In Mooresville, I asked some in the crowd, as I often do, if they saw a problem that a presidential ticket asking to lead a diverse country draws disproportionately white crowds. Ralph Brittain, 67, of Huntersville, N.C., professed an interest in unity, and though he said he was not sure Obama was a citizen, he said he was a big fan of Florida Rep. Allen West, an African American who has described himself as a “modern-day Harriet Tubman” trying to lead black voters off the Democratic party “plantation” — not exactly words of persuasion. Brittain judged West as “good on his feet” and said, “I’d love to see him get a good cabinet position” in a Romney administration.
Mary Mabry, 82, pointed out one other black person and told me how much she loved the black woman who raised her — evidence, she said, that neither she nor Republicans have harsh feelings toward minorities. Meanwhile, on the road leading up to the gathering, small, diverse clusters of pro-Obama protesters holding signs were mostly ignored, though Romney supporters yelling, “Get a job!” added a layer of ugliness, considering the racial makeup of both groups.
At South Carolina GOP events, people often point to U.S. Rep. Tim Scott, an African American who beat out the son of Strom Thurmond in a runoff election, as an example of racial harmony in their party. Newt Gingrich, the former U.S. House Leader who has labeled Barack Obama the “food-stamp president,” told me that Scott was his good friend during a conversation in South Carolina. He said that he and Scott have talked about ways the GOP can be more inclusive.
When I covered Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally on the National Mall two years ago, I was criticized by an emailer for writing that there was more diversity on the stage than in the crowd that filled the space, though Beck himself invited the observation with images of the 1963 March on Washington and comparisons of himself to Dr. Martin Luther King. That long-ago march and civil rights movement sought federal and court relief from oppressive state policies, the opposite message of today’s government-averse conservatives.
Occasionally, someone else will notice. In the run-up to the South Carolina primary this year, Inez Anders, 22, one of the few African Americans at a Romney rally in Columbia, told me that GOP attacks that implied all blacks were on welfare or burdens to the social service system stood in the way of other parts of the party’s message.
Last year, a Columbia meeting of the South Carolina Federation of Republican Women welcomed Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Joe Wilson, the S.C. congressman whose “You lie!” disrespect of President Obama brought him fame, campaign donations and re-election. But amid the celebration after the House budget vote that slashed spending, Sonny Googins, a 74-year-old retired state legislator from Connecticut who had moved to North Carolina, pulled me aside. “There are no black people here, except you,” she told me, and said diversity has to “become part of an effort of things we give a damn about.”
Until Republicans leaders make sincere efforts to talk with as well as to voters who may disagree with them, the party’s progress on diversity may continue to be most notable every four years at the convention podium.
At least everyone loves a good gospel choir.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning Charlotte, N.C.-based journalist, is a contributor to the Washington Post “She the People” blog, The Root, Fox News Charlotte, Creative Loafing, and has worked at the New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter.