Chris Fields and I have each been referred to as “the other black Republican” in our state. He serves as the deputy chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota, and ran against Minneapolis congressman Keith Ellison in 2012. When local media outlets want perspective from a black conservative, one of us usually gets the call. The “other black Republican” line may be offered in jest. But truthfully, there aren’t many others like us. At any given party function, ours are two of very few faces that would pass the old paper bag test.
A rant has been brewing within me about diversity among the Republican Party. It has been triggered by no single incident, but a culmination of developments both national and local — the candidacy of Donald Trump, the Black Lives Matter movement, a challenge to my congressman from an anti-immigrant author, and anecdotes from recent years suggesting that overall Republican efforts at “minority outreach” have failed to gain traction.
Into that brew, Chris tossed this commentary published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He exhorts readers, “Don’t buy the hype: Republicans have a diverse party.” He builds his case on the current presidential field, pointing to the Iowa caucuses where 50% of Republican voters stood up for two Cuban-Americans and an African-American. He cites many points which Republicans have long circulated among ourselves to impress each other. Democrat polices have failed minority groups. Republicans are developing minority candidates. Yadda yadda.
As I read through Chris’s piece, I take no issue with his facts. Liberal policies have failed minorities. There are outstanding minority candidates climbing the ranks within the Republican Party. But that doesn’t change other facts, like the recent-historical tendency of blacks to vote 95% for Democrats. Nor does it refute the anecdotal truth seen on faces at any given Republican function.
Minorities may be better served by voting Republican. But that hasn’t convinced them to actually do so. We need to ask ourselves why.
Scratch that. We’ve spent far too long asking ourselves why. We need to try something a little more radical. We need to ask them why.
Most of the Republicans I know have little interest in listening to the answer. Efforts at “minority outreach,” often plotted in rooms hosted by white men, hope to discover some secret process through which to convince minorities to become like them. That is never going to work. In a piece for Every Joe published last fall, Republican activist Corie W. Stephens beat me to the punch with her own diversity rant:
… what appears to escape far too many conservatives and libertarians, is that it’s difficult for individuals from [minority] groups to feel welcome in a movement where too many people tell us daily that our experiences and perspectives are invalid because they stray from a mainstream that is by default, and through no individual fault of any one person, white-male centric.
When you tell a conservative woman who is inspired by Carly Fiorina’s empowering vision of what feminism ought to stand for that she’s engaging in identity politics, you’re making her feel as if she’s wrong for embracing a fundamental part of herself. When you tell a young libertarian who praises the first woman of color to win an Emmy that she must be a liberal for identifying with someone of the same background explaining how she fought against the odds to be where she is, you’re denying her the very essence of her being. When you tell a black Republican to stop talking about the violence, unrest, and police brutality he sees on the streets everyday, you’re denigrating the people and places he loves; expecting him to abandon his culture and community.
By engaging in these behaviors you are also, consciously or not, pushing people who share your overall perspective on policy away from your political movement. You’re denying those who agree with the premise that government ought to be limited, the basic dignity of a perspective that is, and should be, different from your own. What you’re ultimately doing is driving people who ought to be your allies into the arms of an abusive political relationship with the left; because at least there – authoritarian policies that damage the very people they love be damned – they aren’t constantly berated for refusing to give up who they are. And remember, most people will choose culture and community over complicated policy that almost nobody has the time to wrap their heads around. Keep that in mind the next time you look around the room at a center-right political meeting and wonder where the minorities are.
In my experience, most Republicans in positions of influence are obsessed with an idealized image of mainstream culture. They may not harbor ill will toward minorities, but nevertheless expect those minorities to “assimilate” to majority norms. There’s an irony there, since the fundamental principles of liberty which Republicans claim to cherish encourage individuals to pursue their own definitions of happiness. Maybe that is, in part, why the Republican Party has such a hard time appealing to minority groups. Perhaps the rhetoric of liberty runs afoul of an expectation to conform. Freedom to “be like us” isn’t exactly freedom, is it?
Allow me to suggest an alternative approach. Instead of preaching the virtues of your own culture, and looking for converts from others, try applying conservative and libertarian ideas to the issues minorities care about. Of course, that would first require discovering what those issues are, which would require seeking out and listening to minorities.
Far too much rhetoric surrounding “minority outreach” in the Republican Party focuses on “us” and not them. Instead of addressing their problems as they present them, we try to tell them what their problems are. If they say they are concerned about education, we say they need stronger families. If they express concern about disparities in criminal justice, we tell them to obey the law. If they care about poverty, we tell them to get a job. If they observe that there are no jobs, we question their work ethic. Gee, I wonder why they aren’t voting for us.
There are a myriad of opportunities for Republicans to appeal to minority voters. None of them is a silver bullet, and none will win mass converts overnight. The work has to begin locally and personally, meeting people where they live, listening to their concerns without judgment, and applying our principles to the development of practical solutions which can be leveraged to advance campaigns. It’s really not that complicated.
The problem isn’t figuring out how to do it. The problem is summoning the humility and will to make it happen.