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Why the Republican Party Can’t Win Over Black Voters

There's a gaping disconnect between the GOP's inclusive rhetoric and state party officials' racist behavior.

Mario Tama / Getty Images

Last month, Hasan Harnett, the state chair of North Carolina’s Republican Party, was banned from party headquarters and locked out of his email account. The party’s central committee accused him of “making false and malicious statements about other Republicans and staff,” and of attempting to divert funds. Harnett, the first African American elected to the position, questioned if the state party’s actions against him were a result of racism. “I mean seriously,” he wrote in an email to party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse, “is this some form of ritual or hazing you would put the first black chairman of the NCGOP State Party through? Or is it because I am not white enough for you?”

Rewind three years. After President Barack Obama’s resounding reelection, the national party leadership finally recognized that its brand was anathema to many African Americans—to the detriment of its presidential prospects. In its 2012 autopsy report, the Republican National Committee called for outreach to minorities and a change in tone to be more inclusive and welcoming: “[T]he Republican Party must be committed to building a lasting relationship within the African American community year-round, based on mutual respect and with a spirit of caring.”

The 2016 Republican presidential primary—principally, but not exclusively, Donald Trump—proves that the autopsy report is itself dead, and it occurred at the hands of the states. The GOP can never hope to attract more African Americans if it’s routinely defending itself against charges that its state officials are racially insensitive. If the party truly wishes to increase its minority support, the states will need to stop sucking the oxygen out of the room.

Harnett’s treatment is just the latest example of what state party leadership has been doing to African Americans for some time now. There’s the Georgia GOP chairman who has multiple suits against him for racial discrimination and making racist remarks, including allegations of calling a black party staffer a “house nigger.” There’s the time the Illinois state party chairman called Erika Harold, a black Harvard Law grad and former Miss America running for Congress in 2014, a “street walker” being pimped by politicians. And there’s the rush by Republican state legislatures to pass voter identification laws that have been shown to depress minority and poor voter turnout. In North Carolina, a precinct chair said of the state’s voter ID law, “[I]f it hurts a bunch of lazy blacks that want government to give them everything, so be it.”

As former congressman and Tea Party activist Dick Armey says in the autopsy report, “You can’t call someone ugly and expect them to go to the prom with you.” The problem the Republican Party faces today is that its state chapters are insulting the very people its national party leaders—if not its remaining presidential candidates—are asking out.

This is not a new problem. In the late 1970s, after losing his Senate seat because of his inability to win black voters, RNC Chair Bill Brock opined the party could no longer rest its hopes on its “white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, Buick-driving, middle income, and male” constituency. He poured millions into outreach to African Americans, worked on the party’s image and rhetoric, and most importantly got the state party leaders on board. And it worked. By 1978, dozens of state and local Republicans increased their share of the black vote by an average of 30 percent and more black people held office in state and local party organizations.

But Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential bid and his dog-whistle appeals to states’ rights raised the stakes. State party leaders, already wary about minority infiltration and the fear that increased black membership would infringe on their leverage, felt empowered under Reagan and consolidated their strength by playing to economic anxieties and social stratifications that racialized the issues.

Three decades later, the RNC has come to realize the Brock approach may be necessary if the party is to survive. After 2012, the party established a team of young African Americans to devise and implement an outreach strategy. Three African-American Republicans were elected to Congress in 2014. Prominent party members courted blacks, such as Senator Rand Paul’s multiple visits to Historically Black Colleges and Universities. And just in the last few months, House Speaker Paul Ryan led a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Thirteenth Amendment and partnered with Senator Tim Scott to advocate an anti-poverty program that would disproportionately help communities of color.

Some might say these moves are just a cynical attempt to improve the party’s chances of winning back the White House. But whether the party leadership is sincere in its desire to attract black voters or not is moot as long as its initiatives are routinely undermined by the rhetoric and behavior of the party at large. Nor is there much impetus for state parties to change, as they have realized enormous success in winning gubernatorial and legislative elections. The very politics of exclusion that have delivered dozens of statehouses run counter to the message of inclusion necessary to win the White House.

The resulting incongruence produces a catch-22 wherein the RNC is at least superficially interested in party integration, but wholly reliant on the state parties to mobilize voters on Election Day. In order to preserve their winning state coalitions, national leaders are constrained in how they can talk about race or any plans to address socioeconomic disparities experienced by minorities. They can’t make explicit appeals to African Americans for fear of alienating segments of their state constituencies already fearful of power diffusion, but they can’t appear to be insensitive to the plight of minorities. As a result, they speak in terms of colorblind policies that purport to help everyone in general and no one in particular. This allows citizens to read into party policies whatever they’d like, which only serves to further racialize the issues and galvanize the electorate. The ambiguity provides cover for the states while leaving the national party both blameless and fully responsible for the continuing gulf between blacks and the party.

The RNC, of course, is no paragon of virtue. It has its own problems with turning its inclusive rhetoric into reality. In the last two years, nearly all of the black outreach staff at the RNC have quit. While they claim to have done so to pursue additional opportunities, their resignations are in line with a trend that has followed the GOP since at least 1964. In times of crisis, where implicit, racialized cues were employed for electoral gains, black staffers have quit in frustration, most notably once Nixon employed his Southern strategy to build a winning electoral coalition. And its unceremonious firing of its first black chairman, Michael Steele, in 2009 undercut the autopsy report before it was even conceived. Most glaringly, the GOP’s current frontrunner in the race for the party’s presidential nomination has been a paragon of racial insensitivity, and despite this, its leaders all uneasily vow to support him for president should he secure enough delegates.

Further, all state party organizations are not detriments to the message of inclusion. There is a reason that there has been a small increase in registered black Republicans in the last decade, an increase in black voter participation in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, and a number of gubernatorial candidates that have received upwards of 20 percent of the black vote in places like Mississippi, New Jersey, and Arkansas.

But modest increases in low-turnout elections neither explains away the persistent view among many black voters that the Republican Party is racially intolerant nor the reality that in high-turnout presidential elections, the party is performing progressively worse among minority voters.

The RNC and national party leaders will need to find the courage to boldly confront the strands of racial intolerance in the party, even (and especially) if it means disrupting its state voting coalitions. It will have to identify leaders that can not only back inclusive rhetoric with concrete actions, but can marshal the state party leaders behind this common cause for the good and viability of the party. States will need to be compelled to get on board. The party cannot be lulled into passivity and implicit racialization by a popular figure, as occurred during the Reagan era. And it also cannot be complacent with gains made on the state level when local governance runs contrary to the national message.

Most importantly, the GOP will have to cease being afraid to utter the word “racism” and become more aggressive in calling out the structural and systemic obstacles that prevent people of color from accessing opportunity. It must learn to communicate how conservative principles and policies address African American disparities in particular. And it must do so in a way that doesn’t center on blaming Democrats. To paraphrase Republican President Teddy Roosevelt, the party cannot pussyfoot on the issue.