Where are the Black Republicans?
Although Donald Trump improved his showing among African-Americans by garnering as much as 12 percent of the Black vote in his 2020 election defeat (up from 8 percent in 2016), the Republican Party continues to struggle to improve its standing among Black Americans.
Although he touted his economic record with a historically-low Black unemployment rate, Mr. Trump was heavily criticized throughout his term for using racially incendiary rhetoric and for his reluctance to condemn white supremacist groups. At the height of the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020, for instance, Mr. Trump called Black Lives Matter a “symbol of hate.”
Mr. Trump’s general failure to break through to Black voters is part of a historic pattern. Since Richard Nixon won about 30 percent of the Black vote in 1960, at a time when Black people were disenfranchised wholesale in the South, no Republican presidential candidate has been able to crack 15 percent (Gerald Ford in 1976) for the past half-century.
The GOP’s problems are not relegated to presidential elections. Although the 117th Congress is the most racially diverse in U.S. history with 59 Black members, only three are Republicans (two in the House, one in the Senate). In state-level elections, too, African-Americans continue to vote overwhelmingly for Democrats.
In a new series of op-ed columns for The Washington Times, Black Voices, prominent Black conservatives challenge the notion that Democrats have more to offer members of their race than Republicans. One contributor, Ron Christie, who worked for President George W. Bush and former Ohio governor John Kasich, said the Republican Party has failed in its outreach to Black people who share mainstream conservative values.
“Republican candidates running for office often talk to Black people like they are Black people. You need to talk to your constituencies and outline a vision… how would you make those lives better?” said Christie in an interview for the latest episode of ‘History As It Happens’ podcast.
“I look back to my former boss… John Kasich. The one thing I always watched with him was he never treated Black people like Black people. And it manifested itself in his reelection for governor. There are 88 counties in Ohio. Kasich carried 86 out of 88,” Christie said. Kasich won 26 percent of the Black vote in his 2014 gubernatorial campaign.
Kasich campaigned on broad issues of economic growth, entrepreneurship, and quality of life, Christie recalled, instead of solely stereotypical Black issues, such as poverty and welfare reform. “When you put Black issues in a box of looking at people, sadly, for being predominantly poor and not in a position of influence, I think it is pejorative, it’s prejudicial, and it turns a lot of people of color off.”
The historic shift in Black voting began under Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal. Since the nineteenth century, Black Americans (in places where they could actually cast ballots) had voted overwhelmingly for the Republican Party. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the party of Lincoln strongly advocated civil and voting rights. The South was solidly Democratic, a bastion of Jim Crow segregation after the death of Reconstruction.
“What FDR and the New Deal offer is a different kind of Democratic Party. They offer a Democratic Party that has coalitions of people who are racial segregationists, but it has coalitions of anti-racists,” said Dr. Peniel Joseph, a historian at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin.
“The New Deal offered Black people an opportunity at, potentially, employment and being part of a new social contract that will offer social welfare benefits irrespective of race. Does it actually work out like that? No, it doesn’t. But the promise is enough to get some Republican Blacks,” to begin voting Democrat, Joseph said.
Indeed, many New Deal programs excluded Black people to appease Southern segregationists who chaired key congressional committees. Moreover, Roosevelt refused to support a federal anti-lynching bill to avoid alienating Southerners whose votes he needed to pass his legislative program during the nadir of the Great Depression.
In his 1936 re-election bid, Roosevelt received 71 percent of the Black vote.
The major realignment that created the modern-day Democratic and Republican parties took hold in the 1960s, after the passage of the Civil Rights (1964) and Voting Rights (1965) Acts.
In ‘64 the Republican Party nominated Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, a staunch conservative, who opposed the civil rights legislation on constitutional, not racial, grounds. Goldwater was trounced by Lyndon Johnson, who championed the civil rights bills (while promising to keep the U.S. out of Vietnam) despite his fear that it would cost his party its solid South voting base.
“There are certain groups of Republicans after 1964, certainly Richard Nixon is one of them, who want to accept disgruntled white Democrats into the fold so [the GOP] can become a majority party,” said Joseph. “But there are other Republicans who don’t want to [accept them],” such as Nelson Rockefeller and, later, Jack Kemp.
“The cost of winning becomes taking in the Wallace vote,” said Joseph, referring to George Wallace, the openly segregationist, populist Alabama governor who collected 13 percent of the popular vote in the 1968 election. Nixon, deploying the so-called Southern strategy aimed at appealing to alienated Southern Democrats, defeated Minnesota Democrat Hubert Humphrey, who was a lead author of the 1964 civil rights bill in the Senate.
However, Nixon did far better among Blacks than Goldwater (15 versus 6 percent) because his campaign also made concerted efforts to court black voters after the Goldwater debacle.
In the decades since, Southern voters have steadily moved from the Democratic to the Republican column, as the former allied itself with the civil rights movement in a departure from its segregationist past.
Meanwhile, the conservative wing of the GOP grew hostile to civil rights advances, especially under President Reagan’s Justice Department. It backed court cases aimed at ending affirmative action in college admissions and hiring, and its Civil Rights Division ignored allegations of violations of the 1965 voting rights legislation.
Over time the Solid South, once a Democratic stronghold, became a GOP fortress. In the election of 2000, for instance, George W. Bush carried every Deep South state, including Democrat Al Gore’s home state of Tennessee.
For more of Ron Christie’s and Peniel Joseph’s views on how and why the Republican Party lost the Black vote, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.
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