[Breaker: Why do black Americans forsake the party of Lincoln?]
In view of Barack Obama’s rise to national prominence, it might
be worthy of note that some black politicians have failed to attract
black votes. Lynn Swann — one such candidate — ran for governor in
my home state of Pennsylvania. Lynn Swann is an articulate Republican
and committed Evangelical Christian. I happily cast my vote for him
against Ed Rendell. Like another black candidate, Michael Steele, who
ran for governor of Maryland, Swann served with distinction as lieutenant
governor. He lost the black vote because of his Republican affiliations.
But unlike Steele, Swann did not have his character blackened by the
NAACP, whose Maryland leadership had mocked Steele as an “Oreo.”
Allow me to raise this unsettling question: Why have black Republicans
been singled out for noisy ridicule in the black community? And it
is not only blacks who are engaging in this ridicule. White journalists
and white intellectuals, who have rallied to Obama as a moral redeemer,
treat black Republicans as hostile to other blacks.
Historical Ties to GOP
I am raising this query not as an unflagging GOP supporter (which I
have long ceased to be) but as an inquisitive historian. American
blacks were overwhelmingly Republican from the Civil War, in which
the Republicans were the party of Negro Emancipation, down to the
New Deal. In the 1950s, they voted twice with large pluralities for
the Republican Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower’s Democratic opponent
in 1952, Adlai Stevenson, ran with an avowed segregationist as his
running mate, John Sparkman of Alabama.
Even as late as 1964, the Civil Rights Act passed because 90 percent
of the Republicans in Congress, as opposed to about 50 percent of the
Democrats, voted for it. The affirmative action programs that the Democrats
now proudly support were introduced under the Republican Richard Nixon
in 1969 as part of the Philadelphia Plan for urban redevelopment. Under
this plan, federal contractors had to meet certain goals in hiring
Nor has the fact that the current Republican administration selected
blacks for high cabinet posts meant anything to most black voters.
Rice, Powell, and other Republicans who have worked for this administration
are judged in polls taken among blacks to be disloyal members of their
race. But why is the half-white Obama, who grew up in a non-black society,
considered blacker than Clarence Thomas, who grew up in a segregated
black society in Georgia?
Short Shrift from Democrats
Nor does it seem to me that Democrats have given blacks more than have
Republicans. It was the supposedly pro-black Clinton administration
that abolished welfare programs that went disproportionately to lower-class
blacks. Clinton was able to do this because blacks would support
him unconditionally. By cutting payments to a group that voted in
relatively small numbers (the underclass), Clinton could therefore
create the impression of being a fiscal conservative to balance his
image as a social liberal.
I’ve no idea how such weird judgments are formed, except that
Obama is positioned in the far Left of the Democratic Party, while
Thomas is a right-of-center Republican.
But those positions have little to do with specifically black interests.
Does Obama’s willingness to grant driving licenses to illegal
aliens or his support for late-term abortions express identifiably
black concerns? Or does Thomas’ opposition to gay marriage or
to federal laws preempting state laws concerning the right to bear
arms near school buildings show that he is against his fellow-blacks?
Although by no means a fan of the Bush foreign policy, I cannot see
how Condoleezza Rice’s position on the Iraqi War indicates hostility
toward black people. Was Clinton’s bombing of Serbs in 1999 a
more black-friendly act?
Kemp Outreach Failure
In the 1980s New York Congressman, Jack Kemp, who later became Secretary
of Housing and Urban Development under Ronald Reagan, tried to build
a career as a Republican who knew how to reach out to blacks. Never
did a politician try so hard to live up to a reputation. As a federal
official Kemp favored set-asides for racial minorities. His addresses
before Republican gatherings often featured long quotations from
Martin Luther King and rhetorical questions intended to appeal to
white guilt about “Where were Republicans when others were
riding the freedom buses?”
But there were two problems with this strategy. First, Democrats like
Jimmy Carter never rode Freedom Buses, but instead began their careers
as segregationist politicians. Nonetheless, unlike Republicans who
had talked out against segregation, such Democrats did very well in
picking up black votes. (And so did that onetime famous segregationist
George Wallace by the end of his career in Alabama politics.) Second,
Kemp’s desperate reaching out to blacks did not benefit his party.
Although in 1996 he managed to obtain the vice-presidential slot, the
GOP received only 10 percent of the black vote that year. And Kemp
got heckled when he spoke before black crowds.
What this failed outreach suggests is that the GOP’s attempts
to appeal to black voters have generally not met with success. At the
same time, the revulsion of blacks for Republicans, and particularly
for black Republicans, seems unrelated to the history of either group.
I, for one, am still searching for an explanation as to why this hostility
is as deep and abiding as it seems to be.
Gottfried's article on Afro-Americans'
forsaking the party of Lincoln in the on-line edition
of THE RECORD, a daily newspaper in New Jersey.
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The Ornery Observer is copyright © 2008
by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com.
All rights reserved.
Paul Gottfried, Ph.D., is the Raffensperger professor of Humanities
at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.
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