Our guest blogger today is Leah M. Wright-Rigueur, assistant professor of History and African American Studies at Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT. She is currently finishing a book, The Loneliness of the Black Conservative: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power, which documents Black conservatives’ attempts to work within a Republican Party structure that increasingly invested in its relationship with white voters after World War II.
Last week, Senator Rand Paul visited Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, D.C. Pundits and journalists across the media spectrum lampooned and critiqued Paul’s visit as a silly effort given the history of African Americans and the Republican Party.
Most people assume that the relationship between black voters and the Republican Party is a hostile one. To some extent, that’s correct – black voters haven’t supported the GOP en masse since the 1960 presidential election – and even then, Richard Nixon only received about 30 percent of the black vote. Couple that with outspoken Republican programs and policies that are downright hostile to black issues of concern and you’ve got the makings of a long-standing antagonistic and tense relationship.
But the past few decades have witnessed the rise of a number of high-profile black Republicans, of varying ideological backgrounds – from Condoleezza Rice to Michael Steele to Allen West. Additionally, many within the Republican Party have started to realize they cannot continue to win major elections without the assistance of minority voters. This trend certainly precedes Rand Paul – modern American history is marked with scattered Republican attempts to woo black voters into the so-called “Party of Lincoln.” In 1978, for example, RNC head Bill Brock and the Rev. Jesse Jackson promised GOP members an “influx” of black voters in the next presidential election. During that same year, Rand Paul’s own father – Ron Paul – even put in a request to have African American Republican strategists campaign for him in Texas during the ’78 midterm elections.
Unfortunately, Rand Paul’s approach at Howard University echoed that of his father, whose request was denied for being too far to the right to offer the type of sensitivity black voters wanted.
Paul, who is considering a presidential run in 2016, and the Republican Party in general are right to campaign in black communities. Since the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a number of black leaders, of all political persuasions, have expressed interest in a theory of two-party competition – lest one party take black votes for granted while the other neglects their vote. Moreover, it even makes strategic sense for Republicans to begin with historically black colleges and universities, which often have slightly higher concentrations of black Republicans compared to predominately white universities. Republicans also have long looked to HBCUs as a means of creating some kind of dialogue; in 1980, for instance, television journalist Tony Brown worked with the GOP to sponsor “Support Black Colleges Day.”
But for Paul to receive a positive response, he would need to re-package his message and approach, and take black voters much more seriously. Paul and other Republicans would need to make campaigning in black communities a priority – while Republicans have long toyed with the idea of recruiting black voters, the data shows us that they rarely put any organized or serious financial effort into actual outreach and mobilization. Republicans would also need to start their campaign at a much smaller HBCU – one located in the South. Research shows us that young black southern men, ages 18 – 34, are far more likely to join the Republican Party than black people of any other demographic. But most importantly, the data also tells us that black voters are savvy – they will support politicians that speak positively to their issues and concerns, while acknowledging their history. While voting trends clearly have run in favor of Democratic politicians, black voters have shown a willingness to vote for Republican candidates on a local level.
In 1977, for example, white southern GOP candidates assisted by a black Republican consulting firm received on average upwards of 45 percent of the black vote; more recently black voters have indicated that they would be highly inclined to support a Republican figure like Colin Powell, if he were to run for politics. But these examples share a defining characteristic – the willingness of a Republican to speak publicly and positively and offer viable solutions to issues of concern to black voters.
By virtue of his hard-line position on a number of issues, and his revisionist history of the relationship among the modern GOP, blacks and civil rights, Paul practically guaranteed an unreceptive audience at Howard. If he plans on speaking to similar college audiences in the future, Paul needs to re-tool his message and advance policy solutions that speak to the needs of black voters. This mission is not impossible – one only has to look to the legacy of the speaker whose name Paul bungled during his speech – Edward Brooke (a Howard alumnus, no less). The Massachusetts senator’s brand of Republicanism did far more for attracting people to the Republican Party because it found ways to reconcile traditional conservatism with the needs and wants of all Americans – including black voters. While in the senate, Brooke moved comfortably between traditional conservatism and “social justice” legislation, supporting affirmative action, endorsing free market enterprise, and defending public-private partnerships. His most important legacy in this regard was the Fair Housing Act, or Title VIII of the 1968 Civil Rights Act.
Additionally, Rand Paul can use future outreach opportunities to distance himself from his father’s history of insensitive racial rhetoric and behavior, while acknowledging his own missteps when speaking about the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He and other Republicans should review the data on issues of concern to black voters, and offer much more nuance when discussing highly controversial and sensitive topics, like school choice or federal assistance.
Above all else, Republicans need to listen to black voters and take stock of what they are saying. Paul could find common ground with black voters on a number of important issues: creative and viable economic solutions for underemployment and unemployment; reduction in defensive military spending; or even reformation of the nation’s unnecessarily harsh drug laws. The last area may of particular interest to young black men – Paul’s hypothetical target demographic – as they are disproportionally affected by such policies.
Republicans are right to reach out to black voters and communities; however token meetings and meaningless public relations appearances are not enough – they only reinforce what is already a tense relationship. Instead, Republicans need to find real policy solutions that reconcile modern conservatism with the needs and wants of black voters. Only then will the GOP begin to make inroads with black voters.