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The Republican Race Problem

Why should Republicans expect to get black votes when they can’t say “black lives matter?”

The fact that Republicans have a race problem is nothing new. The Republican problem with minority voters has been an issue for at least the past half-century and it seems to be getting worse. The growing sense of futility with reaching out to minority voters influences Republican policy choices and, as nonwhite voters make up a growing share of the electorate, represents an existential crisis for the GOP.

The Republican problem with minorities dates back to at least the 1960s. The party of Lincoln and emancipation first got into serious racial trouble in 1964 when then-frontrunner Barry Goldwater announced his opposition to the Civil Rights Act. Goldwater specifically rejected discrimination but opposed the bill’s federal overreach.

Goldwater won the Republican nomination that year but went on to lose the 1964 election by a landslide to Lyndon Johnson. Goldwater won only five states across the Deep South (South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana) plus Arizona and lost the popular vote by 61-38 percent. This was despite the fact that the Democratic Party was badly split over civil rights.

The Democratic split was evident again in 1968 when Alabama Gov. George Wallace, a notorious segregationist, mounted a third-party run as a “Dixiecrat.” Wallace carried five Southern states (this time Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas), winning 13 percent of the popular vote and 45 electoral votes. Richard Nixon won the election, defeating both Wallace and Democrat Hubert Humphrey.

Much has been written about Nixon’s “Southern strategy” but Nixon didn’t win the South in 1968. He did come back four years later and carry the Dixiecrat states, but the rub is that the 1972 election was a landslide in which Nixon carried 49 states (all but Massachusetts and the District of Columbia). Likewise, the next time Republicans won the South again was in 1980 when Ronald Reagan carried 44 states. The Southern strategy seems to have largely been a myth or, at the very least, took decades to come to fulfillment since Bill Clinton carried about half of the South in 1992.

Even though the South was contested for about three decades following the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is true that Republicans saw a long, slow decline in their share of the black vote following the Goldwater campaign. Exit polling is hard to come by from the 1960s but the Roper Center has compiled demographic data on presidential elections from 1976 on. Those polls show that the Republican share of the black vote peaked at 17 percent in 1976 with Gerald Ford. The last time a Republican won more than 10 percent of the black vote was in 2004 when George W. Bush won 11 percent. In 2016, Donald Trump won eight percent of black voters, which is statistically below average but an improvement over Republicans who faced Barack Obama.

At the same time that Republicans were losing black voters, the electorate was changing. In 1976, 89 percent of voters were white while blacks and Hispanics were at nine percent and one percent respectively. By 2016, white voters were only 70 percent of the electorate. The balance was made up of blacks (12 percent), Hispanics, (11 percent), Asians (four percent), and other (three percent). The Republican candidate lost all of these groups (except “other”) by a greater than a two-to-one margin.

To summarize, Republicans are losing a growing share of minority votes at a time when minority voters are making up a growing share of the electorate. It’s a double whammy.

You might think that Republicans would want to stem their bleeding among minorities. Some do. In the aftermath of Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss to Barack Obama, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus commissioned an after-action report to find out what went wrong. Among the recommendations in the 2013 report were that Republicans pass immigration reform as quickly as possible, that they listen to minority groups, that they become more accepting of gays, and that the party move beyond its echo chamber style of political discourse.

These were valid recommendations. Immigration reform has long had overwhelming support among voters and even strong support in the GOP. Passing immigration reform might have headed off a mass exodus of Hispanics akin to the post-1964 movement of black voters to the Democrats. Likewise, most of the country is now accepting of gay rights and same-sex marriage, and de-emphasizing an issue that has been lost would help to remove a stumbling block for socially moderate voters. Reaching out to minority voters by talking to minority organizations and listening to their concerns would seem to be the least that Republican candidates should do if they want to win minority votes.

The recommendations were sensible but Republican voters decided to take a completely different direction. In 2016, partly because it saw Hillary Clinton as an existential threat, the party united behind a racial lightning rod. Donald Trump’s 2015 campaign announcement bordered on xenophobia and set the tone for his entire campaign.  What has followed has been one long series of racial missteps.

I’m not going to say that all Republicans are racist, but it is true that a lot of Republicans say and do things that make them appear racist to others. It’s also true that some Republicans are racist. I’ve had several rank and file Republican voters tell me that they want to restrict legal immigration to protect American culture. If this isn’t racist, it is at least bigoted given America’s immigrant roots and melting pot culture. Like climate, “American culture” is not static. It is constantly changing. The American culture of today is starkly different from that of 1776, 1876, or even 1976. There is no going back to those years and most Americans would probably not want to if they could.

The fact that many Republicans are willing to write off entire ethnicities is bigoted. It is also abundantly clear in the belief held by many Republicans that immigrants are “future Democratic voters.” In truth, this belief is a de facto admission that Republican ideas are flawed. If the Republican platform is so bad that it cannot appeal to immigrants who come here chasing the American dream, maybe the Republican platform needs to be changed or at least repackaged so that it can be better marketed to new Americans and minorities.

Instead, Republicans tend to talk down to minority voters and engage in victim-blaming. Whenever there are race riots or a black person meets an untimely fate, my Facebook feed is filled with my Republican friends trotting out comparisons of black-on-black violence, data about fatherless black children, comments about welfare and black crime rates, and spiking the football on how Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. If Republicans try to look at the issue from the perspective of black voters, they might see how condescending and bigoted this seems to black Americans.

Republicans should take a cue from the Hippocratic Oath and “first, do no harm.” One way to do this to acknowledge that there are still racial problems in America. When such conservatives as Tim Scott tell us that racial discrimination is real, Republicans should be able to take it to the bank.

Further, Republicans should think about what they say and share. Quasi-racist memes get shared around and make the party look bad. So do comments about how alt-right neo-Nazis are “fine people.” It should go without saying that Republicans should not be retweeting and defending people who are yelling “White Power” at demonstrations. As to the Republican role in emancipation, those events from 155 years ago are undercut by Republicans who spend their political energies defending the Confederate flag and monuments to Confederate soldiers and statesmen. (My take is that such issues should be decided locally.) Republicans should at least understand that defending people who defended slavery makes them look like racists to the vast majority of Americans, not just to minorities.

Then there is the issue of “black lives matter.” I’m referring here to the phrase, not the organization. Even though unjustified police killings are not limited to blacks, it is true that the killing of blacks is a problem. Some of the recent flashpoint killings were justified and some were not. The problem is that even when the killings are not justified, too many people defend the actions of police.

Take the recent cases of Ahmaud Aubry and George Floyd, for example (even though Aubry’s murder was not committed by police). Excessive force was used in the killings of both men, but many on the right focused on the criminal records of the black men rather than the bad behavior of the white vigilantes and police. Aubry and Floyd may have had criminal histories but that was irrelevant to their deaths. Aubry had not committed any crime when he was illegally stopped by white men with guns and Floyd was immobile and restrained long before officers got off of his neck. The shooting death of Philando Castile is another case in which a man doing nothing wrong was shot and killed by a police officer who escaped punishment as many on the right focus on alleged crimes by the dead man.

There are a couple of lessons here. The first is that black Americans have legitimate reasons to feel harassed by police. Even though the Ferguson officer who shot Michael Brown was defending himself from attack, a Justice Department report found widespread misconduct by the Ferguson police. That sort of bad behavior by police is probably more common than most Republicans would care to admit. Police reform is needed and should not be a black-white issue.

The second is that black Americans have a legitimate reason to ask people to affirm that “black lives matter.” Whites might be killed in bad shootings, by police or civilians, but it is difficult to imagine a situation equivalent to the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in which one of the killers calls the dying man a “f—ing n-gg-r” as he bleeds out.

As to the criminal history question, remember also that Arbery’s death would have been written off as a burglar being killed in self-defense were it not for the video that contradicted the testimony of his killers. How often such killings happen without video evidence is an open and disturbing question.

Black voters have a right to ask Republicans to affirm that “black lives matter.” Doing so does not imply that black lives matter more than those of other races or that all lives don’t matter. It also doesn’t imply support for the Black Lives Matter organization, which is ideologically too far to the left for conservatives to support.

What saying “black lives matter” does is to establish some sense of solidarity with black Americans, many of whom are worried that their children will be shot and killed by police or white neighborhood watchmen, who then may not even receive a slap on the wrist. Saying “black lives matter” is saying that this sort of behavior is unacceptable.

Saying “black lives matter” is a first step in reaching out to minority voters. Beyond that, Republicans should engage in a dialogue with minorities to find out more about their concerns and opinions. Rallying behind any minority person who supports Trump is not a substitute for going to NAACP meetings to talk to black voters. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Kanye West, Candace Owens, and Diamond and Silk are not representative of black voters at large.

Politicians who believe that all lives matter should not be hesitant to say that black lives also matter. Black lives mattered to Abraham Lincoln when he sent armies largely composed of white soldiers to die in the quest to destroy the racist Confederacy. Modern Republicans should be willing to explicitly state to black voters that their lives do matter. If Republicans can’t make this simple statement, why should black voters trust them with their votes?

There are indications that Republicans can win minority voters if they try. It is widely acknowledged that Democrats take black voters for granted. This year’s Democratic primary also gives evidence that black voters are much more conservative than the Democratic Party as a whole. Many minority voters value faith, family, and hard work which can put them at odds with Democrats. But to win minority voters, Republicans first have to convince them that they are aren’t racists.

Reaching out to minorities can be as simple as marketing changes that specifically address the concerns of minority voters. I believe that conservative principles are good for the entire country and that a rising tide lifts all boats, but that doesn’t mean that specific pitches cannot be targeted at specific ethnicities.

Some parts of the Republican platform do need to be changed, however. Chief among these is the hardline immigration stance that is at odds with overwhelming public opinion and risks alienating Hispanic voters for generations to come. Immigration is an issue where Republicans are far out of the political mainstream and it is going to doing longterm damage to the party.

Republicans can’t afford to write off everyone who isn’t white. If the party wants to have a future in an increasingly racially mixed country, the GOP is going to have to address its race problem. The first step admitting there is a problem and many Republicans are still in denial of that fact.

If you would like to continue the discussion on social media, you can visit David Thornton’s Facebook page or follow him on Twitter.


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