Can Democrats Win Black Votes Without Republican Racism?

Republicans’ attitudes about race do matter. But not more than either party’s track record on the weightiest public-policy issues.

Voters wait in line on the first day of early voting in the presidential election at the Stephen P. Clark Government Center in Miami Oct. 27, 2012.
Voters wait in line on the first day of early voting in the presidential election at the Stephen P. Clark Government Center in Miami Oct. 27, 2012. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Ever since President Barack Obama took office, a pretty reliable pattern has emerged: On a regular basis someone will say, write or tweet something racist about the president and the media will cover it—including yours truly. Someone apologizes for the remark (or doesn’t), and someone else distances himself or his organization from the offender in question. Throughout most of Obama’s presidency, many of those making racially questionable, if not downright racist, comments have been conservative Republicans.

But not all of them. If you look across the aisle, you can find a number of instances—click here, here and here—in which Democrats have served up racial gaffes, too.

There have, however, been enough Republican gaffes to reinforce the notion that what was once the party of Lincoln—and that morphed into the party of Strom Thurmond—has remained the Grand Old Party of racists.

And the now almost routine coverage raises questions: Will Republicans ever free themselves from their image as a party that’s unwelcoming to African Americans? And if they ever do manage to move beyond that image, would Democrats be able to win elections based on their own policy successes—as opposed to Republican race failures?

Before you answer that question, consider for a moment the controversy that GOP racial gaffes generate, in cyberspace in particular, compared with coverage of what either Democrats or Republicans have done to address black male unemployment.

Does that mean I don’t care if someone makes a racist remark? No, but it really depends on who that person is. For instance, in the grand scheme of things, I probably care less about whether a city council candidate makes a comment steeped in racial stereotype than I do about whether a sitting member of Congress has said anything at all regarding ways to address racial disparities and discrimination in employment.

So why is it that we all—and I say “we” because I’m guilty of it, too—end up discussing the race flaps that may matter politically but ultimately matter very little in terms of policy, at the expense of the more weighty issues that affect our race much more than any individual remark?

Could it be that these racial comments are what those who play politics for a living want us to focus on because it’s better for them?

As I’ve previously written, the national poll I conducted with Suffolk University for my book Party Crashing: How the Hip-Hop Generation Declared Political Independence showed that more than a third of young black voters were registered independents. That’s a sizable number. Now, we know that President Obama won black voters of all age groups handily in the last two elections. But he won’t be on a ballot again.

Once he’s out of office, the Democratic Party may well find itself struggling to replicate the magic that his campaign experienced at the polls with black voters. Issues like charter schools—which, polls have shown, black parents in urban areas have tremendous enthusiasm for—may provide an opening for the GOP to make inroads with black voters.