Repubican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus pauses as he speaks during the 2015 Southern Republican Leadership Conference May 21, 2015 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

The press release went out last week:

“Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, will participate in a panel discussion luncheon in celebration of Black Music Month on Monday, June 1st, in Washington, D.C.”

The event was called “A Republican Salute to Black Music Month” and, according to organizer Raynard Jackson, a black Republican consultant, was to include R&B legend Sam Moore (“Soul Man”), Marlon Jackson of the Jackson 5 and others.

The Republican chairman, a Greek-German Wisconsinite, sharing a stage with legends of soul and funk? Pure gold! But somebody missed his cue.

Moore, Marlon Jackson and the others showed up. But among the “confirmed participants,” Priebus was the sole man missing. And there was nobody from the RNC to take his place.

“Reince Priebus was scheduled to be here,” Raynard Jackson explained to guests at the posh University Club. The host said Priebus sent regrets because he’d had surgery on Friday and was having difficulty talking. “He’s sore as heck,” Jackson explained. Jackson told me Priebus had confirmed his attendance Friday but wasn’t feeling as well as he’d hoped on Monday — and by then it was too late for the RNC to find a stand-in.

But an RNC official told me that Priebus’s surgery Friday had been scheduled, elective and outpatient and that the chairman was doing fine. The official said Priebus had never formally committed to attend the black-music event.

Whatever the cause of the chairman’s absence, it would be unfair to say there was widespread disappointment, because attendance itself was not widespread. The organizers had warned of the “limited number of seats available to the general public,” but half of the 50-odd place settings in the room were unused. Rather than a Republican salute to black music, this was a limp handshake.

The reception was the latest of many tortured efforts by Republicans to improve their standing with racial minorities. Six years ago, then-RNC Chairman Michael Steele, who is African American, pledged an “off the hook” effort to reach out to young and minority voters in “hip-hop settings.” But Steele was soon off the hook at the RNC.

Priebus redoubled the party’s efforts to reach minorities after the 2012 election, in which President Obama took 93 percent of the black vote. If the party doesn’t improve its standing with racial minorities, particularly with the fast-growing Latino population, it will gradually become irrelevant — a topic that came up at Monday’s lunch

“Is it clear to the GOP that its greatest hurdle is you don’t look like the rest of the country?” one man, an African American, asked the political-musical panel. “All these years of the population growing and you still look like you did 40 years ago. What’s the problem?”

Here’s one problem: The panelists saw fit to praise the contributions of the late Lee Atwater, the Republican operative who made Willie Horton a household name in the racially tinged 1988 campaign.

“Lee was defined as a racist, and I almost bought into it,” Moore said. “And the man turned out to be a wonderful person. Now does that mean that he wasn’t [racist]? I have no idea and I don’t care, because he didn’t treat me any different from how he would have treated any white person.”

Moore’s wife, Joyce, also on the panel, added her view: “I believe that if Lee hadn’t gotten a brain tumor and died, things would have been very, very different very much sooner with the Republican Party” and minorities.

Consultant Jackson asked musician Jackson what the Republican Party could do to improve its racial image — and the singer begged off. “I’m not a Democrat and I’m not a Republican,” he explained.

Another panelist, music producer Carvin Haggins, offered the novel view that African Americans quit the Republican Party because of Watergate (and not, say, Barry Goldwater or the civil rights movement). The Democratic Party, he said, “is the slave master’s party.” He explained: “Instead of leaving my plantation and making it on your own, stay here and we’ll feed you and we’ll give you health care.”

Priebus’s decision to skip the event was looking particularly good at this moment.

Raynard Jackson offered a defense, of sorts, of the absent chairman. “When I first met him I thought he was a chicken, but when I got to know him and I became friends with him I think he’s a pig now,” Jackson said. “For a chicken to lay eggs, that doesn’t mean anything. But when you ask a pig for bacon, that’s a total commitment. And see, most Republican chairmen have laid eggs in the black community. . . . He’s my pig. He’s made a total commitment.”

Except when asked to salute Black Music Month.

Twitter: @Milbank

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