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Why won't the GOP compete for African American votes?

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By Eugene Robinson
Friday, October 8, 2010

This has been such an unpredictable political year that it's hard to have confidence in any of the forecasts for November. How unpredictable? Well, I'd like to meet the pundit or prognosticator who imagined that a major-party candidate for the U.S. Senate would begin a campaign ad by declaring, "I'm not a witch."

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Christine O'Donnell's sorcery problem aside, there's one thing I can say with confidence about next month's midterm election: African Americans will vote overwhelmingly for Democratic Party candidates at every level. This is perfectly rational political behavior -- but in many ways it's a shame.

Don't misunderstand. I'm firmly convinced that the progressive agenda championed by the Democrats is much better for African Americans, and for the nation as a whole, than the conservative agenda favored by Republicans. But I also believe that in politics, as in business, competition is good. Monopolies inevitably take their customers for granted.

And this, frankly, is what Democrats have been doing with black voters for decades. As far as African Americans are concerned, the only issue is whether they'll turn out in substantial numbers for the midterm balloting. No one wonders how they'll cast their votes.

African American support for the Democratic Party hovers around 90 percent. This qualifies as monolithic, even though black Americans are increasingly diverse -- economically, socially, culturally and geographically. There are millions of affluent black suburban households who fit the demographic profile of independents or Republicans. There has been an unprecedented influx of black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean who view the political landscape with fresh eyes. Polls show that on some hot-button social issues, such as gay marriage, many African Americans are quite conservative. You'd think that somewhere, somehow, the GOP would have managed to get a foothold.

The problem is that the Republicans haven't tried -- not seriously, at least. And it will take a lot more than appointing a figurehead like party chief Michael Steele, or nominating a surprising congressional candidate like Tim Scott in South Carolina, to overcome decades of indifference and antipathy.

The history of the Republican Party's estrangement from African Americans is well known. In 1960, Richard Nixon won 32 percent of the black vote. In 1964, Barry Goldwater -- who had opposed the landmark Civil Rights Act -- received just 6 percent of the black vote. This dramatic shift made possible Nixon's "Southern strategy," which political strategist Kevin Phillips explained to the New York Times in 1970, using some archaic terminology:

"From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don't need any more than that," Phillips said, "but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That's where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats."

In other words, the idea was to capitalize on the racial fears and grievances of Southern whites -- by letting black voters drift away from the GOP and even encouraging them to stay away.

Ours is a different era, and I'm not suggesting that the old Southern strategy persists in unreconstructed form. The Republican Party's dominance among white Southerners is not based on the kind of raw, unambiguous race-baiting that we saw decades ago.

What I am saying is that the Republicans have made no serious effort to appeal to black voters. Such an initiative would begin with an acknowledgement of the specific problems that African Americans face -- including the legacy of centuries of oppression and discrimination -- and a proffer of policies to address those problems. But this would contradict the GOP's dogmatic stance that government should be severely limited in its ambition.

Democrats, at least, are much better at talking the talk. But is the Democratic Party offering any new ideas -- or even the promise of meaningful resources -- to eliminate the stubborn, multigenerational poverty and dysfunction in which far too many African Americans are trapped? Are Democrats addressing the vast gap in wealth between middle-class blacks and their white counterparts?

Given the stakes, I see no real choice for African Americans but to go to the polls in November and stick with the Democratic Party, which at least asks for our votes. The Republicans haven't offered an alternative. I wish someday they would.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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