(The Root) — The days when some speculated that the first black president or vice president would be a Republican now seem as much of a distant memory as the days when cellphones were considered a novelty. But not too long ago, black Republicans including Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice were among the party's most recognizable faces. Their rise was supposed to portend the emergence of a kinder, gentler Grand Old Party, a GOP defined by George W. Bush's so-called compassionate conservatism, of which diversity was also a hallmark.
Now, a decade later, with the election of the first black president, Democrat Barack Obama, the GOP has not only struggled to maintain its "compassionate conservative" luster but has also taken a number of steps back in terms of the party's image on diversity. It took another gigantic step back Wednesday.
It was reported that Republican Saline County Commissioner Jim Gile of Kansas used a phrase involving the n-word during a public session with his fellow commissioners (he later apologized). Gile was not the first Republican official to publicly — and casually — use a racial slur in his official capacity. Alaskan Rep. Don Young used a racial slur offensive to Latinos in a radio interview.
Young was strongly rebuked by fellow Republican officials, but Young, Gile and others like them present a seemingly permanent thorn in the sides of weary Republicans. Though party leaders claimed to have a desire to diversify the party in the months and years ahead — efforts about which I have written before — moments of racial insensitivity help reinforce some long-standing stereotypes about the party among minority voters. For instance, there were so many racially inflammatory comments made about President Obama by prominent Republicans in his first year in office, they were compiled in a slideshow.
On the same day that Gile's remarks became nationally known, Tea Party darling Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky appeared at Howard University. Though he was challenged for previous controversial remarks on the Civil Rights Act, Paul's appearance at the HBCU signaled that the party is at least willing to do something it had seemed to virtually abandon in recent years: make an effort to engage the African-American community.
Though some will question his sincerity — and the party's — one shouldn't question the GOP's timing. The name "Obama" will not be on a presidential ballot anytime in the foreseeable future. (That is, unless Michelle Obama decides to throw in her hat someday.) This means that the GOP may have the opportunity to make greater inroads with black voters who demonstrated particular loyalty to President Obama.
But to do so, the party has to demonstrate a genuine commitment to purging its ranks of its most racially insensitive members. Commissioner Gile and Rep. Young may be a good place to start.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.