Yet black voters recognize a point that is consistently lost on the G.O.P.: It is one thing to tell the children in one’s own community that racism is no excuse for failure, and quite another for a party invested in the electoral yields of racism to make the same claim.
In his first speech as R.N.C. chairman, Lee Atwater announced an initiative to attract black voters. But critics suspected, with good reason, that the real audience for his words were white people who felt uneasy about the party’s racist political appeals. That element of Atwaterism, the leavening of insult with invitation, has survived to the present.
The party that hopes to attract black students is the party whose congressional leadership filed a baseless lawsuit against the first African-American president. It is the party whose representatives allied with birthers who demanded that the president prove his citizenship. It is the party that has endorsed the evisceration of the Voting Rights Act and made it more difficult for the very people it is courting to actually cast a ballot for its candidates. Senator Paul himself has expressed ambivalence about enforcing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
An honest appeal to African-Americans would start with the admission that Republicans didn’t lose the black vote but forfeited it. The Republican Party now faces the same dilemma as the mid-20th-century Democratic Party: whether its interest in black voters might ever outweigh its investment in the reactionary politics of race.