(The Root) — No matter what Mitt Romney tells NAACP members Wednesday, nine out of 10 African Americans will still pull the lever for President Barack Obama in November.
But that doesn't mean the former Massachusetts governor's address to the venerable civil rights organization at its 103rd annual convention in Houston isn't a big deal.
In another era, black folks were loyal Republican voters. Barrier breaker Jackie Robinson was a Republican, and former NAACP President Benjamin Hooks was an appointee in the Reagan administration. This time, though, Romney is an ambassador to black America from a party that has, over time, all but cut diplomatic ties with the black community.
If all he can muster is the standard refrain that Republicans are "the party of Lincoln" without addressing the question that black voters, and all voters, ask — "What have you done for me lately?" — his speech might turn out to be a concession of the black vote to the Democratic Party for the foreseeable future.
On the other hand, if Romney can find a message that resonates with a slice of the black electorate, it could be a step toward a rapprochement between black voters and the GOP.
The Miami Herald's Leonard Pitts Jr. thinks that Romney should talk about black incarceration rates. CNN's Roland Martin wants him to discuss the 53 percent drop in black wealth resulting from the mortgage crisis. Both topics are fertile ground for Romney's keynote.
But there are also a few themes that Romney should consider steering clear of. Here's what he shouldn't say to members of the NAACP:
Obama "Doesn't Understand"
Romney has a habit of saying that although Obama "didn't cause the recession," the president "doesn't understand" how our free-market economy works. That not only rings false — considering the stock market's dramatic uptick during Obama's tenure — but it's also a kind of pat-on-the-head condescension that's a nonstarter for black voters.
Romney is likely to bring up last month's lackluster jobs report, which showed that in June, black unemployment rose from 13.6 to 14.4 percent.
It's fair game, but if he looks to peg black unemployment to Obama's policies — even though black unemployment has exceeded the national average by 3.7 to 6.9 points over the last decade — he should be prepared to unveil a plan to bring the black unemployment rate in line with the national average, or he's not very likely to have a receptive audience.
Romney would also be wise to leave same-sex marriage out of his pitch to black voters. Although polls show that African Americans oppose same-sex marriage at a rate higher than other Democratic constituencies, the gap is narrowing. And now that Obama and the NAACP endorse same-sex marriage, opposing it is quickly becoming a political loser.
The Mormon Church
Romney shouldn't have to explain his Mormon faith or the doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Although the LDS church didn't allow black men to hold the priesthood until 1978 — when Romney was 31 — he's no more accountable for that than Obama is for the sometimes controversial ministry of Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
But if he brings it up, Romney should be ready to offer a little more insight on race relations than his usual story about pulling over to weep after hearing on his car radio that his church rescinded its discriminatory practice.
And Romney shouldn't ask for anything other than an opportunity to listen and be heard.
Overwhelmingly, black voters still admire and support President Obama, and there's almost nothing Romney can say in one speech that would move those votes into his column in 2012.
That doesn't mean, though, that he can't make a first attempt at reversing the perception that Republicans don't have the interests of black voters at heart. And hopefully, Romney understands that in his effort to appeal to NAACP convention-goers, his policy ideas are important, but so is the spirit in which he offers them.
If they want to win elections going forward, Republicans need black votes. And after Obama, black voters will want more choices. Romney can't bank the black vote this time.
But this speech could be a down payment.
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.