Hey Republicans, great new strategy — but before you bet on blacks…

May 13, 2013
Theodore Johnson

Theodore Johnson

By Theodore Johnson
Op-Ed Columnist,
2012 White House Fellow

One would think that a pro-defense family man raised in a red-state, Southern Baptist household would be easy pickings for the Republican Party. Last October while out checking the mailbox, however, canvassers clad in Romney paraphernalia walked right past me without so much as a hello. Maybe it was just an innocent mistake. Or perhaps it was because I’m African-American, and, you know, the Democratic Party has us blacks in their pocket; why waste a flier, or even a neighborly smile, on me?
Maybe I’m just being too sensitive. After all, expending resources on African-Americans, a demographic that cast 95 and 93 percent of its votes in 2008 and 2012, respectively, for President Obama, is not sound marketing strategy. And if I learned nothing else in the torrent of election season advertising, it’s that Republicans are proponents of the nebulous objective of “letting markets work.”
Perhaps concerned with the perception that the party is more interested in policy than people, Reince Priebus and the Republican National Committee released a new strategy of inclusion that no longer intends to render my vote to mere afterthought. Titled “Growth and Opportunity Project,” the plan attempts to shed a view held by many minorities and young adults that the party only cares about older, richer, straight, white men. Its primary implicit realization is that many of its social policies are deal breakers for voters, particularly single women and the gay/lesbian community, who may otherwise agree with the party’s platform of fiscal conservatism and limited government.
African-Americans should welcome the plan’s intention. We are not interested in having our votes taken for granted or ignored, so an inclusive, socially viable Republican Party is good for the country. As an independent, I pride myself on having my ballot completely up for grabs in every election. But before any substantial segment of the black electorate trusts the spirit of this new charm offensive or seriously considers a national Republican candidate, there are three simple things it has to do.
First, it must recognize we are especially proud the nation elected a black man to the presidency. Treating him with the utmost respect is essential to winning African-American votes. This fact should be painstakingly obvious, but it clearly is not. The party may not realize this, but when it or its members insult the president or the first lady, we take it personally. If they are unabashed in their personal attacks on the president of the United States, we can only imagine what’s said about us when we leave the room.
In fact, we don’t have to imagine. At prominent Republican gatherings in the last few months, African-Americans have had peanuts thrown at them and called zoo animals, been told that we should be thankful for slavery because we had free food and shelter, and watched a GOP diversity meeting occur on grounds where slave quarters once stood. Even the Tea Party figure Dick Armey noted, “You can’t call someone ugly and expect them to go to the prom with you.”

Second, and it’s quite simple really, treat us like citizens, and not like government expenditures. African-Americans need to feel like the Republican tenets of small government, less regulation, and lower taxes are better for us and not just code words for trickle-down money being the guarantor of our rights. We are more than taxpayers, so making your case in the actuarial language of rates and deficit isn’t helping change the perception that consumers and corporations are more important to the party than the citizen.
This latter point is critical. When people are viewed as nothing more than accounting lines, it dehumanizes ensuing interactions. The result for African-Americans is predictable and especially painful. Racially motivated and perpetuated stereotypes have placed a black face on welfare, crime, and sexual promiscuity, so “spending cuts” on things like safety net programs and Medicaid are interpreted as getting rid of the melanin-infused deadweight on the economy.
Which leads me to the third point: leave the adherence of social mores to the people. It’s especially in instances like these where we’d like to see limited government. We don’t want government in our bedrooms, in the wombs of the women we love, attempting to stop and frisk our dignity away, or at the altar of our wedding ceremonies. Legislated groupthink, instead of adhering to our declared inalienable rights, is what led to the country enforcing “separate but equal” segregationist policies and severely restricting voting practices for most Americans.
And here’s a bonus tip: you do realize that Colin Powell was Barack Obama first, right? He was a transformative figure long before Obama came on the scene. There is little doubt that if Powell had received the nomination for president in 2000, he would have at least split the black vote, ensuring a Republican victory, and probably changing the trajectory of the relationship between Republicans and African-Americans henceforth. Instead, today, Powell has been all but ostracized from the party for voting for the inclusive candidate as opposed to the one perceived to retrench to an aging, exclusive America. The point here is that the party has opportunities; squandering them does more damage than any document can ever undo.
That’s the basic outline of where to start before the party starts showing up with a smile and elephant stickers wherever black people congregate, and wonder why the reception is chilly. There’s no mobile phone app born out of digital data mining — a technical goal of the new GOP strategy — that will provide the return on investment like simply listening and genuinely engaging the electorate. In other words, being in my inbox is worthless if you walk past me at my mailbox.
Maybe I’ll see you at my fraternity gala, HBCU homecoming, or church anniversary repast. Or maybe not. Guess I’ll just let the market for my vote work.