In honor of Black History Month and the Republican National Committee electing its first African-American Chairman, former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele, I want to start a discussion about how the Republican Party can move beyond the “old-rich-white-guy” stereotype.
I believe the Republican Party is based on capitalist principles and traditional values that should appeal to people of all ethnicities, faiths and life circumstances. However, this was not apparent in the most recent presidential election in which Democratic candidate Barack Obama received 95 percent of the African-American vote (according to CNN). I realize that part of this has to do with the fact that Barack Obama is the first African-American President, but if Republicans want to remain relevant, they need to find a way to reach out to an increasingly diverse American public.
One of the really sad parts of this break with the Republican Party is that Republican President Abraham Lincoln is known as perhaps the greatest President ever for his emancipation of black slaves. Both the Democratic and Republican parties are embarrassed by their racist pasts—including current Democratic Senator Robert Byrd, who was a former member of the Ku Klux Klan—but why is it that the Republican Party has yet to receive any semblance of forgiveness? What can we do to mend those rifts and once again become the party of equality and unification?
There are several examples of African-American conservatives who have served in some of our country’s highest offices. President Bush nominated the first and second African-American Secretaries of State, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Both of them are widely respected on both sides of the political spectrum for their intellect and pragmatism. Michael Steele was also elected as party chairman, as I noted above, but these politicians and other black conservatives, such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, have suffered verbal abuses from fellow African-Americans for “acting white.”
One example of these abuses occurred in a 2002 gubernatorial debate when audience members threw Oreo cookies at Mr. Steele, signifying that he was “black on the outside, but white on the inside.” I would hope that most people wouldn’t feel this way, but it seems prevalent enough to the point that it is an issue. We have great African-American role models in the Republican Party, but for some reason they are seen as different and therefore not “real” members of the black community. What will it take for all of American society to accept black conservatives?
Perhaps one of the most recent damaging issues for Republicans with the black community is the egregiously slow and inadequate response to natural disasters that have occurred in largely black areas. The most obvious of these was the response to Hurricane Katrina, which prompted musical artist Kanye West to say, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” There is no excuse for the slow response, and a much more adequate response will be expected in the future. In spite of this, I do not believe that the reason for the slow response was racism but, rather, incompetence. However, trust and respect must be earned, and I hope that Republicans can prove this if they get another chance.
We must do better as a party. When NPR held a presidential primary debate with questions coming from panelists of color and the majority of the leading candidates didn’t attend, our party looked bad. Expanding the Republican base to include members of all races and creeds may not be seen as politically expedient, but we are a party based on principles and should always hold what is right above what is popular. There is no reason in my mind why people of color would not at least be open to hearing our ideas about free market economics and traditional social values, but I believe we have not done a good job of speaking to those outside of suburban America. Why did John McCain give his Minnesota speech at Lakeville South High School instead of Minneapolis North High School? I don’t want to be a member of a party of white snobs, so either the party must change, or a new generation of conservatives will be forced to find a new party.
So what is the solution? How does the Republican Party move into an era of diversity? Usually my column offers my opinions and solutions to our nation’s problems, but this time I am more focused on offering questions than answers. This discussion exists in both parties and with many other minority groups, so we all have much to gain by finding better ways to communicate. America is a country built on ideas, and it is my hope that if we expand our conversation on why race still divides us in America, we can begin to find solutions that will allow us to vote based on what we believe instead of what color we are.