For the first time since Reconstruction there are two black Republicans in Congress and both come from majority-white districts in the Deep South. These candidates point to both the promise and the problem of Republicans’ efforts to broaden the Party’s appeal beyond its overwhelmingly white modern constituency.
Where is the problem in this development? Those two successful candidates represented about 6% of the black Republicans in Congressional races last year. For all the progress on race issues, the GOP still cannot elect a black candidate in a black district. We’re not even close to doing that. Why? There are a lot of reasons, but only one really matters.
No black political figure can get a hearing inside the GOP right now while speaking truthfully about race. Period. An African-American who hopes for a place in the Republican power structure better know which subjects they can and cannot discuss. This problem limits the Party’s ability to build lasting appeal beyond a demographically declining white fundamentalist base and undermines its value to the country.
There are a lot of reasons why conservatives ought to be gaining serious ground in black communities. The old-left political model has betrayed African-Americans without mercy. It has allowed corrupt politicians to fleece majority black districts with near-impunity so long as they turn out votes for the machine. In the meantime its gutted schools and strangled economic development, leaving some of those communities poorer and more violent than they were before the Civil Rights Movement.
They turned their backs on the vital core of black entrepreneurs who managed to survive Jim Crow. By embracing a model for economic development that was almost entirely dependent on government influence, they finished off the old entrepreneur class, weakened an already besieged family structure, and left the black community with little leadership outside the churches and the public sector.
African-Americans’ loyalty to the Democratic Party has been an unmitigated disaster. But where are they supposed to go?
The Republican Party wants to move past the dark history of racism, but they want to do it on their own terms – denying its depth and stubbornly refusing to confront its continuing legacy. For most white Republicans the end of racism means being willing to sit at a table with a black man without asking him to refill your coffee cup. Blacks are allowed to participate fully so long as they make no attempt to talk about the ways that racism impacts their lives. White Republicans fully expect that being “color-blind” means they don’t have to hear about race anymore.
An African American Republican Congressional candidate in Chicago last fall was campaigning on the proud history of black entrepreneurship by recalling memories of the “Black Wall Street” that once thrived in Tulsa. That’s great, except he was claiming that it was destroyed by the New Deal and a culture of dependency.
You can make that claim to a white audience. But blacks on Chicago’s Southside have grandparents who remember what really happened. Black Wall Street didn’t survive to greet the New Deal because it was burned to the ground by whites in a race riot in 1921. That candidate, who otherwise had a lot of good ideas, won less than a quarter of the vote. That kind of historical whitewash is more than just political posturing, it carries a sobering taint of treachery.
Ideology aside, an African-American who wants to participate in the Republican Party will have to tolerate a steady stream ignorant insults and “Macaca Moments.” An appeal to tone down the insensitive rhetoric will…let’s just say…not generally be warmly greeted.
As a consequence, the only sizable segment of the black community who are currently making the move are religious fundamentalists. It makes sense because they have the greatest ideological overlap with the wildest elements of the GOP. But they are not a group of folks who are likely to broaden the Party’s appeal.
It is good that in a couple of white Congressional districts in the Deep South Republicans have been willing to send a black man to Congress. It would be even better if we were capable of supporting black political figures who could win black support.
I’d like to think that the GOP will find a way soon to make genuine inroads in the black community, but we are unlikely to see this happen while the Party is still locked in its Neo-Confederate freak-out. While the Republican Party tries to work out its crippling mental health problems, we can expect that the only African-American figures it will sponsor will share its present delusions.
We will continue to run black candidates who couldn’t hope to borrow a glass of water in a majority black Congressional district while a growing but frustrated core of traditional black conservatives remain politically homeless. And in the meantime many black communities will continue to suffer under a left-influenced culture that is calculated to limit their ambitions.
Once upon time, black meant Republican. That time may come again, but for now it is a dream deferred.
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