The party on the brink of destroying the Voting Rights Act reminds us that Republicans were really the great civil-rights leaders all along.
By Frank Rich, originally published in New York Magazine
When you start talking about race and the Republican Party, Republicans tend to say the following things. First, they tell you that most Republicans are not bigots (true) and that Democrats can be bigots, too (also true). Then you’re reminded that during the decades when southern segregationists made their home in the Democratic Party, Republicans were instrumental in founding the NAACP, in 1909; a Republican chief justice (Earl Warren) presided over Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954; a Republican president (Eisenhower) called in troops to desegregate Little Rock’s schools, in 1957; and another Republican president (Nixon) created the first federal affirmative-action program with teeth. (All true.)
Then you ask, what about today? You’re told that Newt Gingrich calling Barack Obama “the food-stamp president” and Sarah Palin’s invocation of “shuck and jive ” were just ephemeral campaign-season gaffes from sideshow clowns soon to get the hook. Rush Limbaugh’s perennial race-baiting? Yesterday’s news. Mitt Romney’s alliance with the off-the-rails birther Donald Trump? Just clueless Mitt being Mitt. Those sightings of racist placards at tea-party rallies? Cherry-picked, planted, or invented by the liberal media. And besides, the Democrats have their own history of race-baiting ranters—queue up the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s greatest hits on YouTube.
The only fact that can’t be easily batted away by defensive Republicans is that actual black Americans almost never vote for Republicans in a national election. What’s up with that? Why have they been so ungrateful for the good works of Warren and Ike, year after year? Today the answer to that question matters more than ever. In the Obama era, the spike in GOP efforts to pursue policies punitive to minorities is unmistakable. State and local governments in every region have been in a race to enact restrictive new voting laws. Congressional Republicans are adamant in preserving the sequestration cuts for Head Start, Job Corps, and unemployment insurance, even as they carve out a self-serving exception for air-traffic control. Next month, a conservative-dominated Supreme Court is poised to eviscerate a crown jewel of civil-rights law, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, at a time when, if anything, it should be expanded to address the growing obstacles to voting in ever more jurisdictions: long lines, the mischievous purging of voting rolls, and new registration requirements redolent of the Jim Crow South.
Paradoxically, this is all happening as the GOP makes a big postelection show of trying to jettison its image as an all-white party hostile to almost every minority group in the nation. The GOP chairman, Reince Priebus, announced a $10 million outreach plan to minorities. Congressional leaders, gobsmacked by the discovery that Hispanics were more inclined to vote Democratic than to “self-deport,” have manacled themselves to Marco Rubio and started slouching toward immigration reform. A smattering of Republican senators and Fox News personalities has even joined the Democratic stampede to “evolve” on same-sex marriage. And African-Americans? Well, that’s now, as always, where it gets truly embarrassing.
Romney may have received a paltry 27 percent of the Latino vote, but that was an incipient landslide next to his 6 percent of the black vote. Six percent is the exact percentage of blacks who voted for the GOP in the 1964 presidential election, when its standard-bearer, Barry Goldwater, kick-started the metamorphosis of the Party of Lincoln into the Party of Strom Thurmond by defying most of his own Republican senatorial colleagues to oppose that year’s landmark Civil Rights Act. You’d think the persistence of the GOP’s near-total estrangement from black America almost a half-century later would merit the most drastic corrective action in its new outreach effort. But you would be wrong. The party still believes it can spin its racial history and, when required, literally and figuratively whitewash it.
For the moment, the GOP is recycling its time-honored, if increasingly threadbare, publicity stunts to address the problem. As part of a postelection “listening” tour, damned if Priebus didn’t listen to twenty—count ’em, twenty—bona fide African-Americans at a megachurch in East Brooklyn in March. He has hired not one but two blacks to staff the Republican National Committee’s minority-outreach program: the 24-year-old son of the Fox News commentator Juan Williams and a suburban-Washington real-estate agent whose brief career as a legislative assistant on the Hill ended in 2002. The party has also recruited a new telegenic black conservative with no record of public service, the Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Benjamin Carson, to take on the Alan Keyes–Herman Cain role of delivering incendiary sound bites (inevitably describing the Democratic Party as a “plantation”) while pretending to be a plausible presidential candidate.