On an earlier thread discussing how conservatives might make gains among African Americans, Ken Thomas mentioned several Reagan speeches in which Reagan spoke out against racism and bigotry and explained that his politics was based on the inalienable rights of all individuals. Those were the right things to say, they were important to say, and Reagan had been saying similar things since the mid-1960s. They were especially important because the destruction of Jim Crow, inflation, rising crime, riots, the Vietnam War and other events had blasted tens of millions of loose from the Democratic Party. There was an active competition for those voters and some were fighting for those votes on racialist grounds. Reagan was making it clear that his brand of conservative politics would be based on antiracism and equal justice under the law. It was the right thing to do, but sadly it was no start to healing the breach between conservatives (or Republicans) and the African American community. I don't hold that against Reagan. Nothing since then has been a start either.
A big part of it is the depth of the breach between conservatives and African Americans. The best introduction is problem is our William Voegeli's essay on movement conservatism and the African American community. It isn't the whole story because that would take a book (or two) but you get a sense of the roots of the suspicion that so many African Americans have for conservatives. The relationship of the Republican Party with African Americans was damaged as a result of this breach between conservatives and African Americans. As the Republican Part came to be seen as the political vehicle for movement conservatism, many (if not the vast majority) of African Americans identified the Republican Party as indifferent or hostile to the rights and interests of the African American community. The links between the perception of movement conservatism as hostile or indifferent to African American interests and the identification of the Republican Party with movement conservatism are the keys to understanding the huge margins by which the Democrats have won African Americans since 1964. As Voegeli pointed out, the Republicans won 40% of the African American vote in 1956, but only 6% in 1964 and have only made the occasional marginal and temporary gains since then.
It is 2010 and, after forty-six years later and Republicans are still at square zero among African Americans. Which is not to say that there have not been attempted "starts." There was Ken Mehlman talking to the NAACP. There was George W. Bush meeting with African American preachers and appearing in mostly African American schools and calling education the new civil rights issue. There was Jack Kemp and enterprise zones. There was picking Michael Steele as RNC chairman and his promise to try to win over African Americans, young voters and Latinos. Part of the problem is that these gestures were not followed up on, but a bigger problem is that those making them misunderstood what making a "start" at making large, sustained gains among African Americans meant.
All of those gestures seemed to be based on the assumption that if you showed up (once in a while) apologized, for past misdeed, talked about a few select, urban-oriented issues, and integrated some African Americans into Republican Party elites, the road to substantial gains would be opened. Even if the above gestures had been followed up on, even if they had not been scattered across decades, they would still not have yielded better results. Even if those gestures had been an integrated strategy, the strategy would still suffer from being soft, narrow and cheap.
It would be soft because it overestimates the gains to be made from easy gestures like showing up from time to time, making the occasional apology, and such. It isn't that those gestures are worthless, just that they don't mean much by themselves. When a community is suspicious because of long historical experience, those gestures are easily discounted unless they are, among other things grounded in a rhetoric that can authentically integrate conservative principles and policies within the African American and broader American historical experience. And I don't mean bootstrap, self-help bromides. Constructing such a rhetoric will be a brain frying task.
It would be narrow because it would not treat the African American community as a group with a full spectrum of interests. Improving inner-city schools is a terrific idea, but there are alot of things to worry about in life, and anyway, millions of African Americans aren't sending their kids to failing schools. Talking about how pro-family tax reforms and market-oriented health care reform will help the average African American family alongside education is just a start of what a broader issue agenda will look like. Talking about abortion and eminent domain abuse and how each tie into deep concerns about the government's requirement to protect people's basic human rights and the need to restrain government from dispossessing the weak at the hands of the connected (anyone remember urban renewal?) could be a beginning of creating an agenda of shared principle. The list is not exhaustive.
It would be cheap because it would not commit to the hundreds of often unpleasant conversations in front of suspicious audiences, to rebutting attacks speedily, powerfully and in detail, to the tens of millions of dollars that will have to be spent on media with largely African American audiences who don't consume much of the alternative conservative media. Until conservatives and Republicans come up with and commit to a realistic strategy for making substantial gains among African Americans, there has been no start no matter what else they do. There is only wasted time, and enough has already been wasted. And what is worse than not starting is the comforting illusion of starting, which only encourages the wasting of more time, even as gains are expected.