RNC Chairman: What Race Problem?

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

(The Root) — Reflecting on the Republican Party's 2012 losses, the publication Politico perhaps said it best in an article titled "Election Aftermath: GOP Soul Searching: 'Too Old, Too White, Too Male'?" Inspired by its 2012 drubbing, in recent months the GOP has stepped up strategic efforts to appeal to racial minorities.

The Republican National Committee has hired more staff members of color, while the party has also begun recruiting and highlighting more Republican candidates and elected officials of color. Additionally, former Republican Rep. J.C. Watts helped launch Insight, an initiative aimed at recruiting and mentoring young conservatives of color for careers in politics and government. Meanwhile, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus has begun dipping his toes in the water of minority media, which many Republicans have avoided, particularly in the age of Obama.


Following previous interviews at outlets like The Tom Joyner Morning Show, Priebus took questions from a handful of African-American journalists after an official RNC luncheon to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Pressed by a number of journalists on the issue of voting rights, Priebus offered that he "does not write legislation." But it was his exchange with The Root on the party's larger image issues that raised eyebrows regarding the party's commitment to diversifying its electorate.

I asked Priebus whether, in light of the many racially inflammatory comments made recently by Republican leaders (which you can read here, here and here), and the many more made by Republican leaders as a whole since President Obama took office (which you can read here), he as party leader would consider apologizing on behalf of the party for such rhetoric and setting a zero-tolerance policy so that such rhetoric stops being commonplace. The chairman replied that he has criticized specific Republicans for specific instances of offensive language, most notably when he pressed for the resignation of an Illinois Republican Party leader who made racist and sexist comments about multiracial Republican congressional candidate Erika Harold. But in a baffling turn, Priebus then seemed to insinuate that the GOP doesn't have any more of a racist rhetoric problem than the Democrats do.

"Look, I don't think either party has a monopoly on stupid comments," he told The Root. "I think both parties have said plenty of stupid things, and when people in our party say them, I'm pretty bold in coming out and talking about them, whether it be the issue in Illinois [involving Erika Harold] or Todd Akin or a variety of issues."

When reminded by The Root that there is precedence for such a unilateral apology — former RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman apologized before the NAACP for the racist tactics employed by the party at the height of the so-called Southern strategy of the 1960s — Priebus gave a curious reply: "I don't know what the back story is. You're giving me facts and back-channel information I'm not aware of. I know his [Mehlman's] speech was before the NAACP. I thought he did a great job. He was a good chairman."


But the significance of Mehlman's speech is not some sort of obscure secret. It netted extensive coverage in mainstream outlets like the Washington Post, USA Today and many others. Mehlman's apology was a public acknowledgment that there was a systemic problem that at one time plagued the party he was tasked with leading. For Priebus to be unaware of the significance of such a historic moment of outreach to minority voters in the party's recent history is worrisome. But for him to refuse to acknowledge that the party is plagued with an equally troubling systemic race problem today is, at best, a case of extreme denial and, at worst, intentionally misleading.

Before President Obama's election, I don't recall Republican congressmen being taken to task for referring to African-American elected officials as "boy," which is how Rep. Geoff Davis referred to the president after he took office. The fact that the number of racially inflammatory slights originating from Republican leaders the first year the president took office was enough to fill an entire slideshow speaks volumes about the depth of the party's problem. Yet based on Priebus' logic, the racism is not a party-specific issue but a person-specific issue. Except all of these specific people seem to have the same political party in common.


This shouldn't exactly come as a surprise. Polls show that our country has made great strides on the issue of race. At least most of us have. According to Gallup, Americans have done a nearly universal reversal on the issue of interracial marriage in the last half-century. In the 1950s more than 90 percent of Americans disapproved. Today the number of Americans who support interracial marriages is just under 90 percent. But the groups still most likely to disapprove are those over the age of 65, those concentrated in the South and those who are white. While nearly all black Americans, statistically speaking, approve of such unions, the number for white Americans is around 84 percent.

The Pew Research Center's analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau's 2012 electoral results found that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won just 17 percent of the nonwhite vote, meaning that the overwhelming majority of his support came from white voters. He also did extremely well with voters over the age of 65. Did I mention that he also swept most Southern states?


See where I'm going with this? The GOP has a race problem because at the moment it is built into the DNA of its electoral base. That doesn't mean all Republicans are racist, but it does mean the Republican Party has more voters who harbor antiquated notions about race than any other party in this country today. This means the real question is not whether a race problem exists within the GOP but what the GOP plans to do about it.

It will be hard to do anything worthwhile if the party still isn't willing to acknowledge its fundamental problem in the first place. To Priebus' credit, he also told The Root, "We have to protect our party and protect our brand, and I'm not going to let goofballs and idiots hurt our party." But he won't be able to protect his party from racist "goofballs" if he doesn't say to them, on the record, that they may have been made to feel welcome in the Republican Party up until now, but as of today, they are not welcome any longer.


Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter

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