Blacks and Republicans

OF the many remarks made about Louis Farrakhan and the Million Man March, some of the most distressing are those painting the Republican Party as the enemy of blacks in America.

It's also ironic. Much of Minister Farrakhan's clean-your-own-house-and-pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps message is close to Republican core beliefs. Farrakhan's call for personal morality, repudiation of drug abuse, and attacks on exploitative entertainment are not far from the positions of the Christian Right.

The disdain many blacks and Republicans have for each other is one of the strangest turnabouts in history. It was the Republican Party - at the time a new political group that had no stake in preserving the status quo - that ended slavery in this country. It was the Republican Party that first gave blacks the vote; Reconstruction-era black politicians, of whom there were a great many in the South, were Republicans.

But in the decades following the Civil War, even Republican abolitionism was unable to stem the riptide of white racism that allowed Southern states, with the blessings of the United States Supreme Court, to repeal blacks' hard-won rights, in fact and often in law.

Switching parties

Those few blacks who could and did vote between Reconstruction and the Depression continued to vote Republican. But as blacks began to benefit directly from Franklin Roosevelt's economic programs, they began to switch to the Democratic Party. In 1934, African-Americans in Chicago replaced their black Republican congressman with a black Democrat. By 1936, three-quarters of black voters nationwide had moved to the Democratic Party, where they remain as an integral part of its coalition.

African-Americans who had suffered from racist state governments naturally turned to Washington, which belatedly began to enforce the rights 19th-century Republicans had enshrined in the Constitution for all Americans. They turned to the federal government for economic assistance in the face of a free-market system from which racism had excluded them.

Republicans opposed increasing the economic and social power of Washington, (usually) not because they were racists, but because their visions of federalism and economic self-sufficiency were at variance with the liberal Democrats' approach. Thus they sometimes made seriously mistaken decisions, as when the congressional GOP opposed the Voting Rights Act in the early 1960s. And too many rank-and-file Republicans have disdained black aspirations - and sometimes just plain disdained blacks.

Common interests

Thus the gulf between two groups that have much in common has been cemented. Blacks, often the first victims of crime, are deeply concerned about law and order and the drug problem. Until recently those have been almost exclusively Republican issues. Blacks want the same economic opportunity they have seen immigrant group after immigrant group use to climb past them on the social ladder. That has been a Republican outlook. Blacks are worried about the breakdown of the family and morality in our society (and are more religious than whites). That's been a Republican issue.

Despite this congruence, the GOP has done little to reach out to blacks. Those who have tried to do so, such as former Rep. Jack Kemp, have often been relegated to the sidelines as gadflies. Instead of casting itself as the party of racial moderation in the South, as President Eisenhower wanted, the GOP has built its newfound power there as the party of whites.

The saddest part of this saga is that blacks may have hurt their cause by putting all their eggs in one basket. Democrats, it could be argued, need not overly cater to blacks, since they aren't going to vote for anyone else. Other ethnic and religious minorities have found their power enhanced when the two parties vied for their favor. You won't find the GOP disdaining Jewish or Irish Catholic voters; both were once solidly in the Democratic camp. Republican officeholders come running when Cuban-Americans in Florida or Mexican-Americans in Texas are upset.

Republican precinct-delegate slots in urban and minority areas more often than not go unfilled. Nothing is keeping black voters from electing blacks to these entry-level posts, from which they can immediately affect the Republican Party at the county level, and from there on up. That's how the Christian right and other groups gained their influence. Blacks, both parties, and America would be better off if more blacks did the same.

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