"It's all about education," said Dale Crosby. "I don't think everyone understands what the Republican Party is about." In between listening to speeches from undeclared presidential candidates, Crosby was explaining why he was one of the very few African-American delegates at the Spartanburg County Republican Party Convention in South Carolina on Saturday. "We are not a lot of things," he said of Republicans and conservatives. "We're not trying to starve old people and kill black people."
While the Republican Party — despite reveling in the gains of the 2010 midterm elections — reconciles economic and social priorities and emboldened Tea Party influences, it also faces questions of where diversity fits in the big picture, especially in a campaign against the first black president of the United States.
If 2012 resembles 2008, the profile of each party's presidential hopefuls, as well as convention-crowd shots, will provide stark contrasts, even as census figures indicate an increasingly diverse America. Ever since Richard Nixon's Southern strategy, which offered a warm GOP welcome to Democrats angered by President Lyndon B. Johnson's support of civil rights, many African-American Republicans (and there were quite a few, including my parents) have felt betrayed by the conservative party.
South Carolina's Peculiar Status
Though the GOP still bills itself as the party of Lincoln, that label takes on a peculiar meaning in South Carolina, particularly given that this week marks 150 years since shots fired upon Fort Sumter started the Civil War (or the War of Northern Aggression, as a Charleston guide once assured me was the correct name).
In that city, an elaborate "Secession Ball" with a convenient omission of slavery already stirred talk, protest and hard feelings. In a February speech to the South Carolina Federation of Republican Women, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann — another maybe presidential candidate — apologized for a positive Lincoln reference. (She prefaced her compliment by saying, "I know I'm taking a risk in South Carolina.")
The Columbia Statehouse where Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and a GOP-dominated Legislature govern with vigor no longer flies a Confederate flag. But the compromise that led to its removal — a huge Confederate flag placed prominently on the Statehouse grounds — still greets visitors.
But the issue isn't black and white, even in South Carolina. In the 2010 midterm elections, the state elected Tim Scott, an African American who in his Republican primary defeated the son of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond — he of the segregationist past and the black daughter. Scott is a national and state GOP star whose name is frequently dropped as an example African Americans should follow.
Haley Barbour, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum made the rounds in friendly territory on Saturday in the state that's the home of the first-in-the-South presidential primary. They talked about the economy, social issues and what they see as the dire consequences of a second term for President Barack Obama ("If you think America's going to be free and safe, you're lying to yourself," warned former Pennsylvania Sen. Santorum).
As Crosby sees it, criticisms of the president that cross the line from the political to the personal, and questions about his birthplace (Donald Trump, anyone?), are just "distractions" that obscure the GOP philosophy. He prefers an approach that is more explanation than attack. His "biblical grounding" led to his political conversion, he told me, and on his smart phone he pulled up a few verses from 2 Thessalonians 3 to clarify:
" … nor did we eat anyone's bread without paying for it, but with labor and hardship we kept working night and day so that we would not be a burden to any of you; … "
The message and the verses went on, of course, to extol discipline and hard work along with performing charitable works for those who need it. "I don't want the government involved in what I do," Crosby said, and that includes his volunteer activities.
His conciliatory tone, however, might get some pushback from first-time delegate William Lindsey of Spartanburg. The 47-year-old electrician, who is white, told me that the anti-Obama rhetoric from the speakers resonated, and then he went further: "Obama is the only president that has welcomed Muslims in the White House and given them a hooting, hollering party," said Lindsey, a "passionate Christian" who also believes that Obama is himself Muslim. (In fact, Obama is a Christian, and as president, George W. Bush welcomed Muslim leaders to the White House for a Ramadan fast-breaking dinner, known as iftar — facts lost in the narrative of the moment.)
But other white Republicans say that they do see the need for more inclusion and less-inflammatory dialogue. Back in February, I spoke with Sonny Googins at a Republican women's meeting in South Carolina. A retired state legislator from Connecticut who relocated to Beaufort County, Googins offered her own mixed feelings about the direction of the GOP.
She told me that while it was "refreshing" to be in a state with a Republican majority, she believed that opening up the party has to "become part of an effort of things we give a damn about." She also said, "There are no black people here, except you." And she wasn't happy about it.
Gingrich and Barbour Speak on Inclusion
On Saturday, the maybe candidates stuck to a stump-speech script during official remarks to the crowd but later, speaking to me, were more candid about the challenges that they and the party now face. Mississippi Gov. Barbour talked about outreach, though not without some reluctance. The governor has already had to explain missteps that praised the pro-segregationist Citizens Councils and seemed to downplay the racist climate in his Yazoo City, Miss., hometown when he was growing up. Will a man with a Southern accent from a state with its own Confederate-flag issue be the best standard bearer for inclusion?
"The message needs to be the same message," Barbour told me. "Effort needs to be made to spread that message to every corner, to every community, to people of all persuasions, not just ethnicity but religious, social, cultural, whatever. People, whether they're white or black, agree that the government can't spend itself rich."
Former House Speaker Gingrich, not that far away from his Georgia home base, looked pretty comfortable in South Carolina, which he has visited many times. He mentioned to me his belief that GOP members should "think about inclusion, not outreach."
"Tim Scott and I have laughed about this," he said, giving the black GOP congressman, a friend, another shout-out. "Inclusion is when you're in the room when the decision is made. Outreach is when a group of people make a decision and call you. For too many years, Republicans have tried outreach, and it doesn't work."
"I find when I go around the country when you have, for example, 45 percent black teenage unemployment in January, you have a pretty good conversation," he said. African Americans "are much more open about talking to you than you'd expect with Obama as president." Gingrich also talked about working with Hispanic, Asian-American and Native American groups on issues such as health policy.
Crosby said that he wishes more Republican leaders would talk more frankly and more often about diversity and the GOP, but he doesn't blame potential candidates for avoiding the subject. "In the current climate, everyone's afraid to say anything about race," he said, and he doesn't see the situation changing anytime soon.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning Charlotte, N.C.-based journalist, is a contributor to The Root. She is a weekly commentator on TV's Fox News Rising Charlotte, contributes to NPR and was 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.