Raynard Jackson, a political consultant and prominent black Republican who was chairman of President George H.W. Bush’s campaign operation in St. Louis, Mo., perceives a sort of unspoken litmus test that black Republicans face within the community. According to Jackson, “The black Republicans who receive the most favorable treatment within our community are those who are actually engaged in our community. When you look at people like Mia Love, Allen West and J.C. Watts, most of these prominent black Republicans are not engaged within the black community in a significant way.”
To make his point, Jackson noted that Powell had a long-standing relationship with the NAACP and the United Negro College Fund long before he became one of the GOP’s most celebrated faces. “Everyone knew where Colin Powell’s heart was when it came to helping our community. Even though there are issues on which he disagrees with the NAACP, they knew that ultimately he shared the same goals with them, which is to make a difference in our community for the better.”
Jackson added that Powell’s willingness to speak openly about the importance of issues like diversity within the Foreign Service when he became secretary of state reinforced the notion that regardless of his party label, he was on the right side of issues of importance to black Americans. Powell famously broke with the Bush administration over its position on affirmative action, which he supports. Jackson does, too. He and Powell are not alone among black Republicans.
Former Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele also supports affirmative action and said that in some ways that issue has become the ultimate litmus test for black Republicans within the black community. Steele, who is now a political analyst for MSNBC, noted that he garnered nearly 30 percent of the black vote during his run for the U.S. Senate in Maryland (data I included in Party Crashing). That number stands in stark contrast to polls showing that Romney is likely to earn less than 1 percent of the black vote in this presidential election.
Steele noted that many minorities, including himself and other Republicans, have benefited from affirmative action. Therefore, when black Republicans oppose such measures, it often infuriates other black Americans. “People resent you denying that aspect of your success. You can’t deny that reality.”
To Steele’s point, Justice Thomas, who was appointed during a Republican administration, has been a particularly attractive target of unrelenting criticism from black Americans. Thomas opposes affirmative action, yet many speculate that his race could have been a consideration in his own career advancement, including his appointment to the Supreme Court. (He has acknowledged mentioning his race on his application to Yale Law School, to which he was admitted.)
Steele said that with affirmative action back before the Supreme Court, particularly in a presidential election year, it is likely to re-emerge as a defining sociopolitical issue, especially for communities of color. As such, its status as a sort of political litmus test or “identifier,” as Steele calls it, is likely to grow.
“We are a community that looks at how you argue for us or against us,” Steele said. “It’s largely how you connect with the community and how you articulate what is happening to the community in the context of your conservatism.”