By Ron Walters
Republicans have just named an African-American, former Maryland Lt. Governor Michael Steele, as party Chair.
While I congratulate Steele, I am also aware that it probably would never have happened if Barack Obama had not won the presidency. So now that he is Chair, the biggest question he confronts is how to turn around the strong perception that Republicans are actively opposed to Black interests. Steele himself said, just after the recent election while campaigning for the office, that Republican Party officials “just don’t give a damn,” and that their version of outreach to minorities is “let’s throw a cocktail party, find some Black folks and Hispanics and women, wrap our arms around them. See look at us. And then we go back to the same old, same old.” He continued, “The party has simply not understood the importance of having highly visible Black Republican operatives… It’s not our message as much as it is our messengers that are killing us.”
I beg to differ with Steele–profoundly. The problem with the Republican Party is not the absence of high profile Blacks to sell the message of the party, it is the party’s former president (Bush) who flies over the damage of the Katrina hurricane, leaving Black folks screaming for help and Black bodies in the water.
This is the same fellow who began his campaign at Bob Jones University that would not allow interracial dating; it was the same fellow who spoke at an NAACP convention only once in his eight years. It is the image of the party who has a presidential candidate in 2008 with only one high-level Black staffer and who headed a convention with 2,000 delegates, but only 36 were Black.
It is insensitive comments by Republican officials like Senator Trent Lott who praised Strom Thurmond, saying if we had listened to him (who opposed the integration of the Democratic party when he was in it) things would be better. Or, take Senator Conrad Burns of Montana, who called his house painter a “nice little Guatemalan man,” or former Virginia Senator George Allan whose reference to a nonwhite person in his audience as a “Macaca,” a kind of monkey.
Think about the habit of Republicans working hard to prevent Blacks from voting by initiating so-called “ballot security” programs where they pass laws requiring government issued ID for voting, or personally check the ID of people (generally Blacks) at the door of the voting station. The exploits of the Ohio African-American Secretary of State, Ken Blackwell are still fresh in the mind from the 2004 election when he did everything possible to prevent Blacks from voting in big numbers. He also ran for party Chair but came in near to last place among the six candidates, proof that even Republicans were embarrassed by his attempt to be a loyal 21st century lawn jockey.
Even Republicans must understand that part of what Obama’s victory meant is that there is talent of color in the higher ranks of political life that is ready to lead the country and they will increasingly have that opportunity because of two things: changing demographics and the bankruptcy of Republican public policies.
First, it is amazing how long the demographic argument has been used to show Republicans that the country is becoming more diverse and they would have to recruit or die. Republican pollster Linda DiVall said in 1998 that the party had to respond to the “sheer math of the changing demographics in America… ” and expand their appeal to minorities if they were to continue to be competitive. They gave much lip-service to this idea afterward, but it was not until Ken Mehlman became Chair in 2004 that a serious attempt was made at what they called “outreach”–showing up at Black venues, speaking about the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and admitting the party has erred recently by not reaching out.
But the real challenge of Steele is what made Mehlman’s initiative fruitless. Republicans are fundamentally opposed to policies like Affirmative Action, spending on social programs, and civil rights, in short, most of the measures that have been responsible for Black progress. Now they are at it again, attempting to scuttle spending for human needs contained in the Stimulus package proposed by President Barack Obama and being debated in Congress. Then, they will send Michael Steele out into Black communities to wrap his arms around us and say, “see, look at us.” Then go back to the same old, same old.
(Dr. Ron Walters is the Distinguished Leadership Scholar, Director of African American Leadership Center and Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland. His latest book is: “The Price of Racial Reconciliation.”)