MAXWELL:  Blacks turn a cold shoulder to Republican outreach

5/14/1995 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Here, in the former capital of the Confederacy, where the politics of the original GOP were born, the modern Republican Party of Virginia is on a new mission to save the souls of black folk.

And just how does today’s GOP intend to rescue African-Americans? By enticing more blacks, especially disaffected Democrats, into the fold. To this end, party chairman Patrick M. McSweeney decided to hold a public forum that would begin to attract blacks interested in hearing what Republicans have to say about black people’s rightful place in America.

That job fell to Jeff Brown, an African-American recently hired as director of grass-roots development for the party. Brown’s office mailed invitations to about 6,000 area residents, both black and white. An incurable optimist, Brown expected to attract a crowd of least 200. He hoped most would be black.

For his efforts, Brown got 40 white Republicans and a handful of reporters, photographers, police officers and political groupies. And blacks? Only six showed up, and they were mostly the curious.

Brown will not admit that his rally was a bust. But it was. To add insult to injury, the Richmond Times-Dispatch the next morning featured a three-column color photo of a lone black, a state employee, engulfed by the sprawling bleachers of the 6,000-seat Arthur Ashe Jr. Athletic Center. Part of the picture’s caption read: “NOT A SELLOUT _ NOT EVEN CLOSE.”

Why did black Richmonders snub the GOP’s to-do that was to recognize them? Most of the answers are obvious but deserve to be re-emphasized.

Today’s Virginia GOP is hardly the party of Abraham Lincoln, to which most blacks used to belong _ the party that was founded in 1854 on the moral principle of preventing the extension of slavery into the territories.

Virginia’s GOP, like affiliates in other states, is seen as being driven by less-than-noble motives whenever the interests of black Americans are involved. Yet, these Republicans are out to capture black votes for the 1996 elections.

This party is identified with the likes of Newt Gingrich, Oliver North, Patrick Buchanan, Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond, Phil Gramm, Bob Dornan, Pete Wilson, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell. Most blacks see these influential men as their avowed enemies.

And, of course, today’s Virginia Republican Party, backed by the historically racist Southern Baptist church, is home to chairman McSweeney. He, like most other GOP leaders nationwide _ who now miraculously realize that blacks, too, are human _ has spent a lifetime castigating blacks and using them as scapegoats for society’s ills.

“The Republican Party is turning over a new leaf, a new page,” Brown said, acknowledging that his party’s abuse of the race card continues to alienate African-Americans. Moreover, because of McSweeney, Brown will have a hard time recruiting black Virginians.

McSweeney’s political career is a checkerboard of racially insensitive remarks and other statements that dismiss blacks as serious players in the GOP’s vision of America.

Most recently, McSweeney, along with North, publicly supported flying the Confederate flag. Blacks, the very ones whom McSweeney is wooing, are still angry.

But the small matter of the Rebel flag and other insults did not deter McSweeney from voicing typical GOP claims at the rally. Without sufficient explanation, he said, for example, that the Voting Rights Act _ which was enacted because racism prevented blacks from voting _ has been the biggest source of blacks’ isolation into political ghettoes.

He said also that the Democrats’ traditional hold on black voters has been harmful. The Republican Party, McSweeney said, will reverse that trend and embrace blacks. “It’s not healthy to have a monopoly by one party,” he said. “Nothing in the Republican agenda is frozen. . . . The party is open.”

Blacks here do not believe that the GOP is “open” to them, at least not in Virginia. And if the Richmond experiment is the litmus test of how Republicans will fare nationwide in recruiting blacks, the pickings will be slim.

In fact, now blacks are probably more estranged from the GOP than during any other time in history. Why? Because they see the “Contract With America” as a contract on them. They believe that it is essentially anti-black.

Most blacks reject all latter-day efforts, such as the Richmond rally and other apologia, that take them for granted, that presume they are stupid. Most black Richmonders are offended that they are being used as pawns.

They despise the hypocrisy. They are offended that Republicans have the gall to court them after all of the nasty rhetoric. “Actions speak louder than words,” said one black who attended the rally. “These guys are up to no good. I came here so I can keep an eye on them.”

Richmond delegates to the state’s Legislative Black Caucus released a statement in response to the rally that GOP leaders everywhere should read. Here is part of it: “We need positive leadership that respects our heritage and offers a vision for the future that brings us together rather than divides us.”

Until Virginia’s Republicans understand the meaning of these words, they will continue to host rallies that few blacks attend.

Meanwhile, still stinging from the Richmond debacle, the GOP has announced a new tactic to garner black voters: a door-to-door campaign.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.