If the GOP wants to make friends with African Americans (particularly African-American voters) they sure have a strange way of showing it.
Although no party official has made any terribly bombastic and offensive statements about race, noteworthy friends of the GOP sure have—and without any calls for apologies from the party leadership with whom they are linked. This week, new right wing folk hero, Cliven Bundy, famous for refusing to pay grazing fees to the Bureau of Land Management, wondered aloud to an audience of supporters whether or not “Negroes” would be better off “as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things…” He held a press conference to address the controversy and made it clear that when he said "slavery," he "meant slavery."
One would expect such an idiotic and obliviously bigoted statement to draw widespread condemnation from Conservatives and Liberals alike. That has not been the case. To his credit, Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) has been one of the few GOP elected officials to unequivocally state his opposition to Bundy’s remarks, calling them "racist" among other things. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is another who has distanced himself from Bundy’s comments, also calling them offensive. Paul is definitely one to know after his condescending speech at Howard University, where he patronizingly attempted to teach students about Black participation in the Republican Party (although he couldn’t remember the name of African-American Senator Edward Brooke, who’s also a Howard graduate).
Also troubling: the number of politicians who have been rumored to be considering a 2016 presidential run who have also found themselves in situations like this due to use of offensive language, either having no comment or are attempting to downplay the language all together. Gov. Rick Perry, famous for his family’s hunting camp, "Niggerhead" told CBS that Bundy was a “side issue” compared to what they were dealing with in the state of Texas. Perry went on to pivot from Bundy to discuss what he perceived as the federal government infringing on private property. This seems to be the GOP problem: far too many on the Right allowed their party to be hijacked and defined by people with racial views that would make the 1960’s blush.
This latest incident draws comparisons to the the recent controversy that followed Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty telling GQ that he hadn’t personally seen the mistreatment of a Black person and that before entitlements and Welfare, Black people were happy and not "singing the blues." Robertson came of age in Vivian, Louisiana during the early 20th century. If he didn’t "see" the mistreatment of Black people, he simply wasn’t looking.
The idea that a reality star famous for hunting ducks says something uncouth and racially insensitive (at best) isn’t politically problematic. It’s when the governor of that state, a man who has heard and had to deal with racially insensitive language himself writes this off as simply a “messed up situation” and blamed the public backlash on the politically correct crowd. Govenor Bobby Jindal also happens to be someone rumored to be considering a run for the Oval Office in 2016. These examples don’t even begin to get into the bigotry of fellow Right Wing darling Ted Nugent. (We could devote an entire essay to his racist remarks.)
The problem here isn’t there are fringe "extremists" who happen to be Conservatives, but rather, that so many leaders of the GOP feel comfortable rubbing shoulders with folks that share such heinous and racist views.
Republican often like to play the “what have Democrats done for you” game with African-American voters. Here is a more pressing question for the GOP, African-American party members in particular: why do the people who say the most outlandishly racist, “Blacks were better in slavery"-type statements feel comfortable aligning themselves with you? What is it about the Republican political party and the conservative movement that makes it a welcome space for that kind of rhetoric and attitude? Folks like Reince Preibus, Rand Paul and Dean Heller can condemn this latest incident all they want, but that has yet to address the underlying cultural question. If Republicans want to be taken seriously in African American communities and want African American voters to engage them as a viable political option, their party can’t feel like a safe space for avowed racists. Unfortunately for party officials, no statement of disapproval will change that. That’ll have to be a cultural shift that make people like Cliven Bundy, Ted Nugent and Phil Robertson feel like the political outcasts that they should be, and that the 'party of Lincoln' does not share their values.
But perhaps that simply isn't the case.