A few minutes after introducing headliner Herman Cain at 2011's Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., Niger Innis — son of civil rights leader Roy Innis and national spokesman for CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality — said that in his view, "The GOP is not for rich people — it's for people who want to be rich." It's a nice sales pitch: short, to the point, upbeat and as good as any you'll hear from those looking to draw new recruits into conservative ranks.
Sonnie Johnson — who was at last week's CPAC to introduce Andrew Breitbart — distilled that same message down to two words: "Get money."
At CPAC 2012 — the American Conservative Union's annual event that's a who's who of the conservative movement and that featured appearances by all of the Republican presidential candidates — black conservatives agreed that they need to do more to bring African-American voters into the conservative and Republican fold. As Charlotte Bergmann, running for Congress in Memphis, Tenn.'s majority-black 9th District, argued, "Republicans need to get into the communities to take this message of hope and freedom and liberty to the people."
But there's less consensus on what that message is.
Alveda King, a Cain confidante and niece of Martin Luther King Jr., focuses on abortion, arguing that Planned Parenthood has an "agenda of baby killing." And at CPAC, several black conservatives highlighted a reported statistic that in New York in 2008, more African Americans had abortions than gave birth, and several made the case that pro-abortion-rights policies have had the effect of "population control" on black communities.
Meanwhile, K. Carl Smith of the Frederick Douglass Republicans told The Root, "If you look at those four life-affirming values of Douglass" — that Smith describes as respect for life, respect for the Constitution, belief in limited government and individual responsibility — "President Obama is zero for four." But when it comes to Obama, Kevin Daniels of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, a separate organization, said, "I don't talk about him much — he's not my concern."
Daniels thinks "abortion is a big issue" but doesn't rank it higher on his list than other issues in the black community, saying, "Social issues affect the economic issues, and economic issues affect the social issues." Mark Greer — on hand to support Newt Gingrich — agreed that "economic issues and social issues work hand in hand."
They shared a consensus that "Obamacare" goes too far, with Bergmann saying, "There are people in the community who are really concerned about the death panels that are contained in the Obamacare legislation" — a reference to the debunked controversy over end-of-life provisions in the Affordable Care Act — while Pudgy Miller, host of the North Carolina-based Keeping It Real With Pudgy radio show, argued that "We can't truly afford to do this for the long term."
Yet when asked which other programs needed to be cut, it was harder to get answers. No one would specify which entitlement they might target. When asked if programs like LIHEAP (home-heating oil subsidies) should be slashed along with subsidized health care, Smith said no, because then "you're making it worse for the poor" — but immediately reiterated that "you've got to get people off of entitlements." Miller's response to the same question was that "entitlements are necessary, just not the way that they are structured now."
It came pretty close to the Tea Party's infamous "Get your government hands off my Medicare."
And in response to being portrayed, as they see it, as "Uncle Toms" or "sellouts," some black conservatives are rallying around the narrative that they, in fact, are present-day Harriet Tubmans helping other African Americans escape from the "plantation" of the Democratic Party, with CPAC 2012 featuring a new film by C.L. Bryant called Runaway Slave that's part documentary, part Tea Party infomercial, and even has the tagline "Run from tyranny to liberty."
It's an extension of the charge made by Cain during his mercurial presidential campaign that the nine out of 10 African Americans who vote for Democrats are "brainwashed." And when asked if the plantation analogy hurts conservative prospects for getting black support, Bryant offered that "the reason it repels them is that it's a stinging truth" — highlighting his view that "government dependency is the plantation that Democrats support."
That perception was shared by several others at CPAC, including Florida Rep. Allen West — the only Republican in the Congressional Black Caucus — who told the CPAC crowd Friday that conservatives have compassion, but "we just don't think the safety net should be used as a hammock." It's a perspective that resonates — and rankles — after Gingrich's frequent references to Barack Obama as the "food stamp president."
Outside of health care reform, no one expressed what they saw as Obama's failures, and none outlined a program that they'd offer as an alternative to Obama's policies. Smith didn't disagree with the notion that GOP front-runner Mitt Romney has held the same positions as Obama on all of the major issues, but about Romney he said, "I don't think he's a socialist, though," adding, "I'd vote for him over Obama."
Black conservatives clearly have a message: anti-government, anti-abortion and pro-school choice. It's just not clear if they think that slave imagery or calling other African Americans brainwashed is a winning strategy for getting the black electorate to consider the alternatives.
In the end, Johnson, who's in the Sarah Palin biopic The Undefeated and possesses her own Palin-esque star potential, returned to the most compelling case for African Americans to join the conservative cause: not the slave narrative, or abortion, but her belief — expressed passionately — that "you don't have to convince black people of capitalism" because it's already there in black culture. She also took time to admonish conservatives that "the way that you're phrasing things" makes a difference in how the message is received.
She and Daniels conceded that no matter what's said now, the overwhelming majority of black voters will stick with Democrats in 2012. But Daniels was confident about conservatives making future inroads in the black community.
"We're not in this just for the 2012 election cycle," he said. "We're in this for the long term, and over time, yes, it will happen."
David Swerdlick is a contributing editor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.