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The Ornery Observer
August 14, 2008

Black Republicans Face Rejection by Their Own Community
by Paul Gottfried

[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 black employees.

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.

Read Paul 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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