Racist Emails Create New Headaches for GOP

As the Republicans work to improve their standing with minorities, they are forced to respond to a new controversy over racism in the ranks.

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The Republican National Committee has spent much of February highlighting the party’s efforts to be more inclusive. Earlier this month the organization hosted its second annual Trailblazer Awards Luncheon honoring black Republicans such as former Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan. The party also launched its first-ever Black History Month ad campaign, with RNC Chair Reince Priebus paying tribute to high-profile black Republicans, in a quest to woo other black Americans to the Grand Old Party. But these efforts seem to keep hitting a seemingly immovable obstacle: the party’s own members and their offensive rhetoric on race.

Recently uncovered emails show former high-ranking aides to current Wisconsin governor and 2016 Republican presidential front-runner Scott Walker engaged in incredibly offensive humor. The exchanges are too lengthy and too crass to be reprinted in their entirety, but you can read them here and here. The exchanges include mockery of black people, gay people, mixed-race people—the list goes on.

Although Walker himself is not quoted, the fact that he seemed to surround himself with those of such questionable attitudes about race is sure to raise eyebrows and questions, particularly since more than one former staffer is implicated. Raising even more questions for Walker and his peers in the GOP is the fact that this is far from the first race-based controversy the party has grappled with recently.

Racially inflammatory verbal gaffes by Republican Party members have become a perennial thorn in the side of the Republican Party. Such missteps have become so common since President Obama took office that they have been a topic of extensive coverage on The Root. (You can read a summary here.) Some highlights include a current Republican member of Congress using a slur for Mexican Americans in an interview, and an aide to Sen. Rand Paul being exposed as a supporter of a pro-Confederacy group. After the controversy Paul and the aide parted company.

As the country and electorate become more racially and ethnically diverse, it will be impossible for any party to win without the support of at least some voters of color. And it will be increasingly difficult to secure and sustain such support when party members, particularly those in prominent positions, make comments offensive to wide swaths of these voters.

Increasingly, the danger for the GOP seems to be that it could face a death by a thousand cuts. One misstep may seem like bad luck. Two missteps seem to be a bit more than coincidence. Three looks like a pattern, and more than that looks an awful lot like a systemic problem. When previously asked by The Root about the possible existence of a systemic racial problem, Priebus said that neither party “has a monopoly on stupid comments.” That may be, but a black Republican strategist acknowledged that is not the perception shared by many Americans.

Raynard Jackson, who has advised former Sen. Trent Lott, among others, said of the Walker controversy, “The emails play into the tarnished brand of the Republican Party being racist and not caring about blacks. In that sense it codifies what people already think about the party.” Jackson also said that how Walker responds to this public controversy will ultimately determine his long-term viability as a presidential candidate.

Ron Christie, another Republican strategist, who is African American, was concerned but cautious, saying, "These comments are despicable and reflect poorly on the values and integrity of those who made them.” But he also noted, “There is no indication that then-executive Walker knew of or condoned such behavior by his then staff members.”

Asked about the Walker emails in a phone interview with The Root, a spokesman for the RNC said, “We don’t support this rhetoric or that message.” He reiterated, “That is not the type of rhetoric we support in this party.” He then referenced recent RNC events, such as the Trailblazer luncheon and others, and re-emphasized that the party is committed to growing its support among black voters.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

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