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Civil-Rights Republicanism

by Theodore R. Johnson

How the GOP can appeal to black voters ─ and why it should

In October 2012, just as presidential campaigning had reached fever pitch, I was raking leaves in the front yard of my northern-Virginia home when I noticed a pack of volunteers clad in “Romney 2012” T-shirts canvassing the neighborhood door to door, engaging residents and drumming up support for their candidate. When my house was next in line, I set aside the rake and started down the driveway toward the group. They walked right past me without so much as a friendly smile or neighborly “Hello.” How curious. Returning to my yardwork, I watched as they dutifully stopped at my neighbor’s house and deposited campaign materials at the front door. And then the band made its merry way down the road.

As a black guy, I couldn’t really fault the group’s practical decision. After all, why spend time and campaign resources on me when nine in ten blacks routinely vote for the Democratic presidential nominee and when the nation’s first black president was seeking reelection?

But as an American, I was furious. The message this group conveyed was that my vote — the right to cast it was one of many rights of citizenship I spent a career in the military protecting — was not worth pursuing. The snub meant they were unable or unwilling to make a case for their candidate because I had a different appearance. So much for party outreach. Perhaps I’m being too sensitive about this. To see bigotry in a run-of-the-mill slight is to buy into the prevalent but lazy narrative that the Republican party is racially intolerant — a parlor game of zero interest to me.

There is no disputing, however, that the GOP has a problem connecting with black voters. So this episode is symptomatic of the larger, enduring issue. It’s not that the party has tried and failed to attract black voters; it’s that it has largely disregarded them. The effect is the Republican cession of the black vote to the Democratic party.

GOP attempts at black outreach are inconsistent and repeatedly undone by inadvisable strategic communication choices and a basic callousness about the black experience in America. Jeb Bush’s recent comment that he would give African Americans “hope and aspiration” instead of bribing them with “free stuff” is a prime example. This sentiment — one that casts the black electorate as a soulless and indolent bloc up for sale to the highest bidder — is as pervasive among some Republicans as it is spurious.

But the blame does not fall solely on the Republican party. Black voters have allowed themselves to be cordoned off into the Democratic party. Obviously, it was an easy choice for any rational, well-informed, and newly empowered black voter in the 1960s to prefer the Democratic party once President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislation further enshrined into law blacks’ equality and rights of citizenship. But since then, partisan loyalty has kept blacks from confronting both parties with policy demands and from forcing a competition between the two parties for their votes.

This is the current state of the African-American electorate. The Republican party ignores it and the Democratic party takes it for granted. They have done so for years. “The painful truth is that in 1972, presidential candidates are either taking the black vote for granted or, worse, they just don’t give a damn,” as Newsweek political correspondent Stephan Lesher put it in the New York Times over four decades ago.

But here’s the good news: We’re approaching the dawn of a new, post-Obama era, when blacks vote at higher rates than whites do and are frustrated that neither party has paid adequate attention to their concerns. The votes of citizens dissatisfied with both parties are up for grabs. Without the first black president in the equation, an engaged black voting bloc is primed for a pitch from new faces in both parties. The Republican who is strong on bedrock conservative principles as well as civil-rights protections will win the support of black voters at levels the party hasn’t seen in generations — I call him the civil-rights Republican.

Everything the Republican party needs to know about the African-American electorate is bound in this one truism: Once civil-rights protections are guaranteed, African Americans will feel free to vote in accordance with their varied economic and social interests.

This simple truth is mostly obscured by the party’s fundamental misunderstanding of black people and what motivates their voting decisions. Many Republicans have largely accepted, and even perpetuated, the false narrative that black Americans are beholden to the Democratic party because it supports them with social-welfare programs and unearned benefits. Blacks’ overwhelming support of Democratic candidates is assumed to be proof that the policy views of black voters are identical with those of the Democratic party. That assumption could not be more wrong.

How we arrived at this point is no mystery. In the decades following their freedom from slavery, black Americans were Republicans to the very limited extent to which they could participate in the political process. This solid allegiance was attributable almost solely to President Lincoln and the Republican congressmen who championed the 13th and 14th Amendments and passed the first set of civil-rights laws, during Reconstruction. The first generation of those who could accurately be labeled African Americans supported the Republican party because it fought for their equality and civil rights when the Democratic party actively opposed those things.

Following President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and President Harry Truman’s desegregation of the military, black voters began drifting toward Democrats. In the wake of lynchings of black Americans and Jim Crow laws depriving black citizens of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, blacks looked for a party to represent their civil rights and economic interests. The Democratic party responded by leading on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and a host of social programs that insulated black Americans from the capricious destructiveness that racial discrimination had unleashed on their lives.

Black voters remained true to their principles of civil-rights protections above all else; it was the parties that had changed. As in the previous era, but this time with roles reversed, blacks supported Democrats because the Democratic party  fought for equality and civil rights in the face of Republican opposition, exemplified by Barry Goldwater’s vocal disapproval of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The stark polarization of the black electorate is a function of the evolution of the parties’ stances on civil-rights protections. Period. There is no mystery here. For the past 150 years, history has shown, black political allegiance is not to a party but to equality and the full rights of citizenship. It really is this straightforward and simple. And this obsession with equality is uniquely and inherently American, arising from the same revolutionary spirit that established the nation.

The lesson for the GOP today can be found in the one period in the early 20th century when there was a contested black electorate. From the 1920s until the mid 1940s, the parties’ civil-rights platforms were either essentially indistinguishable or considered unimportant. In “Platforms and Partners: The Civil Rights Realignment Reconsidered” (2008), Brian D. Feinstein and Eric Schickler examined decades of party statements and candidates’ campaign materials and found that the “parties took nearly identical civil rights stances” from the early 1920s “until approximately 1946.” During that period, blacks’ party identification was evenly split between the parties. When black voters could not identify fundamental differences in the parties’ civil-rights policies, other issues drove their political support.

The lesson is obvious. Remove civil rights as an issue and blacks will be more inclined to support the party that best represents their other interests. In their politics and in their views on social and economic policy, black voters are not monolithic. The black electorate holds a variety of policy positions, just like every other racial and ethnic group in America. This has not been easily observable because of the salience of civil rights but can be seen from even a cursory look at state referendums and polling results.

Republicans can win black votes by first understanding that the black experience in America demands reassurances that the equality of African-Americans is not subject to political whims or electoral strategies. To assume that the Constitution is the only guarantee that blacks need is to ignore history. The 14th Amendment, after all, did not prevent the “separate but equal” doctrine or statutory Jim Crow. It took a century for the nation to grant to blacks the citizenship rights that the Constitution had established.

That being the case, all that the GOP must do to win the sympathy of many black voters is affirm the importance of civil-rights protections, long enshrined in the Constitution and numerous pieces of congressional legislation, and make no effort to undercut them. For blacks, “civil rights” is not a code word for affirmative action, racial quotas, and unfettered pecuniary handouts. Once the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt fully appreciates that, it will see just how simple it is to dismantle the wall between itself and African Americans.

The primacy of civil rights for black voters has obscured their other political concerns. Polls show that the issues most important to blacks, across a wide range of ages, incomes, and levels of education, are crime and the economy — unemployment, poverty, and health-care costs. But, as with all Americans, liberty is their highest priority. Because of the black experience in America, civil rights more heavily influence black voting behavior.

The African-American electorate is the most active racial or ethnic voting bloc in the country. Its voter turnout as a percentage of the total black population has increased by more than 13 percentage points in the past two decades. (In contrast, white-voter turnout as a percentage of the total white population has decreased by 3 percentage points in the past decade.) In 2012, for the first time in history, black-voter turnout was higher than white-voter turnout.

Blacks over the age of 25 are the driving force. They are the only demographic that has grown in each presidential election in the past 20 years. Further, more than half of blacks over 25 have some level of college education, and almost a third are in managerial or professional jobs.

African Americans’ buying power, a measure of disposable net income, is $1.1 trillion, and black-household income is growing fast. Nearly one in five black households earn $75,000 or more. And Nielsen reports that between 2000 and 2013, the aggregate income of all African-American households has increased by 45 percent.

This incredible success has been accompanied by the declining state of the black underclass. The black poverty rate is more than twice that of whites, and almost four in ten black children are growing up in poverty. Poor black families live in segregated neighborhoods, and their children attend de facto segregated schools, concentrating poverty and despair. Black unemployment still exists at a recession-level 10 percent, despite national unemployment rates of roughly 5 percent, meaning that blacks are unemployed at twice the rate of whites, as was the case when the March on Washington took place in 1963. Only 38 percent of black households consist of two-parent families. The median black household has only 6 percent of the wealth of the median white household.

Because poverty and criminality dominate the narrative about the African-American experience, misperceptions persist. African Americans have been typecast as preferring a large government role in addressing their concerns. Through that lens, it appears that the Republican principles of hard work, individualism, personal responsibility, and self-determination would be unappealing to the typical black voter.

But the truth is that, more than any other race or ethnicity, African Americans believe that the American dream is attainable with hard work, according to a poll released in July by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. Any hope that the GOP has of attracting black voters hinges on its ability to substitute that truth for the stereotype that blacks prefer to be dependent on government.

That there is growing socioeconomic inequality within black communities is confirmed by an ongoing research project conducted by Harvard government professor Jennifer Hochschild and Yale political-science professor Vesla Weaver. Investigating the significance of race and class in politics, they have found that racial segregation has decreased in metropolitan areas but that class segregation has increased. Middle-class and affluent blacks have moved away from blacks living in poverty. With respect to social status — wages, work, housing, and schools — the black experience in America is more heterogeneous than it was several decades ago.

In short, there are now two versions of black America — the haves and the have-nots. Hochschild and Weaver’s research shows that, in 2013, black intra-group inequality was the highest in the nation. That has given rise to demonstrable policy splits among blacks. College-educated blacks show less support for government services, crime control, and spending on poverty programs and are more likely to believe that their voices are heard and heeded by government officials. While most blacks agree on policy priorities, their differing experiences have created a divide on the best method to address them. This is the age-old tension between conservatives and liberals.

On the whole, African Americans have begun to lean toward conservative principles regarding redistribution. A recent paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) found that African Americans are less supportive of racially targeted aid, increasingly likely to believe that economic outcomes can be attributed to hard work, and increasingly likely to oppose redistributive programs. In other words, African Americans are increasingly coming to believe that the nation is a fairer place than it once was and that race does not play as large a role in their economic lives as it once did.

Even affluent blacks, however, are aware that their socioeconomic position is tenuous. As Harvard sociology professor William Julius Wilson notes in a recent article, though the unemployment gap between black and white college graduates was just over 1 percent before the 2008 recession, by 2013 the difference was 7.5 percent. Blacks, even the well educated, have disproportionately borne the brunt of the economic slowdowns. When the bottom fell out of the housing market, blacks were harmed most, as they watched a generation of wealth wash away along with respectable credit scores. This influenced their ability to refinance their homes, start small businesses, and even obtain PLUS Loans for their children’s college tuition.

All of that influences the decisions of black Americans about which party and which candidates to support. Though their individual experiences differ, race plays a significant role in how all blacks are perceived and treated by society, as University of Chicago professor Michael Dawson explained in 1994. Dawson argued that race binds black voters together with the belief that one’s success is contingent on the success of the group as a whole — an idea colloquially known as “linked fate.” That belief motivates African Americans to subordinate personal policy preferences and individual economic interests to the civil liberties of the overall group.

Hochschild and Weaver posit that affluent blacks’ move away from policy liberalism could mean either that they have become less concerned with inequality (unlikely, on the linked-fate theory) or that they want to help the poor but are “losing faith in liberal strategies as the best means of doing so.” The latter interpretation is more than mere supposition.

A prime example is an ongoing battle between the Obama administration on one side and, on the other, the National Black Chamber of Commerce and a group of black elected leaders, including the African-American Mayors Association. The mayors and the Chamber are concerned that new limits on air pollution will slow the economy and job growth in cities. African Americans would be hurt the most if environmental regulations forced companies to close sites or lay off workers. On the other side of this argument are black groups that rightly note that air pollution affects poor black communities most. These groups are concerned that the effects of smog on the health of poor black residents exacerbate existing inequality.

African Americans engaged on this issue are split — some favor the conservative principle of free-market economics and less regulation, and others, the progressive principle of a strong central government prioritizing environmental regulations over business profits. They are split because they have been courted by opposing factions — industry and the federal government — and believe that their concerns and preferences are being heard and considered. But the overarching concern about civil rights has overshadowed this natural intra-group tension. If the Republican party can remove civil rights as an issue that distinguishes it from the Democratic party, black conservatism will find expression in politics.

Civil-rights Republicans are the future of the party. They are the only candidates who will bring blacks and other minorities into the GOP in numbers sufficient to keep it competitive for decades to come. Civil-rights Republicans embody and extend the party’s best traditions of inclusivity, and can ease the fears and suspicions that some African Americans have of the party’s objectives. There should be nothing controversial or particularly novel about their proposals. History has shown, however, that the contours of civil-rights protections spark tremendous debate.

Insofar as being pro–civil rights has come to mean favoring wealth redistribution based on race, the term “civil rights” has been hijacked. The current prevailing perception is that civil rights are incompatible with social and fiscal conservatism, small government, and personal responsibility. This is wrong.

In truth, to be pro–civil rights means only to be in favor of equality with respect to the rights of citizenship extended to all Americans, regardless of race. Yes, some blacks support racial quotas, reparations, and redistribution. But those are not civil rights, and as detailed in the NBER report, blacks have significantly decreased their support for such aid relative to other respondents. The term “civil rights” must be wrested away from liberalism and nested in constitutionalism.

So the first job of civil-rights Republicans is to redefine the issue for the party’s base; then they must make the case to African Americans. Republicans have allowed themselves to be branded as uniquely intolerant, sometimes through their words and actions and other times through their choice to remain silent. The remedy is consistent and outspoken civil-rights Republicans who clearly speak out against those in the party who spout racially insensitive comments. For example, when Donald Trump says that blacks have no spirit, and when Bush says that blacks vote for whoever promises the most “free stuff,” civil-rights Republicans should immediately and forcefully condemn the remarks, without mincing words. A record of such public defenses of African Americans will provide a counter-narrative to the branding problem the party currently faces.

As a matter of policy, civil-rights Republicans should differ from the party’s current practice in one major respect: They should pay close attention to ways in which existing and proposed policies disproportionately harm African Americans. For example, whites are more likely to sell drugs and as likely to use them, but blacks are far more likely to get arrested for drugs. Or consider voting rights. Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, many states have implemented new voter-identification laws targeted at reducing voter fraud. As it turns out, many of these laws have made voting more difficult for many blacks. Civil-rights Republicans should stress the importance of stemming the criminalization of black people and seek to prevent the disenfranchisement of blacks while still honoring the right of states to enact measures that reduce voter fraud, to the extent that it occurs.

Civil-rights Republicans should also take aim at disparate impact. Though this concept is usually associated with housing policy, it applies in general to policies that are likely well intended but are, in their implementation, disproportionately harmful to minorities. Disparate impact lies at the heart of most African Americans’ policy concerns.

Blacks aren’t for affirmative action as much as they are for equal treatment in all aspects of employment — hiring, promotion, retirement, and layoffs. Blacks aren’t for redistribution as much as they are for equal access to opportunities that will increase their social and economic status. Blacks aren’t for policies that are weak on crime as much as they are for a criminal-justice system that treats all Americans the same. So, to attract black voters, civil-rights Republicans don’t need to champion liberal policies, but only to ensure that conservative policies don’t leave blacks behind.

Republicans also have yet to take note of the other side of the coin — positive disparate impact, or propitious impact. Just as it is important to examine where policy specifically fails blacks, attracting black voters will require highlighting those conservative policies that help them. Criminal-justice reform, for example, is consonant with Republican values, as it promotes better use of taxpayer dollars and curbs the overweening state. And it disproportionately benefits African Americans, who constitute a disproportionate share of the incarcerated population.

Or consider over-regulation. The Republican party is committed to eliminating it. Removing regulations that hamper job creation and economic growth in metropolitan areas, which tend to have large black populations, is another policy with propitious impact. Accordingly, an attractive case for it can be made to black voters. Industry has led that charge, but civil-rights Republicans should join it.

But, as important as reducing disparate impact and increasing propitious impact is, policy isn’t enough. Republicans should also seek opportunities to engage with African Americans. Candidates and elected officials should meet with predominantly black audiences, large and small, and dispel the notion that the party is unconcerned about them.

Engagement is a two-way endeavor. It introduces African Americans to Republicans, and it familiarizes Republicans with African Americans at the grassroots level, militating against stereotypes. Each side’s showing up communicates a willingness to listen, learn, and find common ground. It also provides an opportunity to air grievances directly, rather than through the filter of the press or of mouthpieces who may not be truly representative of the party or the people. Only through honest conversations can interlocutors discuss the nuances of policy and cut through the noise of caricature.

Republicans should achieve these goals through a pragmatic electoral strategy, particularly in presidential campaigns. A modest increase in support among black voters in certain areas could deliver the presidency to the Republican party in 2016. Five states will be particularly important: Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. In 2012, they were decided by slim margins, with Obama winning all of them but North Carolina. Obama won Florida’s 29 Electoral College votes by fewer than 75,000 popular votes. As the Wall Street Journal has pointed out, if Romney had won 10 percent of the black vote there instead of 4 percent, he would have flipped the state. The margins in the other four states were similarly small.

The electoral strategy must not be limited to winning more black votes but should also demonstrate how conservative governance can produce better outcomes for black citizens. This is necessary because when black voters are dissatisfied with a Democratic candidate or especially pleased with a Republican candidate, their turnout decreases. Studies show that black voters stay home because, though they might prefer the particular Republican candidate, they (out of loyalty to the Democratic party) don’t want to vote against the Democratic candidate and (because some Republicans are insensitive on race) don’t want to vote Republican, on principle.

So the calculus is clear. For every ten black voters who choose not to vote, the Democratic candidate loses nine votes, and the Republican only one, if we assume that those who stayed home would have broken for the Democrat in roughly the same proportion as the black vote breaks for Democratic candidates generally. When this effect is coupled with a Republican candidate who competes for the black vote more effectively than most Republicans do, the path to victory is evident.

Moreover, Republican tactical cynicism, real or perceived, increases the black vote, and increases it for Democratic candidates. Consider, for example, North Carolina. It passed the Voter Identification and Verification Act, placing new restrictions on acceptable forms of identification, early-voting availability, and same-day registration. Many black voters perceived the aim of voter-ID laws to be the suppression of their vote, and, as a result, the 2014 midterm election saw the highest levels of black-voter participation in recent state history.

Lamentably, some Republican strategists prefer a different approach, arguing that simply increasing white-voter participation to 75 percent or higher would ensure victory for Republicans. Such an effort would amount to doubling down on Nixon’s “southern” strategy in 1968, which alienated minority voters by appealing to white fears. We are seeing some of the markers of this strategy in today’s presidential campaigns, with some candidates harshly criticizing Hispanic and Asian immigrants for coming to the United States to commit crimes and have “anchor babies,” while others broadly declare Islam to be incompatible with American values. There will soon be no minority group left for the party to alienate. Who’s next, the Irish?

The Republican party will be far better off over the long term if it reclaims the mantle of properly enforced civil rights. To reiterate: That means speaking out against racially disparaging remarks, calling out policies that have a disparate impact on minority voters, promoting policies that have a propitious impact, and executing a committed, focused engagement strategy. Taken together, these straightforward steps will change the way the party is perceived among black voters and increase its share of the black vote.

The gulf between the African-American electorate and the Republican party is the result of a vicious cycle. Black voters are used to discounting Republican candidates because Republicans are used to ignoring black voters, and vice versa. Both sides hear what they want to hear and rarely sit down to listen to each other. As with any other bad habit, this one can be broken only with resolve and determination.

Fortunately, the time and sociopolitical conditions are nearly ideal for Republicans to begin refashioning blacks’ perception of their party. Blacks are less than enamored with the current Democratic presidential candidates but primed to be electorally active at high levels. They are eager to have their votes appreciated and to be courted by both parties. They have begun expressing views that align with conservative principles and wish to elaborate on them once the basic questions of liberty and civil rights no longer overshadow every other consideration. And they are increasingly exasperated by insinuations from both parties that they require governmental mothering to have a shot at success in America.

Civil-rights Republicans who approach black voters with respect and sincerity can win not only their votes but also those of other minorities and of independents. Such a Republicanism will be truer to the nation’s founding ideals of liberty and equality and will continue the work, begun by Lincoln, of making those ideals a reality. If, on the other hand, the Republican party declines to take up the nation’s unfinished work, it will not only miss an opportunity to do what is right. It may sustain political injuries from which it will never recover.

– Mr. Johnson is a doctoral candidate in public policy at Northeastern University and a former White House Fellow.

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