Civil-Rights Republicanism

Theodore R. Johnson, National Review, October 2015

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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.

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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.

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{snip} 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.

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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. [Editor’s Note: As noted in our recent report, 82 percent of black households with children are on some sort of means-tested welfare; the figure is 55 percent for all black households.]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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