Does the GOP Have Racial Amnesia?

Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP, recently met with House majority leader Richard Armey to discuss racial harmony. The meeting was described as cordial and productive, but if so, it was only because the leaders ignored the history of the GOP's racist past.

Mfume was responding in part to a letter Armey had sent him, declaring that "It has become an all too common practice to spread unfounded, racially charged falsehoods against Republicans for political advantage. If left unchallenged, this practice will continue to divide our nation, polarize our political parties, and do untold harm in the lives of real people who are unjustly accused of conspiracy against the civil rights of African Americans."

After the meeting they held a joint press conference to talk about trying to heal the canyon between the GOP and the African-American community. One of the things that Armey did not talk about, however, was the GOP's history with the black community, espescially the last 30 years, that have caused African Americans to treat Republicans with suspician and in many cases outright hostility.

At one time, the GOP was the party of blacks, and they religiously voted for the "party of Lincoln." They were attracted to its message of freedom and self-help. While black voting for the GOP decreased after Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, blacks still had high regard for the Republican Party, especially since the Democratic Party had long been in the grip of the "boll weevils" -- Southern senators like Stennis, Eastland and Bilbo -- who blocked nearly all civil rights legislation for the first half of the 20th century. Black people voted Republican by a 60-40 margin in the 1956 election that returned Eisenhower to the presidency for a second term.

This changed, however, when race become central to the Republican Party's national strategy, especially in the South, now the main region of power for the GOP. Arizona senator Barry Goldwater began the Republicans' catering to Southern racism in his 1964 presidential race against Lyndon Johnson. Realizing a large share of the black vote was going to Johnson, who was working on crafting the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, Goldwater came out against it, and went for states' rights instead. This helped him ride the wave of white backlash, and he carried the five Deep South (Dixiecrat) states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. This was unheard of for a Republican at the time.

That same year, Strom Thurmond, the then segregationist Democratic senator from South Carolina, saw the writing on the wall and switched to the Republican Party. "The Democratic Party has forsaken the people," said Thurmond at the time. "It has become the party of minority groups, power-hungry union leaders, political bosses and big businessmen looking for government contracts and favors."

Four years later in 1968, Richard Nixon's "Southern strategy" used tactics from the Goldwater and the Dixiecrat playbook of George Wallace to play on white fear and resentment by labeling blacks "welfare cheats" and "laggards." The white backlash to the Civil Rights Movement and to LBJ's Great Society programs (which, paradoxically, gave poor Southern white people unprecedented access to health care, education, and job training) helped elect Nixon, and the party wrote off black voters completely.

"Substantial Negro support is not necessary to national Republican victory," said Kevin Phillips, the mastermind behind the Nixon strategy. "The GOP can build a winning coalition without Negro votes. Indeed, Negro-Democratic mutual identification was a major source of Democratic loss and Republican party profit in many sections of the country."

Since then, some Republicans across the country have played to these fears to gather white votes. Ronald Reagan declared that he "believed in states' rights" when he kicked off a presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where civil rights martyrs Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman were murdered, fighting states rights and attempting to help blacks get registered to vote. Once in office, Reagan used the racialized image of "welfare queens" who drive Cadillac's, and he led an all out assault on affirmative action laws calling them "reverse racism."

Vice President Bush picked up the mantle in his presidential run in 1988 with the infamous Willie Horton ad campaign, which basically depicted all blacks of being criminals (sadly, inequitable law enforcement practices and sentencing disparities threaten to make that caricature a reality).

Some of the Republican brush-off of blacks has been unintentional, and some has been blatantly malicious. That is why blacks didn't buy the "compassionate conservatism" of George W. Bush, who received 8 percent of the black vote in the 2000 presidential election against Al Gore, especially after Bush refused to take a stand against the flying of the Confederate flag issue in South Carolina -- Bush's play on Nixon's old Southern Strategy.

While Armey may not want to hear the recent history of his political party, it is something he will have to address. If he can address this, and Mfume can be honest about the NAACP's recent actions, then maybe something can come out of the recent meeting. If not, they met for meeting's sake.

Lee Hubbard can be reached by email at with any questions or comments.

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