It takes two to tango. In his determination to seek African-American votes Senator Rand Paul and Bill O’Reilly seem to have forgotten this aphorism. On and off for the past 30 years, the GOP has made attempts to reach out to African-American voters with a variety of messages. While those efforts have ranged from serious and thoughtful to desultory and ham-fisted, they have been tried.
The major organizations that supposedly represent the interests of African-Americans have responded with either contempt or mockery. It is damaging to American politics when any ethnic group is barely represented in one of the major political parties. But, if only one side is serious about engagement, that engagement will fail.
Any interest group, whether business, labor, or an ethnic group, fails its constituents when it puts all its eggs in one basket. Interests are protected by having representation in both political parties. Naturally, different groups have interests that are in opposition to the ideology of each party – think unions and Republicans or pro-lifers and Democrats. But even these interest groups work to reach across the aisle. The NRA is the most expert at this. They explicitly seek out Democrats to support, even though their main support is in the GOP. And they do it not just to get votes in Congress, but to prevent the Republicans from taking them for granted.
The situation in the African-American community could not be more different.
Consider that Tim Scott is set to become the first African-American from the South to be elected to the Senate since Reconstruction. Yet, the NAACP and its brethren have nothing but contempt for him.
From a political standpoint, their opposition to Scott is ridiculous. He is a guaranteed winner. Supporting Scott would give the NAACP an entre into the Senate Republican caucus (where they have none now). Their opposition is not just illogical; it is a failure to represent the interests of their constituents.
But the problem is deeper just bad strategy. It is a problem of separateness. No other ethnic group in America as consistently seeks to define itself as separate. The epithet “not black enough” is pervasive. Have you ever heard “not Hispanic enough” or “not Jewish enough?” Is there an equivalent to “Uncle Tom?” Every ethnic group has a certain insularity, but the definition of what it means to be appropriately black is stifling. Recently both Charles Barkley and CNN anchor Don Lemon have complained about this cultural restrictiveness – only to experience a torrent of fury and criticism. Prominent African-American Republicans like Sen. Scott, Ben Carson and Thomas Sowell are not only subject to intense criticism and derision; they are considered exiles from their own ethnic group.
This is not a problem of policy. It is social and cultural – and you can’t treat that kind of problem in an analytical way. Dropping a million dollars on charter schools and creating some tax-free empowerment zones won’t move the needle. As long as the definition of black means “not ever Republican,” Senator Paul won’t get anywhere.
This is not to say that the Republican Party or conservatives, for that matter, should ignore over 10 percent of the population. It is irrefutably damaging to American democracy that African-Americans are so thoroughly estranged from the Republican Party. The party itself has a level of complicity. Just like the Democrats, Republicans have used racial politics to their advantage in the past. However, the party has had an African-American chairman and has nominated African-Americans to prominent offices. Charges of systemic racism seem like a reach.
What the Republican Party does need to do is takes steps to break the impasse. Instead of pressing forward with just another repeat of past failed initiatives, the GOP needs to directly challenge the social and cultural orthodoxy that serves as a block to any outreach. Republicans can start by challenging the NAACP, African-American oriented media and even the Congressional Black Caucus to put a stop to the incredibly vile race-baiting by the Democrats.
The NAACP wouldn’t have to surrender its pro-welfare, victimhood position. It could simply decry the Democrats for the rampant race-baiting that inevitable occurs each election cycle. These over-the-top tactics only serve to poison race relations and divide the nation. While that is in the interest of the craven candidates who get a few extra votes, it is hardly in the interest of African-Americans at-large. Yet, the NAACP turns a blind eye to such activity. Simply condemning it could be an opening to a broader political understanding. And who knows, the media might even support the GOP on this issue.
If leaders in the African-American community (including elected officials) are not even willing to condemn race-baiting by the Democrats, that’s about as clear a signal you need to see that they are not serious about engagement. However, if there is an acknowledgement that there are two sides to the problem, then the mindless groupthink will start to erode and both Republicans and the African-American community can move toward more substantive issues.