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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.

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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.

Racial polarization was evident in other respects. Sizable percentages of Republican voters believe that Obama had not been born in the United States, was a Muslim, and favored socialism. They were also likely to think that Obama was taking their tax dollars and redistributing them to undeserving blacks and other nonwhites. A majority of Republicans responding to a 2010 poll thought that discrimination against whites was just as significant as that suffered by nonwhites. A Congressional Republicans usually preferred to let such talk percolate among grassroots groups and conservative media, although a few openly embraced these sentiments. Republican votes as well as GOP lawmakers vehemently denied that racial malice was involved. A majority of African Americans, however, thought that racial animus was a significant factor among the president’s opponents.

Numerous states, almost all of them under GOP leadership, adopted assorted electoral reforms in the wake of Obama’s victory. These included requiring voters to show photo identification, reducing early or absentee voting, and making it more difficult for convicted felons to restore their voting rights. Republicans insisted that such efforts were necessary to preserve honest elections. Civil rights groups considered them an ominous return to Jim Crow-era restrictions, many of which had also been ostensibly race neutral and heralded by supporters as necessary to combat fraud. The 2012 Republican platform endorsed antifraud initiatives, and as the November election neared, some GOP officials publicly stated that they had no objection to making it harder for blacks to vote.

Republicans were confident that the economic crisis would make Obama a one-term president. They nominated Willard (“Mitt”) Romney, who, like his father George, had enjoyed a successful business career before entering politics. Romney had few ties to blacks, however. The GOP, meanwhile, had grown more heavily dependent on white voters since 2008. Eager to boost white turnout, Romney accused Obama of undermining work requirements for welfare recipients and taking money from Medicare to fund health care for the pool Republicans vigorously denied charges of racism and accused critics of injecting race into matters where it was irrelevant. The real issue, they insisted, was the unjust transfer of money to an indolent, dependent underclass.

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Obama nevertheless triumphed by reassembling his 2008 coalition. African American turnout was strong; 93 percent of black voters backed the president. Romney easily defeated Obama among whites, although this was largely driven by overwhelming support in the South. Republicans had now failed to capture a majority of the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. Democrats, moreover, enlarged their majority in the Senate.

The nation’s shifting demographics, not the troubled economy, was the most important story of the campaign. “Republicans have run out of persuadable white voters,” two GOP pollsters warned a month later. Relying almost solely on whites—a viable GOP strategy for much of the post-1945 era—was now insufficient. The white share of the electorate, in decline since the 1990s, would almost certainly continue to shrink. Although Republican leaders agreed that their party needed to become more diverse, they made no serious bid to win over black voters. As Obama began his second term, Republicans focused on Latinos, a group that was growing at a much faster rate than the African American population.

Republicans also showed little inclination to rethink long-standing attitudes about race, politics, and the role of the state. Stung by his defeat, Romney consoled supporters by telling them that Obama had used the Democrats’ “old playbook” by offering “gifts” to blacks and others in return for votes. A two-term African American president, elected largely by women, youth, and nonwhites, indicated that much had changed since the New Deal. Yet as far as Republicans were concerned, nothing had changed.

If you enjoyed this excerpt, you can purchase the full book here.

Reprinted from Republicans and Race: The GOP’s Frayed Relationship with African-Americans, 1945-1974 by Timothy N. Thurber, with permission of University Press of Kansas. © 2013.


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