GOP and the Black Vote: Lessons from the NAACP-Tea Party Debacle


Much as I like to pretend there is no world outside Texas, Lindsay Lohan’s jail time has reminded me otherwise. In between going through Us Weekly‘s photo album of “Stars in the Slammer,” I couldn’t help but follow the ongoing national fight between the NAACP and the Tea Party—you know, the one that’s now spilled over into the Agriculture Department.

In case you didn’t get sidetracked into following news, here’s the deal: After an NAACP resolution pushed Tea Party leaders to eliminate its racist element, a Tea Party leader took the classy (or, you know, dreadfully offensive) approach of writing a fictional letter from “colored people” to Abe Lincoln. After the National Tea Party Federation expelled him, conservative activist Andrew Breitbart evidently wanted to show that the Tea Party wasn’t the only political movement dealing with racism and posted a clip of a black USDA employee speaking about her initial, minimal, efforts help white farmers. Cue mass hysteria, a forced resignation, and condemnation from the White House and NAACP alike. Then someone bothered to take a few minutes to look at the whole video and realized that her story was about how she overcame such feelings—and took place 20 years ago. Oh yeah, and the white farmers she supposedly hurt? They credit her with saving their farm.

I really should stick to Lindsay Lohan. The entire debacle has the feeling of some Gossip Girl episode—cliques, manipulation, looking juvenile—just with uglier clothes. More importantly, it highlights the defensiveness that seems to come up immediately upon accusations of racism, particularly when it comes to conservative causes.

Race and the Republican Party seems to be a particular theme this year. In Texas, much has been made of the Republican Party’s success (or perhaps lack of success) getting Latino votes, but few address the relationship between the conservative movement and black leaders. It’s surprising since one of the tightest House races features Democratic Rep. Carol Kent fighting for her political life against former prosecutor Stefani Carter, who’s young, black and conservative. Rumors continue to swirl about Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams’ prospects for the Senate in 2012; a win would make him the only black Republican senator.

Not only are there leaders—the black community also has a prominent social conservative streak. According to the 2004 National Election Survey, while 32 percent of both blacks and whites would only allow for abortion in cases of rape, incest and danger to the mother, 18 percent of blacks would like to ban abortions entirely (as opposed to 13 percent of whites). Black voters also tend to favor issues like prayer in school at higher rates than whites.

A little over a month ago, I spoke with Apostle Claver T. Kamau-Imani, a vocal proponent of bringing more black voters into the GOP fold and leader of Raging Elephants. He said both the GOP and the black community make it harder to bridge the gaps.

“Racial identity is linked with it,” he told me. “If you’re not a Democrat then your genuineness as a black, if you will, becomes in question.”

It’s unlikely large numbers of blacks will come out in support of the Republicans. Most people vote like their parents, and even as we move away from the 1960s civil rights movement, the memories of its Republican foes are clear enough—despite a more recent history (and the role of Southern Democrats in blocking such legislation.) Besides, given Texas’ demographic shifts, it’s probably wiser for the GOP to focus on the Latino vote. Still national debacles—like this most recent one—draw attention to the lack of support and the perception of Republican racism.

“The Democratic party does a very good job of exacerbating those misperceptions,” sighed Kamau-Imani, “but then again so does the Republican Party.”

According to Kamau-Imani, the state GOP often puts forth half-hearted efforts to garner black support—and then shrugs when those efforts don’t work. He finds the whole thing frustrating since, he believes, much of the black community would agree with much of the Republican platform. Still, during the convention, Kamau-Imani said he didn’t hear any real mentions of trying to attract black voters.

“I’m not going to come out here with a gloating review of their potential when I heard nothing from the podium to address this issue,” he said. “Make me a believer. Let’s see what you’re gonna do.”

There’s clearly a perception gap—according to ABC News, 57 percent of those opposing the Tea Party suspect racial prejudice in the movement. But despite some troubling anecdotes and pictures of offensive signs, ABC’s director of polling says such racism isn’t common:

A statistical analysis indicates that the strongest predictors of supporting the Tea Party are views of Obama, ideology, partisanship and anger at the way the government is operating. Views on the extent of racism as a problem, and views on Obama’s efforts on behalf of African-Americans, are not significant predictors of support for the Tea Party movement.

Kamau-Imani isn’t surprised. “The Democrats will continue to say that the Republican party is racist,” he says. “This is symptomatic, it’s systematic. It’s part of the Democratic party playbook.”

Maybe so, but it’s not clear if the Republicans even have a playbook on this topic. And as I’ve learned from a lifetime of watching sports, the playbook matters.