Opinion

After Herman Cain, the GOP has a credibility crisis with black voters

Even before Herman Cain suspended his presidential campaign, Republicans faced a crisis with black voters. The GOP has never been able to garner more than 12 percent of the black vote – not with black appointees; not with black candidates. The party needs to become more progressive.

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Herman Cain’s exit from the Republican presidential stage resulted from a crisis in character. But long after Mr. Cain’s name fades from public view, the Republican Party will continue to face a crisis of confidence among black American voters – despite Cain’s brief popularity as a candidate.

The GOP’s stated desire to make inroads with black constituencies – and its subsequent failure to do so – goes back to the summer of 1983. Members of Reagan’s White House met with 15 notable black Republicans warning that the president’s policies would stir a so-called “vengeance vote” by blacks heading to the polls in 1984.

This “beginning of a dialogue,” as Reagan aide Edward Rollins put it, ended with a shell of plan to build the black conservative brand: Make more high-level presidential appointees; invest more to spread the Reagan Republican story among black voters. This was their strategy to convince blacks that the doors to the GOP were open.

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They executed the plan. Election year after election year, GOP presidential candidates spoke to members of black organizations across the US. They appointed high-profile blacks: Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, Condoleezza Rice as national security adviser, Colin Powell as secretary of State.

But the reality is that from 1984 on, despite such appointments and the rhetoric of racial inclusion, the Republicans have never managed to garner more than about 12 percent of the black vote. Ironically, this is the same level as in 1980, prior to embarking on the black-recruitment strategy.

To be sure, results have fluctuated within this period. Republcians did make steady gains among blacks between 1984 and 1996, rising from 9 percent of the black vote to 12 percent. They posted a 3 percentage-point gain in just one election cycle, between 2000-2004.

But it stands to reason that if such gains were made with relatively minimal effort, more gains could have been made with more effort. This goes to the heart of the GOP crisis of confidence among blacks. The fact that the party could have done more demonstrates a lack of genuine, authentic will to do anything other than keep up appearances. It smacks  of tokenism.

The crisis also stems from the fact that the GOP has done a poor job of electing black Republicans. Between 1994 and 2000, record numbers of black Republicans received their party’s nomination to vie for their respective congressional seats. But those numbers have plummeted ever since, from a high of 24 nominees in 1994, to an all time low of nine in 2008.

However, it is these black GOP nominees’ success rate that is telling when it comes to GOP views about black leadership. During these record years, only one candidate – J.C. Watts – was elected. How can a party say it is serious about recruiting blacks when it can’t even manage to consistently elect blacks to Congress?

How can one say there are no locks on the party doors when the majority of the party’s voting base – whites – have so seldom pushed to elect black representatives?

But what about Tim Scott of South Carolina and Allen West of Florida, the two black Republicans elected to Congress last year – and the only two GOP blacks in Congress? Aren’t they signs that the GOP is stemming the tide of black Republicans’ electoral failures? No.

Past evidence suggests their elections are anomalous. Beyond this, these two Republicans’ approach to black outreach has exposed a conundrum of conflicting outlooks on race.

On the one hand, Congressman West proclaims his mission is to “lead blacks off the Democratic Party plantation,” while Rep. Scott says his blackness is, essentially, incidental. Scott’s colorblind stance is more fitting with the Republican Party line.

But herein lies the rub. If so-called colorblindness is to rule the day, then why bother trying to specifically recruit blacks to the party? Yet, if the GOP is to grow its ranks of black constituents, then it seems West’s position (like that of Cain who spoke of trying to draw a third of the black vote) is more pragmatic. That is, black exemplars must show other blacks the way to the GOP promised land.

However, West, Cain, and many others have never demonstrated what specifically the GOP could and would do for blacks to make their lives better.

The National Black Republican Association website is instructive here. Its pages are filled with historical facts about how Lincoln saved blacks from slavery, how Democrats invented Jim Crow, how famous figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. were supposedly Republican, spinning tales about the Democratic party’s racism today and – most of all – bashing President Obama for everything negative going on in the United States and the black community.

What you don’t see however – and what I have never seen from any black Republican – is a set of detailed and defined policy proposals that would specifically address problems within the black community.

Why doesn’t such a GOP agenda for black America exist? Because this would lead Republicans down the road of identity politics – helping a specific social or racial group with government aid or intervention. It is a path anathema to the party’s tradition, but necessary if the GOP relationship with black America is to ever change.

To take a first step in the right direction, Republicans should take a play from one of their former stars, Congressman Watts. For example, Watts teamed up with a fellow GOP congressman to push “enterprise zones” as a way to strengthen investment in poor, primarily black communities. Now, I believe such a policy was and remains inadequate. But it was at least a proactive step.

If the GOP is going to move forward and provide a credible alternative for black Americans, it must be willing to look at the conditions of blacks and not simply say, things are this way because of years of Democratic rule – this has been the norm.

So while some lament and others ruminate on another prominent black Republican’s exit from the GOP field of players, the Republican Party must take a moment to reassess. The test will be whether the GOP can become progressive enough to adjust its view of how conservative policies can address racial problems.

Charlton McIlwain, an associate professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University, is the co-author, with Stephen M. Caliendo, of “Race Appeal: How Candidates Invoke Race in US Elections.”

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