Representative Elijah Cummings was born before Brown v. Board of Education, an era of de jure segregation in the public schools. That ended early in his life; he never lived to see the end of de facto segregation, and I do not think that any of us is likely to. He did live to see a sea change in American attitudes toward race and the election of a black president. He is the first black member of the House to lie in state in the rotunda. These represent momentous changes.
Cummings also lived to see the decline of Baltimore, the nearly complete abandonment of the Republican party by black voters, and the nearly complete abandonment of black voters by the Republican party. Cummings entered the House in 1996, succeeding Kweisi Mfume, who left to lead the NAACP; Mfume had succeeded Parren Mitchell, Maryland’s first black congressman, representing Maryland’s first majority-black House district. In that sense, Cummings’s career might be read as a kind of postscript to the civil-rights era, one of many and one that Republicans would do well to think on.
It should hardly need repeating in 2019, but the Republican party is distinct from the conservative movement. The Republican party — which really was, once, the Party of Lincoln — has a good deal to say for itself on the question of civil rights. President Dwight Eisenhower was irritated by Earl Warren’s sweeping decision in Brown and is reported to have said (the quotation is disputed) that nominating the former Republican governor of California — “that dumb son of a bitch Earl Warren” — was the worst mistake of his presidency. But Eisenhower, who had once reveled in the title “supreme commander,” was no presidential supremacist. “The Supreme Court has spoken, and I am sworn to uphold the constitutional processes in this country,” he said. “And I will obey.” His language was tepid, but Eisenhower was a man in full when it came to doing his duty. In a subsequent standoff with Orval Faubus, the segregationist Democratic governor of Arkansas, Eisenhower dispatched the 101st Airborne to escort black students into Little Rock Central High School. It is a testament both to Eisenhower’s personal stature and the complicated facts of race and partisanship in the South that, in the wake of Brown, Eisenhower did a little bit better in the South than Barry Goldwater would running against the civil-rights bill in 1964.
(People sometimes forget that Lyndon Johnson won a majority of southern votes in his contest against Goldwater.)
The tragedy of the Republican party is that it has followed practically its every achievement in civil rights with a sigh of relief and an unspoken (sometimes spoken) understanding that this, finally — from the Civil War to the 13th Amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1866, of 1957, or of 1964 — disposed of the question of African Americans’ place in American life, liberating the Republican party to go back to being a conservative business-interest party, which is what it is in its heart, such as it is. (And that isn’t so bad.) The insufficiency of that view should be obvious, even to a politician.
The distinct tragedy of the conservative movement is that (for reasons both principled and sometimes less than admirable) we often get it wrong when trying to balance our temperamental resistance to social change per se (which necessarily will put conservatives on the wrong side of some issues) with our philosophical dedication to the principles of the American Founding and the project of working toward making more perfect their imperfect implementation.
Representative Cummings understood himself as a civil-rights leader, but the legislation most closely identified with him was mainly constituent-services stuff for the federal employees in his district, who represent one of the most powerful forces in U.S. politics. This is not to disparage Cummings’s record on civil rights; to the contrary, it highlights an unhappy fact of political life: When it comes to civil rights in 2019, the Democrats do not have a lot of competition from the other party.
Republicans have not won the majority of African Americans’ votes in a presidential contest since the election of Herbert Hoover nor a majority of African Americans’ votes in congressional races since the 1940s. (The drift of southern whites away from the Democratic party and the exit of African Americans from the GOP both are rooted in the New Deal, though of course race and other contributors are at play.) But even though they did not win majorities, Republicans once could achieve significant support among black voters: Eisenhower won about 40 percent of the black vote in spite of his frosty welcome of Brown. Politics always is in flux, and there are no silver bullets. Democrats believe that if they can put Texas in their column, then Republicans will never win another presidential election. In reality, Texas once was a solidly Democratic state while California was a strongly Republican state. Things change. But Republicans, if only for reasons of narrow self-interest, ought to appreciate that even a respectable losing margin among black voters would be a game-changer for them: Democrats could lose a lot of presidential races with two-thirds of the black vote.
But what might Republicans say to the people of Baltimore who elected Elijah Cummings to office? That their city is a nest of vermin, that “no human being would want to live there”? Baltimore is a mess, but human beings do live there — American human beings, at that. So far, black Americans have remained largely unmoved by Republican promises of tax cuts and regulatory reform. Many black families are with the GOP on school choice, but not enough to pull the “R” lever. And the reason for this ought to be obvious enough: While African Americans may be with the Republican party on this or that issue, they do not believe that the Republican party is with them. But it once was. And it is no great mystery how to change that.
Republicans would like to have more support among black voters. But they despise the cities where many African Americans live and where they predominate politically; Republicans have ruled out cuts to the entitlement programs that disproportionately benefit whites but take a rather more skeptical view of the means-tested social programs that disproportionately benefit African Americans; when there are questions of police misbehavior, Republicans instinctively side with the police; they were hellfire and brimstone on crack but have taken a gentle turn on opioids, which are abused in large measure by rural and suburban whites, etc. And what do Republicans now have to say for themselves?
Well, did you know that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed on disproportionately strong Republican support? Or, Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job that is being recognized more and more.
Black unemployment did hit a record low in 2019, and that is to be celebrated. But the steep decline in black unemployment began almost a decade ago. The prosperity gospel is lousy theology but it is very fine politics — done right. “Look what the Mighty Trump hath done for you, poor black folks who aren’t swift enough to understand your own interests!” is not what “done right” means. Vacillating between indifference and condescension is not going to get it done.
Maybe Republicans will just keep saying, “What have Elijah Cummings and his brand of politics ever really done for African Americans?” That’s a fair question, and a fair line of criticism.
But after the criticism — what?