Republicans are fond of emphasizing that the party was founded by Lincoln, who freed the slaves. But the GOP’s role in the history of civil rights is even richer than the Great Emancipator. If Republicans can remember this legacy, perhaps there is some hope that the party might again attract the black voters who have felt unwelcome in its ranks for decades.

It’s also worth recalling that, until recently, the history of the Democratic Party was overwhelmingly pro-slavery and pro-segregation. Lincoln’s successor, Democrat Andrew Johnson, vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and strongly resisted the passage of the 14th Amendment, which ensured equal rights and protections under the law, and was championed by Republicans. The subsequent Republican administration of Ulysses S. Grant implemented the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871, which helped dismantle the KKK and protect black voting rights. This was followed by the Civil Rights Act of 1875.

In contrast, the next Democratic president, Grover Cleveland, was returned to office in 1892 by campaigning against the Republican-sponsored Federal Elections Bill of 1890, which would have strengthened Grant’s civil rights legislation. Not only did Cleveland successfully kill that bill, he helped launch a movement to repeal and undermine civil rights legislation across the country.

Over two decades later, Democrat Woodrow Wilson declared that segregation was “not a humiliation, but a benefit.” When a Racial Equality Proposal was overwhelmingly approved by the League of Nations in 1919, Wilson single-handedly killed the legislation in order to protect American segregation. This was a pivotal act, which helped push the Japanese (who had proposed the equality clause) out of the international community formed after World War I and contributed to causing World War II.

While FDR’s New Deal coalition advocated a number of policies which were positive for African Americans, particularly the establishment of the Fair Employment Practice Committee, his administration’s record on racial equality was mixed at best: he appointed J. Edgar Hoover, who would abuse his position as FBI director to intimidate and otherwise undermine civil rights activists throughout his decades-long tenure. He actively supported the internment of Japanese Americans. And while FDR pushed for integration in government contracting jobs, his coalition was heavily dependent on rural white southerners, so he said little about ending segregation altogether. In fact, black agricultural and domestic workers (the majority of black laborers) were explicitly excluded from receiving benefits from the Social Security Act, the Wagner Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act. This whites-only welfare system, in turn, exacerbated socioeconomic inequality over generations.

While Democratic President Harry Truman passed executive orders to eliminate segregation among federal employees, he faced a revolt from his Democratic colleagues and his electoral base as a result—and was largely unable to actually realize his edicts. It would be his successor, Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who oversaw the implementation and enforcement of these provisions. Eisenhower would also champion the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960—the only major civil rights legislation passed through the Congress since Republican President Grant. In the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court rulings desegregating schools, Eisenhower federalized units of the National Guard in order to protect black students.

In contrast, President Kennedy’s advocacy for civil rights was lackluster and inconsistent due to concerns about alienating his party’s base. The first real moral leader for the Democratic Party on civil rights was Lyndon Johnson, whose administration oversaw the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1968, along with 1965’s Voting Rights and Immigration and Nationality Acts, and the 1967 appointment of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court. Of course, all of these efforts were staunchly opposed by the Democratic coalition headed up by Alabama governor George Wallace, and only passed as a result of coalitions LBJ built with Republican legislators.  

Unfortunately, in the aftermath of these civil rights breakthroughs, Republicans Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan would play to fears about the movement and the social unrest of the 1960s in order to consolidate support for the right among poor, blue-collar, and rural white Americans, particularly in the former Democratic stronghold of the south. But they faced stiff opposition from the Republican coalition of Michigan governor George Romney, who relentlessly and confrontationally championed affirmative action, fair housing, and civil rights—arguing that the so-called “Southern strategy” was a cynical betrayal of conservative ideals and the Republican tradition.

We are constantly reminded that Reagan’s “War on Drugs” helped institute the mass incarceration state, by imposing harsh sentences for non-violent offenders. But Reagan’s initiatives largely built upon a series of Democratic “law and order” policies (see Naomi Murakawa’s The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America). Later, Bill Clinton’s “tough on crime” laws were just as destructive as Reagan’s. Similarly, while Republicans are often (rightfully) accused of gerrymandering districts to dilute or marginalize black voters, for most of the country’s history it was the Democratic Party who pioneered these tactics. And of late, the Democrats have increasingly come to take the black vote for granted and once again champion gerrymandering in order to create safe districts of minority voters. The result of these bipartisan efforts is a situation in which black voters wield disproportionate influence in a small number of districts, and virtually no influence in most others.

The Elephant in the Room

Today up to 95 percent of African-American voters are aligned with the Democratic Party, and the GOP has largely abandoned its legacy of civil rights activism.

It’s tough to assert being the party of Lincoln while some Republican legislators court Neo-Confederates and other ethnic nationalist movements. They further distance themselves by advocating for voter ID laws, which disenfranchise primarily low-income and legal minority voters. (There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud by illegal or ineligible voters, let alone a single example of when such voting has actually turned an election).

It is similarly difficult for Republicans to trumpet their role in passing Civil Rights Acts while the Republican National Committee is spearheading efforts to dismantle affirmative action (Former GOP chairman Michael Steele struck a good balance on this). And perhaps most importantly, the conservative emphasis on personal responsibility sounds disingenuous to many blacks when Republicans refuse to acknowledge the profound and continuing effects of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation—let alone the persistence of overt racism, institutional and systemic discrimination, and unconscious racial bias.

There is an assumption that these issues do not need to be addressed head-on because a strong economy will raise up all Americans. Hence Republicans focus on fiscal matters over social justice. But if a particular social arrangement fundamentally privileges one group or marginalizes others, then economic growth tends to exacerbate disparities between groups rather than “lifting all boats.” Or put another way, a system has to be fair before it can be color blind.

Black families have, on average, 5 percent of the wealth of their white counterparts. African Americans have limited access to the credit used to acquire property or start a business—and they have been largely excluded from social networks that enhance mobility. Meanwhile, whites receive 76 percent of all merit-based scholarships and grant funding. There have been myriad studies demonstrating that, regardless of their credentials, people with “ethnic” names are far less likely to get accepted into schools or called for job interviews. And even when hired, women and people of color are not promoted as often or as quickly as their white male counterparts—helping to explain why blacks earn only 60 cents for every dollar that white people earn in salary and wages.

Addressing these challenges will require both blacks and whites to own up to the roles they have played, and continue to play, in perpetuating these unfortunate dynamics.

Diversity v. Tokenism

During virtually every election cycle, the RNC goes out of its way to elevate some black candidate onto the national stage. But diversity isn’t about seeing an African American advocating the exact same positions as their white counterparts. Instead, with often dramatically different life experiences, one would expect substantive differences in how black candidates view and approach policy problems. Yet most of the black voices elevated by the Republican Party reflect little of this more meaningful diversity—and to make matters worse, they aren’t strong candidates to begin with.

Consider some recent black Republican presidential candidates. While Herman Cain and Ben Carson are examples of great personal success in the face of adversity, they are painfully ill-informed on matters related to foreign policy, seem to lack a good grasp of many domestic issues, and have virtually no experience in government (although this latter characteristic is supposed to be part of their charm).

In 2008, Alan Keyes jumped on the “birther” bandwagon and refused to acknowledge President Obama’s election as legitimate, in the process providing cover for what most black Americans viewed as a ridiculous and racially-motivated witch-hunt. He would go on to warn that under Obama “we shall all become slaves on the government’s plantation.”

Cain described the American tax code as “the twenty-first century version of slavery,” despite the fact that people are still enslaved in many parts of the world. Carson has similarly referred to the Affordable Care Act as “slavery.” Meanwhile, Keyes, Cain and Carson all consistently downplay the significance of historical disadvantages or institutionalized racism. Cain and Carson have both insisted that it isn’t appropriate for the White House or presidential candidates to comment on the controversy surrounding the Confederate flag flying above some government buildings.

Perhaps the only serious black candidate for president suggested by Republicans has been Colin Powell. And he has consistently refused to run.

Alienating Black Conservatives

Conservative values are deeply entrenched in black communities. The church is a cornerstone of black culture. As is entrepreneurship: African Americans are not looking for government handouts, nor are many demanding wealth redistribution as a corrective for historical disenfranchisement (despite Ta-Nehisi Coates’ powerful case for reparations). What we want is a fair playing field, opportunity for social mobility, and a social safety net that prevents people from sinking into total despondency.

Black people, perhaps more than others, have a healthy distrust of the Man: slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, the current disparities in the criminal justice system and other aspects of institutionalized racism have been sponsored and enforced by the government—at the federal, state and local levels, by Republicans and Democrats, across the nation and throughout its history.  

As a result of this experience, many black Americans chafe at paternalistic, top-down policies—to include bureaucratic solutions to problems like crime and poverty—instead preferring approaches that empower individuals and communities to address endemic challenges. Thus Republicans would seem to be a natural ally, but they have often been among the staunchest advocates for micromanaging the poor.

Most recipients of government aid are working, often full-time, typically while raising families under extremely difficult circumstances. Most utilize programs such as food stamps for a limited period of time, and are eager to reduce or eliminate their reliance on the government. This resilience and determination should not only be supported by Republicans, it should be celebrated.

And yet, rather than enabling those in need by giving them greater flexibility to determine how to invest aid, Republicans tend to advocate draconian restrictions on the type of assistance provided, along with invasive and unnecessary verification processes. These proposals are often punctuated with condescending rhetoric. For example, policies mandating drug testing as a condition of aid are pushed without any evidence of widespread abuse among aid recipients.

The optics on this are not good. When Republicans emphasize social trust, personal freedom and autonomy, except when it comes to the poor, they imply that the disadvantaged are in some sense not worthy of equal dignity or respect. While this discrimination is essentially class based, many blacks view these policies as racist.

If “big government” is the approach offered by Democrats, consider that Republican efforts are largely aimed at eliminating aid programs, or at the very least, rendering them less generous and the application process more burdensome. Worse, the typical Republican “solution” to poverty entails not just dramatic cuts in benefits to the poor, but raising their taxes as well (“broadening the base”), while lowering the rate for the wealthy and corporations—all under the ahistorical and empirically falsified notion that this fortune will eventually “trickle down” of its own accord.

Neither of these approaches hold much promise for the disadvantaged to actually escape poverty, but at least the Democrats promise to partially alleviate (even at the cost of perpetuating) their suffering. This leaves them as the least-worst option: while most blacks may doubt Hillary Clinton will dramatically improve their lives, they feel certain that the likes of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, or Mike Huckabee will make things worse.

While many black voters are temperamentally conservative, they cannot envision a place for themselves in today’s GOP. But by embracing and building on their legacy of social justice advocacy, Republicans can become competitive among blacks and other minority voters, whose alliance with the Democratic Party was, and likely remains, more de facto than ideological.

Yet ultimately, defending civil rights is about much more than just winning elections—it is a moral calling built into the DNA of the GOP. By neglecting this mandate, white conservatives are not just failing minority constituents, they are betraying their own identity.

Musa al-Gharbi is a cognitive sociologist affiliated with the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts (SISMEC). Readers can connect to his work and social media via his website.