Today, 12 p.m.: Join the washingtonpost.com Live Online discussion on MICHAEL STEELE AND THE GOP's FUTURE  with The Root's deputy editor Terence Samuel.

*****

I’ve been a Republican for a long time, more than two decades, and I have always been concerned about the poor relationship between the GOP and black voters. But I must admit that I had no idea things had gotten so bad for the Grand Old Party in terms of dwindling black participation. 

Advertisement

Last Thursday at the Republican National Committee winter meeting in Washington, I could count on one hand the number of blacks present. The representation among black women in the room was even more dismal. 

On Friday, that number increased modestly, to about 20, as it became apparent that Michael Steele would be elected RNC chairman, making him the first African American to head the party.   

This turn of events confirmed a concern I’ve had since I joined the party back in 1988—that if the GOP leadership kept ignoring the northeast and mid-Atlantic states, and kept writing off the black vote, that eventually we would become a largely white, Southern, regional party. 

Advertisement

Clearly, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell agrees with me. In a speech to the faithful on Thursday, he said, “We’re all concerned about the fact that the very wealthy and the very poor, the most and least educated, and a majority of minority voters seem to have more or less stopped paying attention to us." He continued: “And we should be concerned that, as a result of all this, the Republican Party seems to be slipping into a position of being more of a regional party than a national one. In politics there's a name for a regional party, it's called a minority party."  

Granted, it has been years since I’ve been engaged in the inner workings of the Republican Party, but I had no idea that the number of black party faithfuls had dwindled to such a dismal number. What I witnessed last week was far worse than election night 1992, when George H. W. Bush lost the election to Bill Clinton. I’ll never forget that night. I was 24, and I remember standing alone, thinking, “Where are the black and brown people?” Standing there, I hoped that someday in the future, due in part to my efforts, the party of Lincoln would once again become a more diverse and open organization.  

I was wrong. Steele is the party chairman, but the party he inherits has not made any progress in terms of its black membership; to witness the level of regression is surreal. What struck me is that I did not see any of the black Republicans with whom I came of age with back in the late '80s and '90s. They were not there to celebrate Steele’s historic win.   

A small cadre of black Republicans has worked long and hard since before the Nixon era to keep a committed black presence in the GOP. Most of them have apparently faded away, been driven out or have become Democrats. I know of several examples in each category. All of them were loyal and had much to contribute, but they were not given opportunity to advance within the party. In the end, they got tired.  

Ironically, I remembered all of the white faces present. They had been elevated, thrived within the hierarchy of the party. I spoke with many of them (people like Ron Kaufman, Sally Atwater, Ann Stone, former RNC Chair Jim Nicholson and others) and we talked about the old days, and I asked them how it felt to have a party now run by a black man. Most of them were very pleased, relieved even—they are desperately looking to Michael Steele to change the GOP brand. No one likes being labeled as intolerant or racist, several of them told me.  

But both the GOP and black people must confront their separate but related issues: It is not healthy for a major political party to be so severely lacking in diversity both in its senior ranks and among its rank and file. For black Americans, it is unwise not to hold the Republican Party, one of the two major political forces in the country, accountable for its actions in addressing their concerns, regardless of who is in the White House. 

Advertisement

It will be interesting to see if Michael Steele can raise money, win elections and otherwise manage the party, given the demographic challenge he faces within the Republican Party. I hope he succeeds because there is far more at stake than just political wins ands losses. What is at stake is the healthy competition, the checks and balances crucial to the survival of our democratic traditions. 

This can only happen when both political parties can seriously compete for the votes of all of the American people. 

If the GOP does not pull it together by 2012, I will no longer call myself a Republican.

Sophia A. Nelson is a regular contributor to The Root.

Today, 12 p.m.: Join the washingtonpost.com Live Online discussion on MICHAEL STEELE AND THE GOP's FUTURE  with The Root's deputy editor Terence Samuel.