Some political relationships end amicably, others wind up like that depicted in the movie “War of the Roses,” an outright slugfest in which both parties die; emotionally at least. In the case of the Republican Party and African-Americans, the break-up has been a nearly 50 year journey that finally seems nearing finality. There were early indications of Black dissatisfaction with the party of Lincoln, dating back to the appeal of FDR in 1936 and the fascination with John Kennedy in 1960. Still, in the 1960 presidential election Republican Richard Nixon garnered over a quarter of the African-American vote. Kennedy was certainly no sure thing but his chances were helped greatly when he placed a call to a distressed Coretta Scott King to inquire on the welfare of her jailed husband, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The call put King in the camp of the young Massachusetts senator despite the elder King, like many southern Blacks of his era, identifying as a Republican.
Things got testy in 1964 when the Republican Party made a dramatic turn to the right at their presidential nominating convention in San Francisco. While the Democrats were purging southern conservatives, or Dixiecrats, from their ranks, the GOP was welcoming the opposition’s outcasts with the embrace of Barry Goldwater as its nominee. It was also the year that Californian Ronald Reagan made the switch to the Republican Party, setting in motion his eventual candidacy in 1980. For Blacks, many still grieving over the assassination of President John Kennedy just months earlier, it was an irreparable breach and the final straw. President Lyndon Johnson had endeared himself to white liberals and Blacks by vowing to push the late president’s civil rights plank.
Though Goldwater was trounced by LBJ in the fall of 1964, the stage had been set for a historic realignment of political support; with southern whites joining forces with the emerging conservative wing of the GOP and the party’s base dipping south and west. Further alienating African-Americans four years later was the Republican nominee Richard Nixon’s deployment of a “southern strategy” that played upon the fears and resentment of whites, and benignly pushed a “law and order” platform. It was a successful strategy that drove a wedge between working class whites, driven by paranoia over the riots in cities across the country, and the Democratic Party, increasingly viewed as the apologist for antisocial behavior. The estrangement of Blacks from the GOP persisted despite Republicans sending the first African-American, Ed Brooke of Massachusetts, to the Senate since Reconstruction.
By the time Ronald Reagan spoke of a new “Morning in America,” there was little left by way of a real relationship between Black voters and the Republican Party. Though the GOP cleverly advanced several African-Americans as the new face of Black Republicanism, namely Samuel Pierce, Thaddeus Garrett, Clarence Thomas and Clarence Pendleton, there was little trust of the GOP by many Blacks. In fact, Reagan became a symbol of what African-Americans perceived as a new racism. Soon, battles over the extension of the Voting Rights Act, the King National Holiday and federal court nominees permanently severed the last vestiges of the historic Lincoln seeded connection Blacks had with the GOP. The emergence of other party personalities such as Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice and J.C. Watt in the late 1980’s and 1990’s did little to repair the relationship.
The tone of Monday night’s Republican debate in South Carolina then comes as little surprise when considered against the poisonous recent history between Blacks and the party. What does come as a surprise is the lack of effort the Republican Party has made in taming its most extreme voices, and the disregard for the reality of the nation’s new demographics. Even if the party was intent on throwing the Black vote under the bus, it has done nothing but caused self-inflicted wounds upon its outreach to Latino voters. Republicans have repeatedly painted Spanish speaking immigrants as criminals and pursued a voter suppression strategy that undoubtedly will come down hard on Latino voters. With the growing number of Latino voters and the alignment of Blacks with the Democratic Party, the bleaching of the GOP is a recipe for disaster in the near and far term for Republicans. Throw in the heavy hand of the Tea Party and its insistence that federal spending be slashed, affecting many programs that aid the Hispanic community, and it becomes clear that there is an element in the Republican Party, intentional or not, that is effectively engaging in ethnic cleansing. So much so that the GOP is transforming into a White Party with an agenda that makes it clear that Blacks and Latinos are to be excluded.
There appears to be little chance that recent voting behavior of Black voters will change in the foreseeable future, or that the Republican Party will suddenly have an epiphany. The present GOP field consists of candidates with very little contact or real history with African-Americans, with the exception being the now deposed Herman Cain, who ironically, invested more time in appealing to conservative voters than trying to build a rapport with Black voters. The remaining White House hopefuls have all showed a remarkable tendency to insult and demonize Black people, while engaging in the worse type of stereotyping and employing demeaning rhetoric. By doing so, the Republican Party is on the verge of inciting a long period of racial animosity that has the potential to encourage zealots and unbalanced elements of the far right to act upon their racial paranoia. Already there have been incidents in which mosques and synagogues have been defaced, people attacked due to their sexual orientation, and Blacks again the focus of suspicion and subjected to harassment. Aiding this “whites only” strategy is a lineup of enablers on conservative media outlets such as the Fox News Channel.
With Blacks politically identifying as Democrats, and culturally aligned with President Obama, and Latinos increasingly frustrated with the GOP; the only recourse for the Republican Party is to ride the wave of white resentment and run a determinately racist presidential campaign. Voters can expect to see attacks on President Obama over government programs to assist the poor, the new health care law, and accusations that tax policy is hindering job growth. The GOP will package its attack in patriotic wrapping and insist there is no racist intent in its strategy by claiming that their platform is aimed solely at expanding opportunity. And sure enough, it will find a few Black faces to appear in campaign commercials to create the appearance and make the claim that Black leadership is out of sync with the masses of African-Americans that support the GOP agenda, if not actively , intuitively. One unknown is how the migration of Blacks to southern states will impact a region that has become a Republic stronghold. What remains unanswered is whether that strategy will boost white votes, if voter suppression tactics will limit Black and Latino votes, and whether Democrats can hold onto white independent voters.