01/04/2007 10:00 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Republicans and the Black Vote

A significant story line for the 2008 Republican presidential machine will be the relationship between Republicans and Black voters. This is a relationship that garners attention every national election cycle and raises a number of concerns. Many analysts wonder why the Grand Old Party (GOP) has been unable to gain a significant foothold in the Black community. Still others want to know how the GOP found itself in its current predicament with a formerly supportive constituency. Some even implicitly criticize Black voters for not being more open to supporting the GOP. Still others, given current political trends, suggest that the GOP should simply throw up its collective hands and spend no additional time or resources seeking Black votes and focus more attention, instead, on Hispanic voters. And then there are the cynics who wonder, GOP pronouncements notwithstanding, if Republicans really want Black votes or just want to appear to want Black votes to show racial moderation to centrist voters.

Be that as it may, the nation's changing demography and more closely contested national elections are among the factors that are forcing the GOP to reach out and gain support in previously untapped voter reservoirs with African Americans at the top of the list. This is particularly notable when one considers that President Bush did better with gay voters in 2004 than African American voters, 25 percent to 11 percent, respectively. While there was not much about which to be optimistic for the GOP as it relates to Black voters, the fact is that the party must do better with this constituency or run the risk of extinction.

The research I conducted for my book - Republicans and the Black Vote - leads me to three conclusions. First, the historical relationship between the Republican party and the Black community, while significant, important, notable, and critical to African American political, social, and economic development during the Reconstruction era, is often overstated. Republican activists and others who laud the GOPs early support for African American interests are correct in noting the role of the "Party of Lincoln" in Black political development. These same activists and others are mistaken when they try to portray this effort as unanimous within the party and long lasting. A review of the historical record shows that the party began retreating from its commitments to African Americans within a generation of the party's founding, particularly with the Hayes-Tilden Compromise of 1877. From that point, over the objections of a small, but important faction of "Radical" Republicans, the party began to compete with the Democratic party for the southern conservative and racist vote.

These efforts set in motion a multi-generational period in which the party, in some parts of the country, marginalized and demonized Black America to win elections. The "Lily-White Movement" is one of the darkest, and under-examined, eras of American Republicanism. That a party would systematically purge voters, particularly those as loyal to the GOP as post-Reconstruction era Blacks, can only be seen as an attempt to repudiate the liberal social policy positions on which the Republican Party was founded. That repudiation, with decreasing amounts of opposition, continues to this day.

Second, many African American GOP activists do not understand the link between ideology and voter support. If they did, then perhaps they would call for the party to moderate some of its policy positions to win Black votes. Republicans want African American votes; they just do not want to moderate their positions to achieve them. Every Black Republican I interviewed rejected the notion that the party needs to moderate its positions to win more Black votes. This reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the Black vote. African Americans, when taken in total, vote and support policies that are left of center; in fact, their support for the GOP has been strongest when the party was to the left of the Democrats. The party lost support as it moved right ideologically. Given the position of the Black community on the full range of public policy issues, it's difficult to see how the GOP can win more Black votes without moderating its positions; indeed, the GOP has moved away from Black people.

Third, the political paradox in which the GOP finds itself still exists calls into question just how far it will go to win more Black support. The over-reliance of the Republican Party on White voters is still required, given the inability of the party to make significant inroads in the Black and Hispanic communities. This paradox, coupled with contemporary dominance of national politics, may make it irresistible for some Republican activists to change their strategic focus by seeking more Black voters, particularly if this shift alienates White voters who respond favorably to racial stereotyping and symbolism that denigrates African Americans and their policy interests.

After writing the book, I have come to believe that the Republican Party does not have much of a clue as to how to deal with African Americans. One the one hand, they profess to want Black votes; on the other, they offer nothing of substance. This kind of confusion will, no doubt, continue the Republicans on the track toward oblivion in the Black community. That's too bad, but true and they only have themselves to blame. Criticizing Black leaders and the media won't make the GOP more attractive to African Americans - consistent support for public policy that helps improve the general condition of African Americans is the only answer.

A party's future is often formed by its past. The more recent the past, the more relevant it is in determining where a party is heading. The Democratic Party was able to overcome the racist past characterized by its southern conservatism. It's opposition to civil rights during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras ultimately gave way to a more enlightened and progressive approach to Black America. It took time. It wasn't easy. But, ultimately, the party went from near unanimous opposition in the African American community during the 1870s to near unanimous support more than a century later. There are some who argue that passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 - two important steps in facilitating Black support - actually opened the door for southern conservatives to march out and join the GOP, subsequently leading to the diminution of the Democrats' political dominance.

The Republican Party has a multi-generational history of purging, demonizing, and opposing African American political empowerment. This, coupled with the use of negative political symbolism, covert racism, and public policy that some African Americans believed to be aimed at the Black community have constructed brick after brick in a political wall between the party and African Americans may take as long to tear down as it did to build.