Republicans who appear to deploy blacks only for strategic
gain without substantive attention to African-American policy preferences. To know this,
one need only remember the echoes of thousands of black Chicagoans booing Alan
Keyes as he marched in last month's Bud Billiken Day Parade.


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