It used to be that if you were black, you were a Republican.

Aubrey Henretty
Courtesy Michigan Senate Republicans —
State Sen. Bill Hardiman (R-Kentwood), left, with Secretary of State Colin Powell, says Republicans need to pay more attention to black voters, not wait until Election Day.

The Republican Party’s first convention – in 1854 in nearby
Jackson – adopted a platform that was unquestionably pro-black. Its
main plank, after all, was the end of slavery.

But since the New Deal the GOP has had, well, a little trouble
selling its policies to blacks.

As Robert A. George noted in an August 2000 piece in the
National Review, the Republican hold on the black vote has been on
a downward slide ever since the 1930s. As a point of reference:
President Dwight Eisenhower received 39 percent of the black vote
in his 1956 reelection bid. George W. Bush, it is estimated,
captured less than 10 percent of the black vote in 2000.

As president, Bush, as well as fellow Republicans, have made a
point of trying to build some sort of Republican base among blacks.
U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert recently – and publicly – urged
fellow House members to hire more minorities on their staffs to, it
was explained, better educate legislators on minority issues.

Now, with the debate over affirmative action policies
intensifying and the lawsuits challenging the University’s are
heard in the U.S. Supreme Court April 1, the GOP is in a tough
spot. How does it oppose race-conscious admissions policies that –
at least on the surface – benefit blacks, while at the same time
convince (a few? some? many?) blacks that it is as pro-black as it
ever was.

No Republican leader has offered a clear answer here, and so far
we’ve seen only small steps in a myriad of directions.

Among the president’s actions: naming blacks as top officials in
his administration – Colin Powell as secretary of state and
Condoleezza Rice as national security adviser, but also the chief
diplomat’s son, Michael Powell, as chairman of the Federal
Communications Commission, and Larry Thompson as deputy attorney
general.

The president has pushed his so-called Faith-Based Initiative,
which would make it easier for religious organizations – including
black churches – to receive federal dollars for their charity
work.

He has pushed for an expanded federal role in K-12 education via
the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which, it is hoped, will
benefit impoverished urban schools.

When Bush went on television in January saying he would file a
brief opposing the University’s policies, it seemed his
administration would be taking a pretty hard line on the subject.
But Solicitor General Theodore Olson’s argument in the
administration’s amicus brief with the court is couched in terms of
inclusion and diversity. It essentially reads: “We’re all for
diversity. Diversity’s great! Just don’t give points simply for
skin color. That’s bad.”

So that’s a reasonably clear argument offered by one Republican,
but …

When a totally symbolic resolution to oppose the University’s
policies was proposed in the state House by conservative
Republicans, the GOP leadership there figured it wasn’t the right
time.

“It’s a very contentious issue, and out of respect for both
sides, we didn’t feel a vote was necessary,” a spokesman for the
House speaker said at the time.

But since when was controversy a reason to drop an issue?

Party leaders have to walk a fine line between infuriating
blacks for the GOP stance on affirmative action and not being
wishy-washy enough to be seen as betraying the cause.

As Lansing-based GOP strategist Matthew Davis explains,
Republican leaders cannot and should not follow the Trent Lott
example. That’s when one opposes affirmative action for years, and
then, when taking heat for racially-charged comments, switches his
position on affirmative action. “The Democrats didn’t kick Trent
Lott out of the leadership. It was Republicans,” said Davis, who is
half black. “It wasn’t because he was an embarrassment, (but) to go
on Black Entertainment Television and prostitute the way he did and
abandon the principles that are held by so many Republicans (by
saying he supports affirmative action) – that was galling.”

In Davis’ view, Republicans should hold their ground on
affirmative action, but stress other GOP policy positions that are
beneficial to blacks. Among them: often-criticized crime laws that
incarcerate a disproportionate number of black Americans – but
which punish those who commit the most crimes against blacks.

But the problem, at least with tougher crime laws and
affirmative action, is that Republicans have been talking about
that stuff for years and their poll numbers have only gone
down.

Bill Hardiman, the first black Republican elected to the
Michigan Legislature in 70 years, may have an answer.

“If candidates rush out and have a few meetings (with blacks)
right during campaign time, I don’t think that means very much to
anyone – ‘Certainly you want my vote, but will you be back?’ – I
encourage people to start right after the election, long before the
next election.”

It doesn’t look good when the Republican nominee for a prominent
office makes only a token appearance at the NAACP convention, just
before the election.

The outreach has to be genuine and sincere, says Hardiman, a
state senator from suburban Grand Rapids. In terms of policy
positions and ideology, he thinks Republicans are no less in line
with the average black person than Democrats are.

“I think that when … a group of acquaintances are homogenous,
it doesn’t expand one’s understanding, one’s knowledge base, so I
think for some (Republicans) it’s ‘We’re right on the issues,
there’s no need to talk about it, and if you want to join, come and
join us.'”

But if the Republicans can ever get their act together, and
sooner or later they will, Democrats are in trouble.

As Eastern Michigan University political science Prof. Jeffrey
Bernstein told the Daily earlier this month: “If the Republicans
could ever find a way to win 20 percent of the African-American
vote, they couldn’t lose.”

Meizlish is an LSA junior and editor in chief of the
Daily
.

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