The GOP’s Lose-Lose Proposition on Race

Republican Mia Love, defeated by Democrats in the last election. (AP)

Republican Mia Love, defeated by Democrats in the last election. (AP)

Senator Rand Paul’s decision to give a speech at Howard University in an effort to preach the gospel of libertarianism provides us an object lesson in a very real problem for Republicans: They simply can’t win when it comes to reaching out to minority voters.

Consider this report in the Huffington Post:

Paul asked the university for the opportunity to speak, leading some to conclude he is using the traditionally black college to make himself, and the GOP, look more friendly to minorities without putting in any real effort.

“I’m trying to read into Rand Paul’s thinking here and all I can see is Howard being a prop,” said professor Daryl Harris, chair of the political science department, during an interview in his office. “I can’t see it any other way.” …

Shakei Haynes, a Howard alumnus who was on campus Tuesday and said he is soon joining the Capitol Hill staff of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), said he was less interested in what Paul has to say.

“His views and his positions don’t really have a place here,” Haynes said.

So Paul makes a good-faith effort to reach out to young, educated people in the black community and is accused of using the historically black school as “a prop” and of not “putting in any real effort.” We are further informed that “his views and positions don’t really have a place here.” Of course, if he hadn’t made any effort at outreach he would have been accused of ignoring the black vote altogether—just another white politician who doesn’t care about black voters.

Like I said: It’s a lose-lose proposition.

Paul isn’t alone, of course. The GOP is often accused of “tokenism” when a Republican president does something like appoint two black secretaries of state in a row. Its black politicians, like Allen West, are called Uncle Toms and attacked viciously from the left using rhetoric that would get any conservative politician booted from the national political stage. When conservatives give accomplished black speakers, like Dr. Benjamin Carson, prominent spots at conventions and conferences they are derided as affirmative action hires.

In a just world, the GOP would get at least a little credit for trying to engage in principled outreach to a constituency that has rejected it for decades. But that storyline doesn’t make sense to the media, which has a heuristic for Republicans that runs something like “conservatives and Republicans are bigots and our stories should reflect that fact.” And it doesn’t make sense to the power brokers in the black community, who have spent decades sucking up to Democratic leaders and securing their own place of power and privilege.

As a result, the GOP is treated with suspicion and outright hostility when it tries to reach out to black voters in ways that don’t involve backtracking on the things we believe in: letting people keep what they earn; keeping government out of the way of people trying to start a small business; providing children forced to attend failing inner city schools an alternative; and so on, and so forth. It’s a sad statement on the politics of our times, in which unthinking identity politics trumps everything else.