There Are Zero Black Republicans in Congress, Yet 32 Are Running for Office in 2010?
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And never mind Trent Lott's Dixiecrat ode to Strom Thurmond. If only America elected the segregationist in 1948, "we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years." Or the Republican-supported Tennessee campaign ad starring a white woman cooing at a black Democrat: "Call me, Harold." Or Glenn Beck's insistence that Obama "hates" white people. Or, "You lie!" Or, Confederate History Month.
And aggravating the GOP's racial discomfort is the person once poised to soothe it: Michael Steele.
In a recent "Good Morning America" TV interview, Steele complained he is being held to a higher standard than his white predecessors because of his skin color.
Former GOP congressman and TV pundit Joe Scarborough scoffed: "It's just the opposite. When I talk to senior Republicans in Washington and I ask, 'Why is Michael Steele still in the job?' they laugh and say, 'What, you think we're going to fire an African American in the age of Obama? Are you an idiot?'"
A former seminarian, pro-life Catholic, and self-described "Lincoln Republican," Steele was installed by an overwhelmingly white party leadership in early 2009 to "broaden" the GOP base -- ideologically, not racially.
"When people speak of broadening the party's geographic diversity, they are speaking in code. They mean the party needs to welcome more moderates; be more forgiving of departures from orthodoxy; and be less antagonistic to pro-choicers and gays," according to political observer Marc Ambinder. Thus Steele's chairmanship "marks a step away from the balkanized Southern white ethos of the party."
This is not the GOP's first attempt to cleanse its racial image.
In 2005, the GOP wanted to launch a "big-tent campaign" to woo black voters, "If You Give Us a Chance, We'll Give You a Choice." That year, Ken Mehlman, GOP chairman at the time, apologized to blacks at an NAACP national convention for the party's history of exploiting racial tension to court white voters -- aka the "southern strategy."
In reality, Republican efforts to court minority voters also serve to smooth the party's rough, conservative edges. The GOP doesn't woo minorities just for their own sake, but also to reel in the larger, more desired prize: the national mass of moderate white voters. It's like flattering the pizza-face girl leaning on the bar to get to her knockout friend.
The GOP's overwhelmingly white coterie of party bosses elected Steele, immediately after Obama's inauguration, more for the sake of white moderates than for racial minorities. As one wag puts it, Steele provides the Republican Party "default race card insurance," political cover for when Republicans attack the president and need to deflect charges of racism.
When Republicans elect a black leader or extravagantly spotlight minorities at their public events, those gestures partly illustrate the party's racial progress. But they also double as preemptive strikes against inevitable and deserved charges of racial prejudice. These gestures are delivered like Bat Signals to moderate whites to telegraph the party's "tolerance."
McGlowan, the Mississippi challenger and former TV pundit, says she is better poised than her white male competitors to "get the crossover vote from females, Latinos and blacks." Yet McGlowan also bristles at labels, insisting she is not running as a female or black candidate.
"Oh, heck no," she exclaims. "Harmony knows no color. Taxes know no color. Unemployment knows no color." During one forum in the South, McGlowan recalls, opponents proposed that she, the sole woman, speak first. She declined. "I don't want a special type of handout."
Republicans, and conservatives generally, face a sticky paradox. On the one hand, conservative dogma champions a "colorblind" mantra. Glenn Beck encourages his supporters to boycott the race question on the Census. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts says America must end the "sordid business" of "divvying" ourselves by race. On the other hand, a rapidly diversifying electorate requires the GOP to acknowledge race and to racially diversify -- or go the way of the dodo bird.
Put bluntly, how does the GOP square its colorblind daydreams with its unfolding demographic nightmare? How does a party that professes to "transcend race" woo minority voters while clutching its white base?
Racial politics is tricky terrain, anyway, since voters don't vote primarily according to skin color -- the candidates' or their own. The vast majority of Americans cast ballots by weighing the issues close to home: the economy, health care, education, social values, immigration and the like. Race is not the be-all end-all of most Americans' voting choices. That noted, a minority voter's race is extremely predictive of party identification -- as much and more so than any other personal trait (gender, income, education level, etc.). Blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans consistently rate Democrats better than Republicans on their handling of such basic issues.
Race is not the main issue in the 2010 election cycle. But it's not irrelevant either.
Racial anxiety and race baiting cloud this campaign, too. The country's Obama-era racial politics rarely mentions race in debate, though it tucks race just under the surface of "nonracial" issues: taxes, health care reform, public spending, and, pointedly, immigration. One black candidate for Congress even tried to color Obama's cap-and-trade proposals black.
"Environmentalism is a new platform to welcome poor blacks onto the government plantation," charges Star Parker, a black, "small-government" conservative candidate in California's 37th district.
Decades after Reconstruction, the novelty and puzzlement over black Republicans are hardly new. White Republicans have also wondered why the party of Lincoln has historically failed to attract blacks. Departing the 1976 Republican convention aboard a commercial flight, country singer Pat Boone asked Earl Butz, Gerald Ford's Secretary of Agriculture, why more blacks didn't join the GOP. "The only thing the coloreds are looking for in life," the Secretary explained, "are a tight pussy, loose shoes, and a warm place to shit."