It is often remarked that the Republican Party was founded by Lincoln, who oversaw the defeat of the Confederacy, the emancipation of slaves, and laid the foundation for the civil rights movement. But the Republican history of civil rights is much richer than this. Conversely, the history of the Democratic Party has been 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, championed by Republicans). The subsequent Republican Administration of Ulysses S. Grant saw the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 71 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, won re-election 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.
His eventual successor, Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, declared that “segregation was not a humiliation, but a benefit.” Commensurate with this thinking, when the Racial Equality Proposal was overwhelmingly approved by the League of Nations in 1919, Wilson single-handedly killed the legislation in order to protect America’s own apartheid system (and Britain’s). This was one of the pivotal acts which helped push the Japanese out of the post-WWI international community, precipitating the Second World War.
While FDR’s “New Deal Coalition” advocated a number of policies which were positive for African Americans, particularly through the establishment of the Fair Employment Practice Committee, his administration’s record on racial equality was mixed at best: he appointed J. Edgar Hoover to direct the FBI—who would abuse his position to surveille, 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, because his coalition was heavily dependent on rural white southerners, he said little about ending America’s apartheid system altogether. In fact, black agriculture and domestic workers (i.e. the majority of black workers) 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 rulings, Eisenhower federalized units of the National Guard in order to help force integration of schools and 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 would be LBJ, whose administration would oversee the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 68, 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 stanchly opposed by the Democratic coalition headed up by George Wallace, and only passed as a result of coalitions the Johnson Administration built with Republican legislators.
Unfortunately, in the aftermath of these moves by LBJ’s Administration, Republicans Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan would play to fears about the civil rights movement and the social unrest of the 60’s in order to consolidate support for the right among lower-income, 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 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.
It is often emphasized how Reagan’s “War on Drugs” helped institute the mass incarceration state. Less known is that 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). Or that 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, left out of the discussion is that for most of the country’s history it was the Democratic Party who pioneered these tactics. And of late, as the Democrats have increasingly come to take the minority vote for granted rather than seeing it as a threat, they have come to champion gerrymandering once again in order to concentrate the minority vote to create “safe districts.” The result of these bi-partisan efforts is a situation in which minority voters wield disproportionate influence in a small number of districts, and virtually no influence in most others.
The Elephant in the Room
Given this history, it seems almost incomprehensible that up to 95% of today’s African American voters are aligned with the Democratic Party (see Leah Wright-Rigueur’s The Loneliness of the Black Republican). But then again, the GOP has largely abandoned its own proud legacy of civil rights activism:
It’s tough to assert being the party of Lincoln while many Republican legislators court Neo-Confederates and other ethnic nationalist and separatist popular movements. Conservatives can hardly sell their historical championing of voting rights legislation while advocating for voter ID laws—which disenfranchise primarily low-income and minority legal voters (especially given that there is, literally, 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 RNC is spearheading efforts to dismantle affirmative action (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 even 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 the Republican focus on fiscal matters over social justice. But in fact, if a particular social arrangement fundamentally privileges one group and/or marginalizes another, then growth tends to entrench or even exacerbate disparities between groups rather than “lifting all boats.” Or put another way, a system has to be fair before it can be “colorblind.” And we are far from that point:
Black families have, on average, 5% of the wealth of their white counterparts. Due to this lack of wealth, African Americans have extremely limited access to credit with which to acquire property or start their own business—and they have been largely excluded from social networks which enhance mobility. Meanwhile, whites receive 76% 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 continue to earn only 60 cents for every dollar that white people earn in terms of 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. However, there is a widespread sentiment among Republican voters that white men are suffering “reverse-discrimination” (despite the aforementioned facts to the contrary)–or that even broaching the topic of racial inequality is, itself, racist.
Diversity v. Tokenism
Nonetheless, 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, as a result of often dramatically different life experiences, one would expect substantive differences in how black candidates may view and approach policy problems, both domestic and international. Most of the black voices elevated by the Republican Party reflect little of this more substantive diversity—and to make matters worse, they aren’t strong candidates to begin with. Consider:
Despite his short resume, Barack Obama effortlessly conveyed statesmanship, could speak on a complete array of issues with depth and complexity. While he excelled at soaring rhetoric, he could just as easily drill down into facts and details. He offered innovative (if overly-ambitious) solutions to longstanding problems. He was excellent at conveying how his unique experience informed his policies and his approach to governing. He didn’t win the nomination, overcoming Hillary Clinton’s formidable political machine—let alone winning the presidency (twice)–simply because he was black. Instead, because he was far more eloquent, savvy and inspirational than his competitors. And Mr. Obama is hardly the only example: former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick or New Jersey Senator Cory Booker are also on the shortlist for future Democratic nominees.
In contrast, while Herman Cain and Ben Carson are examples of great personal success in the face of adversity–they are painfully ill-informed on virtually all matters related to foreign policy, seem to lack a good grasp on many domestic issues, and have virtually no experience in government (although this latter characteristic is supposed to be part of their charm). They don’t stand any realistic chance of actually winning the Republican nomination—and given their lack of qualifications, they shouldn’t.
Of course, it is often valuable to elevate a “dark horse” candidate, for instance, to shine a light on some particular issue of importance, or to influence the formulation of the party platform. However, black Republican presidential candidates typically do little to even change the debate given that they are so concerned with towing the party line, or zealously defending the GOP. In fact, rather than surpassing their white colleagues in terms of their prowess and statesmanship, they seem to go out of their way to exceed them in grotesque race-baiting:
Among Alan Keyes many outlandish positions, he 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 (but it can’t be racist if a black person endorses it, right?). He would go on to warn that under Obama “we shall all become slaves on the government’s plantation.”
Herman Cain described the American tax code as “the 21st century version of slavery,” apparently oblivious to the fact that actual slavery is still a serious problem in virtually every country on the planet (in other words, the 21st century version of slavery is…slavery). Carson has similarly referred to the Affordable Care Act as “the worst thing to happen in this nation since slavery” (Jim Crow? Segregation? The KKK? 9/11? None of these were apparently as bad as a healthcare program which, despite its very real flaws, has quantifiably extended coverage and improved the lives of tens of thousands of Americans).
Meanwhile, Keyes, Cain and Carson consistently downplay the significance of historical disadvantages or institutionalized racism and are highly-critical of the protest movements calling for law enforcement and criminal justice reform. All of this conveys the impression that, rather than reforming the GOP in order to live up to its legacy on civil rights, or otherwise rendering conservativism more diverse, inclusive, or relevant– the primary purpose of these perennial token candidates is to serve as a black mouthpiece for contemporary Republican orthodoxy. Not only is this unappealing to most African American voters, it is outright offensive.
Perhaps the only serious black candidate the Republican Party has ever put forward–who is highly-qualified, and could realistically appeal to people across the country and across the aisle–is Colin Powell. And he has consistently refused to run.
Alienating Black Conservatives
This state of affairs is ironic, not just because Republicans were the champions of civil rights from the time of Lincoln through George Romney, but also because 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 they demanding wealth redistribution as a corrective for historical disenfranchisement (although a powerful case for reparations could be made, see Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent essay in The Atlantic). 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 virtually any other group, 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—from the executive, judicial and legislative branches, at the federal, state and local levels, by Republicans and Democrats alike, 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—preferring instead approaches that meaningfully empower individuals and communities to, themselves, address endemic sociological challenges. Republicans would seem to be a natural ally in this struggle, but instead, they have been among the staunchest advocates for micromanaging the poor.
As a matter of fact, most recipients of government aid are working, often full-time, and typically while raising families under extremely difficult circumstances. Most rely on a handful of programs to address particular pressing problems (for instance SNAP for food insecurity) and claim only a fraction of the assistance they could actually qualify for. Most utilize this aid for a limited period of time, and they are eager to reduce or eliminate their reliance on the government—despite perverse incentive structures which tend to penalize, rather than encourage, progress in getting back on one’s feet. 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 where and how to invest aid monies, Republicans tend to advocate draconian restrictions on the amount and types of assistance provided, along with stringent standards for qualification, and invasive and unnecessary verification processes—all punctuated with condescending moralizing rhetoric.
Consider, for instance, drug testing as a condition for government assistance: the policies are advocated without any evidence indicating widespread drug abuse among recipients of government aid –and the pilot verification programs have only confirmed this lack of proof. Wherever these programs have been instituted, they tend to cost taxpayers far more than they save, despite being justified as a means to cut costs. The working poor, overwhelmingly clean and sober, are the ones whose aid is most often jeopardized by these standards—along with the disabled ad infirm–typically because they are unable to work out the logistics of getting tested (given demanding work schedules, family commitments, and often limited and/or inconsistent transportation options).
The optics on this are not good. For Republicans to emphasize social trust, personal freedom and autonomy (especially in economic affairs) except when it comes to the poor—this carries the implication that the disadvantaged are in some sense not worthy of equal dignity or respect. While this discrimination is essentially class based, it is easy to understand why blacks view many of these policies as racist:
For a host of reasons, African Americans tend to be disproportionately poor, and therefore, disproportionately reliant on government aid programs. As a result, blacks are strongly affected by policies which hollow-out assistance programs. Meanwhile, despite the very real struggles that many white Americans face daily, Caucasians are overrepresented in the upper-echelons of society. So in practice, if not by intent, these class-based policies do disproportionately enhance the position of whites relative to (and often at the expense of) blacks. It doesn’t help that the narratives used to justify these paternalistic interventions often seem eerily reminiscent of the rhetoric used to explain the necessity of Jim Crow, segregation, and even slavery—namely that as a result of their “deficient” culture, a given group is incapable of making the “right” decisions (because they are too lazy, irresponsible, or ignorant) without the stern-but-benevolent guiding hand of their socio-economic “betters.”
To be sure, massive, top-down, bureaucratic social-engineering programs tend to be inefficient and ineffective. In turn, poorly-conceived redistribution of income often exacerbates sociological problems while creating cycles of dependency. But if “big government” is the approach offered up by Democrats, consider the alternative that black voters are faced with:
Republican efforts are largely aimed at eliminating aid programs, or at the very least, rendering them less generous and more burdensome to become or remain eligible for. 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 Trump or Ted Cruz will make things worse.
A Better Way Forward
As a result, while many blacks remain conservative, they cannot envision a place for themselves in today’s GOP. However, by embracing and building on their legacy of social justice advocacy, Republicans can become competitive amongst blacks and other minority voters–whose alliance with the Democratic Party was, and likely remains, more de facto than ideological. But ultimately, 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.