The RNC Celebrates MLK Jr. and How Republicans Can Win Black Voters

Conservative politics can thrive in pockets of the black community. Republicans just have to work for it, writes Jamelle Bouie after going to the RNC’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

08.27.13 10:46 AM ET

When Sen. Rand Paul (R–Kentucky) went to Howard University earlier this year to speak to African-American college students and commence his outreach to the black community, I—and others—were frustrated by his refusal to acknowledge the dual heritage of his political party. He wanted to claim the Great Emancipator (“We are the Party of Lincoln!”without acknowledging the cultural legacy of Ronald Reagan, who railed against “welfare queens,” capitalized on white fear, and—as an opponent of the Voting Rights Act—stood on the wrong side of history when it mattered most.

With that said, Paul had the right idea: There is a reachable constituency for conservative politics in the black community. Republicans just have to work for it. But what does that look like? If yesterday’s luncheon commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is any indication, it’s a version of traditional black conservatism, with its emphasis on community building and uplift.

Organized by the Republican National Committee, this event was both a celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, and a showcase for black Republicanism. The large majority of the attendees were African-American, and they included former congressman Allen West, T.W. Shannon (speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives), Alveda King (niece of Martin Luther King Jr.), and a large variety of party members and activists.

Figures like West have made themselves famous by decrying the “Democratic plantation” and attacking other African-Americans for their partisan affiliation, but that rhetoric was absent from the program. Instead, several speakers gave what essentially were sermons on community responsibility and uplift—language that wouldn’t be out of place on a Saturday at the barbershop, or on Sunday from the pulpit.

“We need to be prayerful in reaffirming our commitment to making this a better nation,” said Robert J. Brown, chairman of PR firm B&C Associates, “This nation was built on compromise, and if we don’t learn how to get it all together, we’re going to sink this ship.” He was echoed by Robert L. Woodson Sr., president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. “Both political parties should compete on how they treat the least among God’s children,” he said, “We don’t need outreach, but uplift.”

And what would uplift look like? For Woodson and Brown, its working to invest in black neighborhoods and black businesses, and helping historically black colleges and universities recover from the damage of the recession. For James Kemp, son of Jack Kemp—one of the few Republicans to work closely with African-American leaders—it’s using free-market ideas to revitalize cities like Detroit. And to Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R–Wisconsin) it’s bringing congressional power to bear on key issues like the Voting Rights Act, which he pledged to “fix so that it’s impervious to legal challenges from the usual suspects.” Republicans who want to win black voters should take heed, since this looks like a viable agenda.

Conservatives don’t need to abandon their values or change their core commitments, but they do need to work to advance the interests of African-Americans. A GOP that does that—and doesn’t just dwell on the dead relationships of the past—is one that can contest the black vote, or at least, return to the electoral performances of George W. Bush or Bob Dole, who both won more than 11 percent of African-American voters.

There is a problem, however, and it’s that the Republican Party is increasingly centered in Southern states, where racial polarization is the norm, and GOP politicians pass policies antagonistic to African-American voters. I have no doubt that Reince Priebus is sincere about outreach to black communities—he also endorsed a call to help save historic black colleges and universities—but he leads a party that supports voter identification, hates the Affordable Care Act, and can’t shake its deep hostility toward President Obama. And for some at the luncheon, these Republican tics were an issue. “Identification laws can be a hindrance for outreach,” said Ashton Randle, a younger attendee who agreed with Colin Powell’s similar statement last week. “Bashing Obama closes people off,” explained Jason Halliburton, vice chair of the Georgia Black Republican Council, “You need to be positive and rely on facts. They speak for themselves.”

With all of that said, there is a specific tension that defines this particular outreach effort. The steps Republicans need to take to increase its share of the black vote aren’t large. They amount, more or less, to a simple show of respect. Put another way, it’s no accident that Chris Christie is with whites and blacks in New Jersey; he is one of the few Republicans to treat Obama with public admiration. And that’s enough.

But for a party whose base is enamored of men like Ted Cruz and Ken Cuccinelli, it’s a bridge too far. Which leaves pro-outreach Republicans in a tough spot. Aware of what it takes, but unable to do it.