(The Root) — As the Republican National Convention kicks off in Tampa, Fla., there are a few things you can bet on: a red, white and blue decorating theme, endless repetition of the term "Obamacare" followed by a chorus of jeers and a diverse parade of speakers making the case for the GOP team of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.
That rainbow coalition of onstage GOP stars is scheduled to include in part: Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state whose boss, George W. Bush, is conspicuously absent from the proceedings; Mia Love, an African-American Mormon from Utah who is running for a U.S. congressional seat; Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a purported finalist to join Romney on the ticket before Ryan was named to the second spot; a gubernatorial trio of Nevada's Brian Sandoval, New Mexico's Susana Martinez and South Carolina's Nikki Haley; and Artur Davis — an African-American former Alabama officeholder, Democrat and Obama supporter — who is a chief talking point for Republicans challenged on their diversity bona fides. (Missing is a favored son businessman Herman Cain, who rose high before flaming out during primary season.)
But it's doubtful that the multiethnic tableau will be duplicated in the sea of delegates shouting "USA, USA." That's been the case for years at conservative gatherings where — despite featuring the song stylings of a Chaka Khan (at the 2000 convention) or the occasional gospel choir — minorities, particularly African Americans, are also greatly in the minority. As a journalist, I've noticed how the modern-day vision of the party of Lincoln has failed to attract voters in an America that is increasingly nonwhite.
A new NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll has President Barack Obama beating Romney 94 percent to 0 percent among black voters, and that is not a typo. It's a more extreme version of an advantage Democrats have built since the party's support of civil rights legislation in the 1960s and the adoption of the Republican "Southern strategy" that welcomed disaffected white voters.
Republicans have done some outreach, and Romney has hired a black communications adviser. But the presumptive GOP nominee got mixed reviews and reactions for an address before the NAACP when he promised to repeal "Obamacare," then quickly followed it with a speech to his base in Montana, warning about people who want "free stuff."
Ryan's austere budget proposals with cuts to social safety-net programs, as well as what looks like organized voter-ID efforts by mostly Republican-controlled state legislatures that disproportionately affect minorities, the elderly and the poor, are policy decisions that have made many black voters skeptical about the sincerity of the GOP's big-tent goals. This year's platform committee has endorsed those voter-ID rules, although Clarence Mingo, an African-American delegate from Ohio, "expressed some concern over the way the GOP presented its support for voter ID, saying it was necessary to 'demonstrate sincerity' that the issue was not about 'political gain,' " according to the Huffington Post.
Still, keeping up appearances is a ritual. Go to a conservative event and there will always be at least one black person on the stage, visible in every photo op of the candidate or speaker, as there was at a recent Romney-Ryan event in Mooresville, N.C.
What usually happens to me happened there, when a reporter, looking for a black Romney fan, started asking me questions. It's always the same, whether it's at the national Tea Party conference in Nashville or an NRA annual meeting in Charlotte, N.C. — a hopeful look of discovery followed by disappointment when I reveal I'm just a reporter, too.
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.
Mary C. Curtis is a Roll Call columnist and contributor to NPR and NBCBLK. She has worked at the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Charlotte Observer and Politics Daily and as a contributor to the Washington Post. She is a senior facilitator for the OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities. Follow her on Twitter.