How the Republican Party Can Win Black Voters

Neo-Classical Republicanism

Published: February 13, 2013


DURING Tuesday’s State of the Union address, President Obama declared that “Our housing market is healing, our stock market is rebounding and consumers, patients and homeowners enjoy stronger protections than ever before.”

Tell that to black Americans, who were hit harder than the rest of the country by the recession and are having a harder time recovering. That struggle is not a coincidence, or merely a result of past inequality. During the housing bubble, blacks were deliberately targeted for subprime loans: as Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said, the big banks committed “systematic discrimination against blacks and Hispanics.”

One would think that Republicans, so eager to promote wealth building, would see an opening. Instead, they blamed blacks for the recession, accusing them, among other things, of taking out risky mortgages they couldn’t afford.

But the response on the left has been equally frustrating. By advocating government action as the first response to black unemployment, “progressive” opinion makers encourage the popular stereotype that blacks and welfare are virtually synonymous (even though the bulk of handouts go to red-state whites).

With the Democrats in power and the Republicans at risk of going the way of the Whigs, according to their former chairman, Michael Steele, maybe the Republican Party should go back to its beginnings as the party of freedom.

Though Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican president, the party’s first presidential candidate, in 1856, was the politician and soldier John C. Frémont, whose campaign promised “free soil” and “free men.” In 1861, as the general in charge of all territory west of the Mississippi, Frémont issued the first proclamation emancipating slaves, which Lincoln quickly revoked (the same Lincoln who frequently used racial epithets).

The Republican Party was influenced by the abolitionist Liberty Party, whose leading lights included Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, who later said: “I recognize the Republican Party as the sheet anchor of the colored man’s political hopes and the ark of his safety.”

Likewise, in an 1872 letter to her fellow activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Anthony wrote: “I shall continue to work for the Republican Party … for what the party has done and promises to do for women.”

Why can’t that emancipationist sentiment return today? The original Republicans were born from a challenge to the far right — Lincoln gained influence by criticizing the Know-Nothing Party, the far right of his time. The same could happen today, gaining millions of adherents tired of the right’s racism and the left’s big-government stereotypes. Call it “neo-Classical Republicanism.”

The door is wide open. As Mr. Obama’s critics on the black left have noted, blacks haven’t benefited from his presidency as much as other factions of the Democratic coalition. He’s less of a Malcolm X than a Booker T. Washington, who would have endorsed the president’s belief that “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

Yet most of Mr. Obama’s black critics, mainly from academia, want him only to move further left; they seem to lack confidence in the ability of blacks to create businesses, when blacks have been operating businesses since colonial times. Since 1979, when I moved to inner-city Oakland, I’ve observed the work ethic of those residents holding legitimate low-wage jobs as well as those engaged in the underground economy.

Why not send retired business leaders into our prisons to tutor those young criminal entrepreneurs on how to run a legitimate business? They have business savvy, just lousy lawyers. All they need is a different product. This would be the perfect project for Mitt Romney; it could become his legacy.

I also agree with Republicans who say that the public schools have failed black and Hispanic boys. (Judging from test scores, they’ve failed white boys, too.) They should do more to promote the successful ones as models. The English scores at the Oakland Military Institute and the Oakland School for the Arts, charter schools with a large Hispanic and black enrollment, exceed those of Oakland public schools.

Republicans should also be more open to programs like that of the educator and poet Haki Madhubuti, a founder of the Betty Shabazz International Charter School in Chicago. He focuses on African-American literature — not just books about black dysfunction, readily available in the marketplace, but a variety of texts that give students alternative role models to those provided by the media, who are too often seen toting semiautomatic weapons.

And Republicans should oppose discrimination against blacks by banks and mortgage companies, which frequently deny blacks access to loans with which to begin businesses and purchase homes so that they can develop the equity toward a nest egg. And since the Republican ideal is a colorblind America, how about promoting a colorblind criminal justice system?

Rather than running on bizarre suggestions that Mr. Obama was influenced by his father’s anticolonialism, wouldn’t the billionaires in the Republican Party get more for their money by embracing proven solutions that address the real problems of black America?

After all, if the president and the Democrats won’t do it, someone has to.

Ishmael Reed is a visiting scholar at the California College of the Arts and the author, most recently, of the novel “Juice!” and the essay collection “Going Too Far.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: February 15, 2013
An Op-Ed essay on Thursday about Republican opportunities to woo black voters incorrectly described the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. He was a leading light of the American Anti-Slavery Society — not of the Liberty Party, which broke away from the society in 1840.

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