by Gloria J.Browne-Marshall
African Americans have been played cheap, politically. Republican politicians assume Black voters are naïve and blindly loyal to the Democratic Party. Black voters are neither blindly loyal or naïve. Instead, Black voters have followed their political interests even when those choices were limited. History provides the examples. The present election proves the point.
When Willard “Mitt” Romney chooses to close the gap with President Barack Obama by appealing directly to White middle-class voters, he is falling into an old political race baiting tradition. Why not? Millions of dollars can buy commercials to scare voters into believing that a second term under a Black man will cost them everything. Romney’s appeal to the White middle-class recalls the post-slavery political cries of death and destruction of the White social order if people of color advance.
Race-baiting is an old political strategy. In 18th century New York City politics, fear of Blacks deciding the fate of Whites delayed the Black vote for decades. When slavery ended in 1870 and all Black men gained the right to vote, politicians Hiram Revels, the first Black U.S. Senator, and his Black peers in the House of Representatives were staunchly Republican. It was not blind loyalty. Abraham Lincoln had been a Republican. Then as now, Blacks voted their interests.
In a move to gain Southern votes, Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes ended Reconstruction in 1877. When Republican President James A. Garfield stated in his inaugural address that: “The elevation of the negro race from slavery to the full rights of citizenship is the most important political change we have known since the adoption of the Constitution of 1787,” it was an abbreviated bright light. Garfield was shot months later dying of complications from his wounds.
Chinese immigration threatened White American progress, as well, and politicians stirred racial fears again resulting in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, prohibiting their vote for decades. African-Americans watched as their rights diminished with each proceeding president. While Whites in the South, still enraged by their downfall, aligned with the racially conservative Democrats, or Dixie-crats.
When Blacks migrated North in the tens of thousands they found the freedom to vote and the choice of political parties. It was not a coincidence, Chicago would give rise to Arthur Mitchell, the first Black Democrat elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Even then, Blacks could affect the outcome of an election.
While in the South, African Americans would repeatedly bring legal cases against members of the Democratic Party for using grand-father clauses, poll taxes, and gerrymandering to restrict the Black vote. The Dixie-crats required the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a televised shaming by Fannie Lou Hamer, and the lives of civil rights activists to recognize the political rights of African-Americans.
Alabama Governor George Wallace, Presidential candidate and renowned segregationist, was the last unabashed Dixie-crat to seek a national office. After Wallace was paralyzed by an assassination’s bullet in 1972, even he reformed his racist rhetoric. Decades earlier, Whites who had opposed the New Deal social programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Democrat, sought out the Republican Party, touting fiscal conservatism.
When Democrat Harry S. Truman desegregated the military in 1948 more Dixiecrats exited and Blacks joined the Democratic Party. With the death of President John F. Kennedy, Democrat, and the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, also a Democrat, a deep relationship developed between the party and the community. This bond was based on common economic, social, and political interests, not just emotion.
Then and now, there is the festering race issue. During the 1988 campaign against Massachusetts Democrat Michael Dukakis, Republican George H.W. Bush ran a commercial featuring Willie Horton, a Black prison inmate who raped and killed a White mother while on work release in Massachusetts, forever linking Dukakis the racial charged message. Bush won the election.
The Republican platform of fiscal conservatism, private enterprise, limiting unions, and ending college grant programs is not in the interest of most African Americans who rely on government employment, union protections, and education programs.
Racial insults by conservatives against America’s first African American president do little to bring Blacks into the Republican fold. From Congressman Joe Wilson, a North Carolina Republican, yelling “you lie,” during the President’s State of the Union Address to insulting monkey images on the internet and Federal Judge Richard Cebull’s racially slanderous email disparaging the President’s mother.
Romney’s willingness to use the race card gain votes is older than the John Birch Society. It is neither naïve nor blind for African Americans to turn away from the Republican Party. For now, the Democratic Party represents the least of racial evils and the better of economic policies.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College in New York City, is author of “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present,” “The U.S. Constitution: An African-American Context,” and a journalist covering the U.S. Supreme Court. She is reporting from the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.