You know the world is a strange place when Fmr. House Speaker Newt Gingrich warns the Republicans that they are looking racist. After all, Gingrich has been guilty of plenty of racial demogoguery in his career. What’s next? Lessons in racial sensitivity from Lee Atwater (who created the infamous Willie Horton ad for George H. W. Bush’s presidential campaign against Michael Dukakis)? Or frmr Sen. George Allen (R-VA) of “Hello, Macaca” infamy? Isn’t having Newt Gingrich warn you about appearing racially insensitive somewhat like Bill Clinton giving seminars on marital fidelity in the face of temptation or Tony Blair speak on how best to demonstrate that Britain isn’t under the U.S. thumb?
This all started, of course, when the top GOP presidential candidates refused to have a “debate” hosted on Univision, the most watched Spanish-language TV channel in the U.S. The event had to be cancelled, although the Democrats had already gone to such an event. Then, after the Democrats appeared at several mostly African-American fora, especially one at the historic Howard University in Washington, D.C., the G.O.P. candidates refused to go to a similar event at Morgan State University (another historic African-American university in Maryland) scheduled for 27 September to be hosted by Tavis Smiley and broadcast on PBS. Democrats have had a much more hectic schedule of appearances than Republicans, yet the latter keep citing “scheduling conflicts” as reasons why they won’t appear before black or Latino audiences.
Even though the Democratic leaders haven’t said anything, Republican bigwigs have begun to worry about the image all this event skipping is causing. Enter the advice by Newt Gingrich:
For Republicans to consistently refuse to engage in front of an African-American or Latino audience is an enormous error. I hope they will reverse their decision and change their schedules. I see no excuse–this thing has been planned for months and these candidates have known about it for months. Any of them who give you that scheduling conflict answer are disengenuous. That’s baloney.
Gingrich added that, “We seem to be stuck in a cycle where Republican politicians are refusing to talk to African-Americans, Latinos, or any minorities. I don’t understand it.”
One-time VP candidate, Jack Kemp, a much more moderate Republican than Gingrich, has also denounced this situation:
We sound like we don’t want [legal] immigration; we sound like we don’t want black people to vote for us. What are we going to do: meet in a country club in the suburbs one day? If we are going to be competitive with people of color, we’ve got to ask them for their vote.”
I’ve got news for Mr. Kemp: These days, most country clubs are far more diverse–and far more aware of the consequences of exclusivity–than the current crop of Republican presidential candidates!
Look, both major political parties have racist histories and periods of history when they have been the party showing the most courage against racism. The Republicans began, of course, as the Party of Lincoln and Radical Republicans pushed through the most far-reaching legislation of the Reconstruction era–giving us that brief period in the late 19th C. when we first had African-Americans in the House and Senate and in courtrooms, gubanatorial mansions, and state legislatures. Later, the Eisenhower administration sent in the National Guard to forcibly integrate the public school in Little Rock, AR. All during the late ’40s and ’50s, the annual Republican National Conventions were far more racially diverse than anything the Democrats had going. I know a few aging moderate to liberal Republicans who remember those days and wonder what has happened to their Party.
Meanwhile, from Reconstruction until the 1960s, the Democratic Party was a coalition of Northern liberals, labor unions and New Dealers with Southern racists known as the “Dixiecrats.” The struggle to expel the Dixiecrats began with Harry S. Truman in 1948–and is what led infamous segregationists like Strom Thurmond and Trent Lott to leave the Democrats and become Republican. The final Democratic break with its racist past came during the Civil Rights era when President Lyndon Baines Johnson (D-TX) championed and then signed both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965–saying privately that he knew he had just lost the South for the Democrats for at least a generation.
Until the mid-1960s most African-Americans who managed to register to vote were Republicans. But this began to change when the GOP embraced Nixon’s “Southern strategy”: in which the GOP would deliberately court the votes of Southern white segregationists (fleeing the Democratic Party) as a path to the White House. It worked. Since then, although the GOP’s real agenda has still been about keeping the rich as wealthy as possible, it has continuously used code words and symbols to attract racists (often cloaking themselves in patriotism or evangelical Christianity)–such as when Ronald Reagan began his 1980 campaign for the presidency in Philadelphia, Mississippi (the place where 3 Civil Rights workers were infamously murdered by the KKK–some of whom wore badges–in 1965) and announced that he believed in “states rights”–which was the slogan of both the Southern secessionists in the Civil War (i.e., the “right” for each state to support slavery if it wanted to) and of the segregationists during the Civil Rights struggle (i.e., the “right” for states to support segregation and ignore the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education).
By the 1990s, the GOP had developed a dual strategy (Lee Atwater, Newt Gingrich, and Karl Rove were all geniuses at this) : Keep sending out coded “race baiting” messages to the base, but court token minority conservatives and avoid all overt racist language. They knew that, unless they broke with policies that keep most minority communities behind, they wouldn’t recruit large numbers of minorities (although Rove tried hard to court Latinos and African-Americans who share the anti-gay feelings of conservative whites). But, to elect presidents, the GOP NEEDS the votes of moderate whites from the suburbs, many of them born after the Civil Rights era and not knowing the code words like “states rights,” but who don’t want to be associated with an openly racist party.
That two-step seems to be falling apart. The GOP presidential candidates seem to be skipping these minority venues out of fear that they will appear to their (dwindling) base as “pandering to the special interest groups.” They can’t, for instance, simultaneously brag about how they helped scuttle Bush’s “comprehensive immigration reform” and want to build ever bigger fences at the Mexico border and also court Latino voters. In a crowded field, they seem to believe that they have to appear as xenophobic and “whites only” as possible in order to win the primaries. The problem, as GOP oldtimers like Gingrich and Kemp know, is that this could carry over to the general election–when they will lose not only conservatives in African-American and Latino communities (who won’t forget being snubbed so quickly) but also those moderate suburban whites who may never have done much for racial justice but who “have Black and Latino friends at work.”
The time comes when you have to make choices. The Democrats could not keep appeasing Southern segregationists and be the “party of the people.” The Dixiecrats had to go and the Civil Rights agenda embraced in full. I think the GOP will now find itself in a similar place: They either have to abandon the “Southern strategy” and reject racism on a deep level (not just appoint token conservative African-Americans and Latinos)–with the risks of losing parts of their base–or find themselves becoming an increasingly isolated WASP country club–one which can’t even host a PGA tour, much less national politics. The two-step won’t work anymore.
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