Yesterday, Rick Perry went to the National Press Club in Washington to deliver a speech that may have seemed unusual, in that it was characterized as an effort to reach out to African Americans, but actually contained much less than meets the eye. Perry presented traditional Republican priorities — tax cuts, regulatory rollback, slashing safety net programs — as a gift the GOP wants to bestow on African Americans and acknowledged that his party hasn’t exactly been welcoming to them. But if this is “reaching out” beyond the whites who form almost the entirety of the GOP’s voters, it isn’t going to accomplish much. Here’s an excerpt:
There has been, and there will continue to be an important and a legitimate role for the federal government in enforcing Civil Rights. Too often, we Republicans, me included, have emphasized our message on the 10th Amendment but not our message on the 14th. An Amendment, it bears reminding, that was one of the great contributions of Republican party to American life, second only to the abolition of slavery.
For too long, we Republicans have been content to lose the black vote, because we found we didn’t need it to win. But, when we gave up trying to win the support of African-Americans, we lost our moral legitimacy as the party of Lincoln, as the party of equal opportunity for all. It’s time for us, once again, to reclaim our heritage as the only party in our country founded on the principle of freedom for African-Americans.
We know what Democrats will propose in 2016, the same thing, the same things that Democrats have proposed for decades, more government spending on more government programs. And there is a proper and an important role for government assistance in keeping people on their feet. But few Presidents have done more to expand government assistance than President Obama. Today we spend nearly one trillion dollars a year on means tested antipoverty programs. And yet, black poverty remains stagnant.
Let’s be clear about one thing: The GOP didn’t “give up” trying to win the black vote. It spent decades building and maintaining electoral majorities on the encouragement and exploitation of racism. It was a sin of commission, not a sin of omission. And the reason the party is now reevaluating the “Southern strategy” isn’t that it had some kind of moral epiphany, it’s because the strategy doesn’t work anymore.
While we’re on this topic, permit me a digression on this “party of Lincoln” business, which is something Republicans say when they’re trying to convince people they aren’t actually hostile to black people. As Antonin Scalia would say, it’s pure applesauce. Here’s the truth: One hundred fifty years ago, the Republican Party was the liberal party, and the Democratic Party was the conservative party. They reversed those positions over time for a variety of reasons, but the Republicans of today are not Abraham Lincoln’s heirs. Ask yourself this: If he had been around in 1864, which side do you think Rick Perry would have been on? If you took more than half a second to answer, “The Confederacy, of course,” then you’re being way too generous to him, not to mention the overwhelming majority of his fellow Republicans.
All that isn’t to say that it’s impossible for Republicans to turn over a new leaf and truly give African Americans a reason to consider their party. But if they’re going to be at all successful, it will take both a change in policy and a change in attitude.
A change in policy, at least outside of some very specific areas, is extremely unlikely to happen. Perry discussed the issue of incarcerations related to the drug war, and that’s one example where Republicans really are coming together with Democrats to reevaluate the policies of recent decades. They deserve credit for that. But there’s almost nothing else they’re offering, other than to argue that the things they already wanted to do, such as cutting taxes, will be great for black people, too.
Then there’s the argument Perry and others make about safety net programs: that people of color are being enslaved by them, and if we only cut those shackles then they’ll rise up. This argument — that the Republican Party wants to slash the safety net only because it cares so much for the poor — has never persuaded anyone in the past, and it isn’t likely to in the future.
And what about the change in attitude? The most fundamental reason Republicans can’t get the votes of African Americans is that the party communicates to them, again and again and again, that it isn’t just ignoring their needs but is actively hostile to them. When conservative justices gut the Voting Rights Act to the cheers of Republicans, and then states such as Perry’s Texas move immediately to impose voting restrictions that they know will disproportionately affect African Americans, it sends a very clear message.
Perry began his speech with a harrowing story of a lynching in Texas in 1916, which was surely meant to convey to African Americans that he understands the legacy of racism. But it also sends an accompanying message: that he believes racism is about the violent oppression of the past and has nothing to do with the lives African Americans lead today. And that’s another message African Americans hear loud and clear. Every time any issue of race comes up, whether it’s about police mistreatment or discrimination in employment or anything else, the first response of conservatives is always to say, “Oh c’mon, what are you complaining about? Racism is over.”
If Perry really wanted to “reach out” to African Americans and convince them that something has changed, here’s a way he could do it: He could say something about the endless stream of race-baiting that comes from the most prominent conservative media figures. If you’ve listened to Rush Limbaugh or watched Bill O’Reilly, you know that one of the central themes of their programs is that white people are America’s only victimized racial group, while African Americans form a criminal class that deserves to be constantly harassed by the police because they’re a bunch of thugs the rest of us need protection from. Day in and day out, those programs’ white audiences are told that Obama is some kind of Black Panther enacting a campaign of racial vengeance upon them. “All too often I have seen this president divide us by race,” says Perry, when the media figures his party lionizes are constantly telling their audiences to see politics through the lens of their own whiteness and nurture their racial resentments.
And Perry can tell black people that it’s welfare that’s really keeping them down, but because of his party, the first African American president had to literally show his birth certificate to prove he’s a real American. That’s just one of the things it’s going to take an awful lot of reaching out to make them forget.