Race and the Republicans
Virginia Senator George Allen and Maryland Lt. Governor Michael Steele represent the Republican Party’s racial quandary: How do you make a party more palatable to African Americans when the party and some of its leaders have histories that show sympathy to racists or have supporters that use race to make positive assertions that are not true? On the one hand is Allen, whose unfortunate affection for the confederacy and all it represents dates to his teen years. On the other hand is Steele, seeking to become the first African American elected to the Senate from Maryland. Their ability to effectively deal with this quandary will determine just how successful the party will be in wooing minority voters going forward.
Allen is under a deluge of pressure to respond to allegation that he has been too cozy with racism in his earlier days and what, if any, residual prejudice may still exist in him. Herein lies the problem for his campaign: Every day he spends responding to and defending himself against his distant past is a day that he can’t spend addressing his recent past – his support for the Bush administration and conservatism in a state that is not as “red” as it used to be. His campaign is stuck in deep water now and his head is above water only because his opponent, nominal Democrat Jim Webb, is weak and has his own problems as he responds to opinions he expressed 20 years ago about women in the military.
While Allen’s problems are somewhat self-inflicted, Steele is being done in by those who purport to be supporters. The National Black Republican Association (NBRA) ran a radio advertisement in the Baltimore media market that stated Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Republican and that Democrats were responsible for the creation of the Ku Klux Klan. Steele should be commended for calling on the NBRA to stop running the ad, but the damage may have been done.
This ad is ridiculous on at least three levels: First, it states that King was a Republican. King, according to a biographer and a representative from the King Center, was nonpartisan. It’s also instructive to note that virtually all of his lieutenants – namely, Walter Fauntroy, Andrew Young, Hosea Williams, and John Lewis – all ran for and won elected office as Democrats. Second, it suggests that if King were alive today, he’d be a Republican; there is no evidence to support that, particularly given GOP-international policy that acts as if our problems abroad lend themselves to military solutions. Third, the Klan-Democrat link is misleading. Yes, many racists and Klan sympathizers of that era were Democrats. They opposed Republican racial moderation and liberalism. What’s also true is that those Democrats were also conservatives and it is not a stretch to see that most conservative racist sympathizers of that era would not be Democrats today. Indeed, segregationists like Strom Thurmond left the Democrats to become Republicans as a protest to Democrats shifting positions on race. Many of those who left the Democratic Party became Republicans.
The ultimate problem with the ad, however, is that by going so far overboard in trying to ingratiate Republicans with Black voters, the ad actually reminds people why the party is in such bad shape in Black communities around the nation. There is a delicious irony in the NBRA running on race as they are: often Black conservatives criticize Democrats who address race-specific issues claiming it gets in the way of the goal for a society that doesn’t deal in race. So the use of race in an ad smacks of hypocrisy.
Any way you slice it, Republicans like Allen and Steele are now being cut by the double-edged sword that is race in America politics.