Will blacks really get a fair shake from GOP?


September 01, 1996|By Norris West

I MUST SET a few things straight about black Republicans.

First, I don't believe members of the new African-American Republican Club of Howard County are misguided or naive. Members such as Randall Nixon, Delroy Cornick and Verna Lawes strike me as astute people.

Second, it is absurd for anyone to argue that Republicans have embraced African-Americans as equal partners in recent years. Unfortunately, that is the main reason that Democrats sometimes are able to take their black support for granted.

Third, if local GOP leaders believe they are sincere in reaching out to black America, I welcome the chance for them to prove me wrong with their actions, not just with lip service.

I said in an August 18 column that my father, my role model, was a life-long member of the GOP, even through Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal era when most African-Americans switched parties, and even when Democratic administrations were pushing civil rights legislation through Congress.

His childhood was spent in the deep South, where Republicans were viewed by African-Americans as the party of liberation and Democrats were the most staunch segregationists.

My father wasn't naive, just loyal to the party of Abraham Lincoln that brought emancipation and lifted African-Americans to Congress in Southern states during Reconstruction. He was born three years after the last of the era's black congressmen left office.

The images of the parties have changed over the last century.

Although the previous column doubted that the African-American Republican Club of Howard County will receive equal-partner treatment in the GOP, it was not a criticism of club members. The criticism was squarely aimed at Republican leaders.

I question whether the local party will take advantage of yet another opportunity to broaden its base in the black community with a more creative approach than the ones offered by the current Congress.

Bad reputation earned

Despite expressions of surprise that the Republican Party is viewed unfavorably among most African-Americans -- even here in suburban Howard County -- the GOP indeed is perceived as the party of wealth, and one that lacks compassion for disadvantaged individuals and groups of people. There are members, of course, who don't fit that mold, but the party has earned this perception.

There is a reason that an estimated 90 percent of black voters in Howard County are Democrats. And I don't think that reason is naivete.

Polling guru J. Bradford Coker points out in a letter (at right) that more congressional Republicans than Democrats voted for civil rights legislation in 1964-65.

But he doesn't mention that many of Democratic opponents of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were forerunners of today's Southern Reagan Republicans. Then, they were segregationist Dixiecrats.

Nor does Mr. Coker note that it was the awesome power of President Johnson, a Democrat, who rammed the legislation through both houses of Congress.

Also, the GOP in 1964 latched onto Barry Goldwater, an uncompromising opponent of civil rights. I don't even want to imagine what would have become of civil rights bills under a Goldwater administration. The Goldwater nomination broadened the chasm between African-Americans and Republicans, and the party's reputation among black people has yet to recover. If anything, it has worsened with the presidencies of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

There have been opportunities for the GOP to improve this relationship; the Democrats often have taken black voters for granted. But Republican leaders have been too unwilling to risk alienating its far right members to take advantage.

A friend and former colleague of mine predicted after President Bush's election in 1988 that the GOP would garner a sizable portion of the black vote when up for re-election. My friend had reason to be optimistic. Signals of inclusion were being sent. But follow-up never came.

Another opportunity?

Which brings me back to the African-American Republican Club of Howard County. I am sure the members have a deeper objective, but I view the club's formation as a challenge to the local GOP to follow up the San Diego convention rhetoric of newfound inclusion and tolerance.

With the high national profile of Colin Powell and Rep. J. C. Watts, it would seem a perfect opportunity for Republicans to reach out.

The black community is not monolithic. Opinions on such issues as capital gains taxes, abortion, education and even affirmative action are split. Ideally, involvement in two strong parties would serve African-Americans well. I will not belabor the point in these columns, but I'll be looking for some genuine efforts by the local GOP to broaden its base, to reach its stated goal of inclusion, and give the Democrats a real contest for the black vote.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 9/01/96

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