Colbert King wrote a column recently for the Washington Post about the decline of black Republicans. Quoting a Wall Street Journal-NBC poll, he said that “just 7 percent of blacks called themselves Republicans.” Twenty years ago, when Bob Dole ran for president against Bill Clinton, 15% of African Americans were Republicans.
Just 7 percent today? Honestly, I am shocked it’s more than zero percent.
I live in South Carolina. Here’s the Republican caucus of the state senate.
Here’s a visual of many of the 78 Representatives in the 2014-2015 House GOP caucus:
Not a single black man or black woman in any of these pictures.
(By way of contrast, nine of sixteen Democrats in the State Senate are black, though I must admit with great disappointment that the single Republican woman senator is one more than the Democrats have. But that’s a story for another day.)
Almost a third of the people in South Carolina are black, and Republicans did not send a single one of them to the General Assembly? That certainly looks like exclusion, like racism.
In the GOP village
But “racism” is the proverbial nuclear option in public discourse. Before you push that button, you better know what you’re talking about. At the very least, you better make damn sure you’re weighing the evidence dispassionately. That you’re not indulging your own prejudices.
And I’ve got prejudices. Any rational person would call me a liberal, so I’m prone to thinking ill of the GOP. I know that. As a blogger, I have to overcome that kind of thing, guard against leaping to conclusions. Luckily, I happened to read in the Post & Courier that the GOP was opening its 2016 Victory Headquarters in West Ashley, just a couple of miles from my house.
My wife and I were finishing our waffles, sipping a second cup of Saturday morning coffee. “Let’s go,” I suggested. “I don’t want to write that there aren’t any black Republicans in South Carolina without doing my homework.”
It would be something of an anthropological experience for me, a life-long Democrat checking out the exotic gathering of Republicans. Which of course means that I’d be putting on that dubious cloak of superiority anthropologists wear, whether they’re studying an urban street corner or an Indigene village.
“I’ll blend right in,” I said.
Susan looked at me. I felt nervous under the scrutiny, but really I had nothing to worry about. I can pass for Republican better than any anthropologist coming at a village with their notebook and camera. White male in his mid-fifties, solidly middle-class haircut and posture, less solid in the middle of the body. No tattoos.
So we pulled our bicycles out of the garage. It was the second day of Fall. A billion acorns littered the street, nature’s open-handed bounty. Their thin green shells crunched under our tires. Autumn.
We found the event just down from the Sav-A-Lot grocery. It looked less grand than I expected. After all, some big names were coming–U. S. Congressman Mark Sanford and Lt. Governor Henry McMaster-men with real power, for the Republicans have run this state for a generation. I thought I’d see marching bands. A C-17 fly-over from the Air Force Base.
None of that. Several dozen people milling about in front of a small brick building, a few balloons, lots of political signs. I won’t call it squalid. No one looked poor. Some people were very well-dressed, like they came straight to a picnic from church and left the suit coat in the car and pulled off the tie but still wore the dress shirt and shoes. Others were in white suburban lounge-wear, as you can see. There was something appealingly ineffective about the group, the kind of fizzle you’d expect from a political party that never gets its candidates elected. In other words, it felt a lot like Democrat functions I’ve gone to.
“Did you ride your bikes here?” asked the woman with an enigmatic smile.
So much for blending in.
I immediately felt guilty, like a spy. I was a spy, wasn’t I? But I didn’t want to spoil their party. I didn’t want to disrespect anyone, much as it pained me to see a few Trump stickers on breast pockets. I did not come to heckle or spoil. I just wanted to hang on the fringe, unobtrusive, see for myself whether any black people showed up, then slip away, not having intruded.
Here are a couple of pictures.
I did see black people. Two women and one young man who looked like Secret Service (you can see him in the first photo if you look carefully). I tried to count the crowd but lost track. I’d estimate about 100 people were there, which would put the black participation at about 3% of the people. So obviously black people are not excluded from the GOP. Quite the contrary. I think that those 97 whites at the event probably cherished their three black brethren.
And after all, the great proof that Republicans don’t exclude blacks is that they voted Tim Scott into the U. S. Senate. A Republican from North Charleston. Scott is the inoculator. Whenever charges of racism threaten to swell up, the SC GOP injects Tim Scott into the conversation. Does New York have a black Senator? Does Massachusetts? Then how can Democrats call South Carolina’s Republicans a party of exclusion?
Exclusion v. Inclusion
These thoughts were going through my mind. And the truth is, I’ve got a lot of friends who are Republicans in this city, many of my Irish American friends and many of my Catholic friends. They are not racists. They would never exclude an African American from entering the door of the GOP clubhouse. That mansion has many rooms. Space for all kinds.
Tim Scott did not come in through the back door. He came straight through the front. But not very many blacks have followed him. Nine out of ten black voters in South Carolina voted against him in 2014.
So what’s going on? If the GOP does not exclude blacks, why does it include so few?
The answer is pretty obvious. You can throw your clubhouse open and shout, “Blacks! Come on in! You’re welcome here!” But if the Confederate flag is hanging above the door, you might not get too many takers.
Until last year, the Confederate flag was the unofficial banner of the South Carolina GOP. At the insistence of Republican legislators, it greeted every single citizen of the state, white or black, when they approached that august body called the General Assembly. Black lawmakers–all of them Democrats–had to walk past it every day they worked.
People told the GOP it was offensive. The GOP knew that blacks associate the flag with Jim Crow, with white supremacy, terrorism and strange fruit hanging from the limbs of live oak trees. The SC GOP knew full well the Confederate flag was the rallying point of the Anti-Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. But they still chose to hang it over the door to their clubhouse, and they smiled and stuck out their hand and said to black voters, “Come on in!”
When you consider images like this, it is no wonder that very few blacks have joined the Republican Party in South Carolina. Could anyone who is so devoted to the banner of white supremacy–even if they themselves are not white supremacists–really want blacks in their party?
But that’s all in the past now. Nikki Haley got her party, reluctantly, finally, to take the flag down off the State House grounds. All it took was one more spectacular act of white supremacist terrorism: the murder of nine African Americans in Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston last summer.
Enough GOP lawmakers–not all, but enough to give the Democrats a majority–consented to take it down. No more racism. “It’s a beautiful day in South Carolina,” as Nikki Haley says in her saccharin way.
Well, maybe not all of it is in the past. For instance, the SC GOP continues to disrespect Barack Obama. It’s one thing to disagree with a president from the opposing party, but it’s another to hurl vitriol on him, scorn him, scourge him with out-right lies. Ninety-six percent of blacks voted for Obama in 2008. Ninety-six percent! It does not take a brain surgeon to realize he is deeply respected by most African Americans, a respect founded in springs deeper than party politics. And yet the SC GOP craps on the man and then turns around and says to African American voters, “Come on in! Join the Party!”
The Clementa Pinckney Agenda
The flag might be gone, but the flag was only a symbol. What matters more is how the GOP furnishes their many-roomed mansion. What planks make up the floors of that house? What policies supply the furniture?
If Republicans were genuinely interested in diversifying, shouldn’t they go ask minorities what they want from government? Shouldn’t they listen to what black people have to say? Maybe even–this seems so obvious it has the sniff of genius–change their own minds about some things?
It’s not like black people have been shy about speaking up. One of the more public displays occurred at the funeral of Senator Clementa Pinckney last summer. Pinckney was an African American state senator from Charleston, an up-and-coming leader in our community, a real voice for the common man, white and black. He was also the minister of Mother Emanuel, one of the nine killed in that massacre.
President Obama came to Rev. Pinckney’s funeral, and in the midst of his remarks on grace he mentioned some things the Senator wanted to do and challenged us to finish the work. One by one, President Obama named the causes that Reverend Pinckney championed:
Why do we permit so many of our children to live in poverty?
Attend dilapidated schools?
Languish in unemployment?
Why do we send so many of our black youth to prisons?
Why are we making it harder for black people to vote?
Why are we blind to the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation?
Sitting in the congregation were many of the GOP legislators and the GOP governor, the people who determine public policy in our state, the people who prevented Senator Pinckney from doing anything about these issues.
One must acknowledge they had the decency to attend his funeral. To pay respect to the dead. But paying respect to the living is asking too much.
A living wage? Forget about it. Can’t meddle in capitalism. Decent funding for poor, rural schools? Forget about it. Can’t raise taxes. Sensible gun laws? We take orders from the NRA. Reform the criminal justice system? Nah, let’s shout “Law and order!” instead.
The state’s Republicans passed a law requiring voters to present a picture ID before they can vote. They knew what blacks thought. They were told umpteen times that the law is odious to black people. That black people think “voter fraud” is bogus (it is). That blacks think the real motive behind the law was to prevent tens of thousands of African Americans from voting.
Even if the Republicans believe their own, trumped-up rigmarole about a voter-fraud crisis (they don’t), the black community’s almost unanimous abhorrence of Voter ID should have been enough to take it off the table. But the all-white voting block of GOP legislators did not care what black people thought about it. They stuck a giant middle finger in the face of their black neighbors.
The New Standard Bearer
Donald Trump did not improve things very much last night. Lester Holt, the black Republican moderator, asked the candidates what they would say to black people who think there is “implicit bias” in law enforcement. (The Post & Courier recently uncovered law enforcement’s “implicit bias” against minorities here in Charleston.)
Trump responded that we need more “stop and frisk.” So what if black people tell us they are systematically harassed by stop-and-frisk. So what if they say our criminal justice policies are “the New Jim Crow”? What we need is more “Law and Order”!
When asked to respond to Clinton’s charge that he’s a racist, Trump gave his bone fides.
In Palm Beach, Florida, tough community, a brilliant community, a wealthy community, probably the wealthiest community there is in the world, I opened a club, and really got great credit for it. No discrimination against African- Americans, against Muslims, against anybody. And it’s a tremendously successful club. And I’m so glad I did it. And I have been given great credit for what I did. And I’m very, very proud of it. And that’s the way I feel. That is the true way I feel.
Really? Donald Trump is proud, very very proud that he decided not to exclude black millionaires from joining his club. He has been given credit for that.
Does he really think that’s something to brag about? Did someone in his company actually suggest that they exclude minorities? And he proudly stood up and said, No! What kind of world does he live in?
You might as well walk down the street, and when you get to the corner you pat yourself the back for acting with common decency. I’m very proud, very proud I did not deliberately insult any black people. That is the true way I feel.
I invite my Republican friends to explain it to me. I mean that honestly. I don’t get it. No one–well, almost no one–would deliberately offend a guest. White Republicans would never greet a black person at their own door and say, “Come on in, but if what I say and do offends you, that’s your problem.” I imagine that even Joe Wilson, the South Carolina Congressman who violated a century of decorum so he could disrespect President Obama on a national stage, would not act that way at home. If he invited black people into his own home, he would have the common decency to keep to treat their views with respect. Wouldn’t he?
But as a party, Republicans say, “Here’s a thumb in your eye!”
Come on in! Don’t you see? It’s a beautiful day in South Carolina! We took down the flag! It’s a new GOP! A new standard and a new standard bearer!
It’s a different standard, but it’s not new. Look what’s flying over the GOP 2016 Victory Headquarters in West Ashley. I know, I know. It’s not from the Civil War. It’s an innocent banner from the Revolution that was adopted by the Tea Party, whose defunding of schools and public medicine and public transportation and unemployment benefits have no taint of racism.
But don’t you think there’s a chance it might be taken the wrong way? Do you care what black folks might think about it?
I couldn’t help noticing its resemblance to that black-and-white photo above. Look at the banner, just under the “American King Coon” portrait of MLK. What a wonderful sign of welcome! Minorities should soon be flocking to the GOP.