Instead of recalling President Lincoln as a Republican leader during his recent address at Howard University, Senator Rand Paul could have used the occasion of the release of the new movie “42” to pay tribute to Jackie Robinson, the first African-American professional baseball player in the modern MLB, as well as to Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers manager who signed him.
I won’t review the film or try to discuss its very conservative message since I am quite confident columnist and baseball historian George Will will do that sooner or later. Suffice to say it would have made the late Jack Kemp, the Republican leader who launched the most serious outreach program to black voters, shed more than a few tears.
But that Robinson, a long-time Republican, a patriot with a strong “faith in hard work, free enterprise and economic independence,” and Rickey, “a ferocious Christian gentleman,” might find it difficult to choose the GOP as their political home today explains a lot about the Republicans’ “problem” with black voters.
I have no doubt that the majority of the young audience at Howard recognize that the free-market has been a driving force behind the huge achievements African-Americans have made in many fields, including sports and entertainment, and want to make it in the private sector themselves. They are probably also interested in learning about innovative ideas in dealing with poverty in inner cities. They are aware of the failed drug war, which results in a large population of African-Americans spending their productive lives in jail, and of the fact that blacks are the main target of the current policy of government-sanctioned killing known as “capital punishment.”
It’s also not a secret that many black voters share elements of the Republican conservative cultural agenda, including on the same-sex-marriage issue.
The main reason for the antipathy of so many black voters toward the GOP is not a result of their supposed dependency on Democratic-backed social welfare programs—which actually benefit many white residents in ultra-red states like West Virginia and Mississippi and white retirees who vote Republican. Instead, it’s an outcome of the GOP’s own post-1964 electoral strategy.
The fact is that the GOP embraced its Southern Strategy in the 1960s to win over white voters in the South who felt betrayed by the civil-rights and desegregation policies that were advanced Democratic presidents (and supported by many Republican lawmakers). It’s not really difficult to figure out why so many black voters lost that loving feeling toward Lincoln’s party after the GOP allied itself with the anti-civil-rights wing of the Democratic Party in the South, a bloc that switched sides and become a dominant force in the GOP, if not its public face.
And yes, I know: the Tea Party is not racist and even includes a few African-Americans. And being opposed to the policies of the first black president doesn’t turn one into a racist.
But unless you were in a coma over the last five years, you probably noticed the racism-tinged innuendos and vibes about Obama—born in Kenya? Muslim? un-American?—emanating with much hostility from conservative pundits and Republican activists. That’s why it would not be a surprise if Robinson or Rickey, were they still alive, weren’t attracted to a political movement that has become the closest thing to a regional white Southern party. (Robinson was alarmed enough at the prospect of Barry Goldwater as the party’s nominee: “If we have a bigot running for the presidency of the United States,” he warned, “it will set back the course of the country.”)
Some conservatives and Republicans might point out that Robinson and Rickey broke the color barrier in one segment of American society without relying on the power of the federal government, through the pressure of public opinion and the free market. Couldn’t we have gotten rid of segregation in the South in the 1960s in same way, and without congressional legislation and presidential leadership?
I personally doubt that. But I’ll leave you with this thought: if Republicans and conservative continue answering with a “Yes!” to the last question, they will continue to have the same problem with most black voters.
Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.