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The GOP Can Attract Minorities — If They Can Stop Being Bigots

Clumsy, racist epithets from GOP members are driving blacks away, even those who support the conservative message.

by
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Bio

July 1, 2009 - 12:56 am

It’s sad to watch.

Republicans have a good case to make to African American voters about how the GOP is the real party of empowerment and opportunity, and how the Democratic Party is only interested in empowering itself at the expense of minorities. So much so that it will attack those uppity enough to think for themselves.

On education, for instance, Democrats side with mostly white teachers’ unions against black parents who want their children’s schools to be held accountable for student performance — finally purged of what a Republican president called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” The educational reform law, No Child Left Behind, has the support of the NAACP, but is fiercely opposed by the teachers’ unions.

Many African Americans also find appealing the GOP’s adherence to personal responsibility, lower taxes, smaller government, and traditional moral values.

But Republicans never get around to making that case to the black community, because too many of them are busy making jackasses out of themselves and coming across as thickheaded, insensitive, and mean-spirited racists. The election of the first black president only made matters worse, as some conservatives, particularly at the local level, responded to this historic event by taking political discourse into the gutter with jokes and sophomoric stunts that don’t amuse but offend:

  • Rusty DePass, a Republican activist in South Carolina and former state senate candidate, made a crude joke that played off the stereotype likening African-Americans to apes. After a gorilla escaped from a local zoo, DePass responded: “I’m sure it’s just one of Michelle’s ancestors — probably harmless.” DePass later acknowledged to a news station that he was talking about First Lady Michelle Obama.
  • A Republican legislative aide in Tennessee distributed an offensive e-mail with portraits of all the presidents. President Obama is depicted as nothing more than two cartoonish white eyes against a black background. Sherri Goforth, an assistant to State Senator Diane Black, has admitted she sent the email with the title “Historical Keepsake Photo.” Goforth said that she mistakenly sent it “to the wrong list of people.”
  • Last year, before the presidential election, a Republican women’s group in San Bernardino County sent out a newsletter joking that Obama, if elected, would be a president who appeared on food stamps instead of dollar bills. The mailer included an illustration of “Obama Bucks” — a picture of the Democratic candidate surrounded by watermelon and fried chicken.
  • A few months later, after Obama was elected, Dean Grose — the Republican mayor of Los Alamitos, CA — resigned after being roundly criticized for distributing an email showing a watermelon patch in front of the White House with the caption: “No Easter egg hunt this year.” Grose later apologized for forwarding the email and claimed that he wasn’t aware of the racial stereotype that blacks like watermelon.

Certainly, Republicans don’t have a monopoly on racism. It’s a matter of public record that the first slings of racism aimed at Barack Obama came from fellow Democrats, supporters of Hillary Clinton who tried to depict her challenger as a reformed drug dealer, a Muslim, a black militant, a “shuck and jive” political hustler, and — thank you, Geraldine Ferraro — someone who wouldn’t have gotten this far in life if he hadn’t been black.

But Democrats get a pass for their sins because African Americans can cite one battle after another when Democrats stood with them, dating back to Harry Truman desegregating the armed forces in 1948. And even though, in the 1950s and 1960s — which served as the defining eras for the black Civil Rights Movement — Southern Democrats were among the chief antagonists, it was Democrat John F. Kennedy who first addressed the nation on the importance of recognizing the civil rights of black Americans. And it was Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson who signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Meanwhile, Republicans are becoming known for bad jokes and racist pranks. If they keep it up, with the United States becoming more diverse and inching towards the day — demographers put it near 2032 — where whites become a statistical minority here, they may soon be known for something else: consistently coming in second.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union Tribune, a nationally syndicated columnist, a frequent lecturer, and a regular contributor to CNN.com.
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