This weekend, The Weekend Reader brings you Republicans and Race: The GOP’s Frayed Relationship with African-Americans, 1945-1974 by historian Timothy Thurber. It’s no surprise that the GOP, the self-proclaimed Party of Lincoln has had a difficult relationship with the African-American community. As the synopsis says, “Since 1964, no Republican presidential candidate has attracted more than 15 percent of the black electorate, and few GOP candidates for other offices have fared much better.” Thurber investigates and delves into what caused this division, and why the GOP wrote them off between the Roosevelt and Nixon presidencies.
While Thurber provides a historical context for this fractured relationship between the GOP and African-Americans — an increasingly politically active demographic — the excerpt here is his postscript to years of research. Thirty years of conservative policy brought the U.S. to the election of its first African-American president. What does this say about what’s to come for the Republican Party, and the direction in which American voters are moving on the political spectrum? And what does this tell us about the future of minority voters in the U.S.?
You can purchase the book here.
The gulf between blacks and the GOP grew even more pronounced when Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) became the first African American president. Obama tried to downplay race and enfold blacks’ concerns within a universalist framework. That approach reflected his personality and ideology, but it also stemmed from a political calculation that whites resented overt attempts to aid blacks. “Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan coalition,” Obama observed. Indeed, surveys showed that whites opposed efforts targeted at blacks and were much more likely than blacks to believe that racial equality had been achieved.
Obama’s historic victory in 2008 resulted from a coalition of whites, blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans. Black voters participation reached record levels. Obama’s opponent, Senator John McCain of Arizona, received just 4 percent of the black vote, an all-time low for a Republican. If the 2008 electorate had been demographically identical to the 1992 electorate, Obama would have lost. The Republican base of white, married Christians was now shrinking as a percentage of the population.
With the Obama coalition having the potential to make the GOP the minority party, Republicans immediately stepped up efforts to reach out to nonwhites. More symbol than substance, these initiatives mirrored the clumsy, short-lived attempts of the past. In January 2009 Michael Steele became the first African American chair of the RNC. That fall, the RNC debuted a new web page emphasizing the party’s commitment to racial equality. Most of the content focused on the nineteenth century. Steele, who ran up large debts and made numerous enemies during this two-year tenure, he told a black audience in 2010 that there was no reason for African Americans to vote Republican. Steele dropped out of the 2011 race for RNC chair and disappeared from party activities. He was not invited to the 2012 Republican convention.
African Americans were more concerned about the economy than developments at the RNC. Obama’s presidency occurred during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Black unemployment and poverty rose substantially. During the first decade of the twenty-first century, African Americans suffered greater loss of employer-provided health insurance than did whites or Latinos. By 2011, the gap in wealth between whites and blacks had reached a record high. Obama rejected civil rights leaders’ calls for specific steps to assist blacks. Instead, he offered an economic stimulus package that consisted of tax cuts and spending increases, including aid to state and local governments to protect public-sector jobs. He also led a successful fight for reforms intended to broaden access to health insurance.
After expanding debt greatly during the Bush years, Republicans now preached an urgent need for austerity. Obama and the Democrats, they alleged, were driving the nation to fiscal ruin through profligate spending. Republicans demanded tax cuts (primarily for the wealthy), deep budget cuts for social welfare programs, and repeal of much of Obama’s health care initiative. Blacks, who were twice as likely as whites to support Obama’s health program, saw the GOP as a direct threat to their economic well-being.