BLACKS AND THE GOP

It's My Party, But I Don't Feel Part of It

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By Sophia A. Nelson
Sunday, November 23, 2008

Election night was a bittersweet night for me. Like most Americans, and especially as an African American, I found it deeply moving to watch President-elect Barack Obama and his family -- soon to be our nation's first African American first family -- stride onstage for his victory speech. I welcome the positive role models they'll present to black families and the American public at large.

But as a black Republican, I was chagrined that the political party I've belonged to for 20 years had just suffered a blistering electoral defeat. And that along the way, it had lost 96 percent of the black vote and 67 percent of the Hispanic vote -- the worst showing for the Republican Party among minorities in its 150-year history.

After such a devastating loss, Republicans will have to do some retooling. We'll have to decide whether we want to be the party that believes in smaller government, lower taxes and less regulation, or whether we're going to be a litmus-test party that responds only to the demands of social conservatives. But most important, we'll have to confront our most disastrous modern legacy: our poor relationship with black Americans, the very people the party was formed to protect from the expansion of slavery into Kansas and Nebraska in 1854.

That relationship may be lost for generations, thanks to a campaign by Sen. John McCain that seemed to simply concede the black vote. According to one senior aide, McCain had been polling close to 20 percent of the black vote before the primaries ended. But then his "Forgotten America" tour, which started soon after, never seemed to go anywhere. I knew of only one high-level black adviser or spokesperson on his full-time paid campaign staff. The GOP convention was embarrassingly devoid of people of color -- among more than 2,000 delegates, only 36 were black.

The problem, former Maryland lieutenant governor Michael Steele told the Washington Times last week, is that party officials "don't give a damn." To them, he said, "outreach means let's throw a cocktail party, find some black folks and Hispanics and women, wrap our arms around them -- 'See, look at us.' And then we go back to the same old, same old."

"The party has simply not understood the importance of having highly visible black Republican operatives, elected officials and political spokespersons working for it on an ongoing basis," adds an African American who worked for the Republican National Committee during the administration of the first President Bush. "It's not our message as much as it is our messengers that are killing us."

It didn't have to be this way. Only a few years ago, then-RNC chairman Ken Mehlman was aggressively reaching out to the black community. At the NAACP convention in 2005, he apologized for the party's past embrace of racial polarization to gain political advantage. "We were wrong," he said. But Mehlman's efforts, like those of George H.W. Bush and President Gerald R. Ford in the 1970s and, ironically, Lee Atwater in 1989, have never really been followed up on in a way that has successfully made inroads and attracted black voters to the GOP fold.

I'm a Republican because I believe in a republican form of government, in individual liberty, the rule of law and civic virtue. Though I was raised in a staunchly Democratic household in a heavily ethnic suburb in southern New Jersey, I realized in college that my personal values were closer to those of the GOP than the Democrats. I joined the Republican Party in 1988, attracted by George H.W. Bush's message of a "kinder, gentler" America and Jack Kemp's mantra of economic development and urban enterprise zones, which seemed a natural fit for the black community.

That drew in other African Americans as well. "What the GOP of the '80s and '90s stood for was growth, opportunity and prosperity," one black Republican businessman from Virginia told me. "This is what attracted me to the party." But more recently that message, he said, "has gotten swallowed up by a social conservative agenda that seems obsessed with religion, guns and abortion."

I can vouch that being a moderate black Republican isn't easy. My black GOP colleagues and I endure endless ridicule and questioning from other African Americans, including close friends and family members who wonder how we can belong to a political party that is so overwhelmingly white, male, Southern, conservative and seemingly closed to ethnic minorities.

And truth be told, it's sometimes an ill fit. Consider the comments of Shannon Reeves, an African American who started a college Republican chapter at Grambling State University in 1988. In 2003, he wrote an open letter to the party after it was disclosed that in 1999, a newsletter published by the then-vice chairman of the California Republican Party had carried an essay suggesting that the country would have been better off if the South had won the Civil War.

"I am tired of being embarrassed by elected Republican officials who have no sensitivity for issues that alienate whole segments of our population," Reeves wrote. "This embarrassment is different for a black Republican. Not only do we have to sit in rooms and behave professionally towards Republicans who share this ideology, we have to go home to a hostile environment where we are called Uncle Tom and maligned as a sell-out to the community because of our membership in the Republican Party."


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