When you start talking about race and the Republican Party, Republicans tend to say the following things. First, they tell you that most Republicans are not bigots (true) and that Democrats can be bigots, too (also true). Then you’re reminded that during the decades when southern segregationists made their home in the Democratic Party, Republicans were instrumental in founding the NAACP, in 1909; a Republican chief justice (Earl Warren) presided over Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954; a Republican president (Eisenhower) called in troops to desegregate Little Rock’s schools, in 1957; and another Republican president (Nixon) created the first federal affirmative-action program with teeth. (All true.)
Then you ask, what about today? You’re told that Newt Gingrich calling Barack Obama “the food-stamp president” and Sarah Palin’s invocation of “shuck and jive ” were just ephemeral campaign-season gaffes from sideshow clowns soon to get the hook. Rush Limbaugh’s perennial race-baiting? Yesterday’s news. Mitt Romney’s alliance with the off-the-rails birther Donald Trump? Just clueless Mitt being Mitt. Those sightings of racist placards at tea-party rallies? Cherry-picked, planted, or invented by the liberal media. And besides, the Democrats have their own history of race-baiting ranters—queue up the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s greatest hits on YouTube.
The only fact that can’t be easily batted away by defensive Republicans is that actual black Americans almost never vote for Republicans in a national election. What’s up with that? Why have they been so ungrateful for the good works of Warren and Ike, year after year? Today the answer to that question matters more than ever. In the Obama era, the spike in GOP efforts to pursue policies punitive to minorities is unmistakable. State and local governments in every region have been in a race to enact restrictive new voting laws. Congressional Republicans are adamant in preserving the sequestration cuts for Head Start, Job Corps, and unemployment insurance, even as they carve out a self-serving exception for air-traffic control. Next month, a conservative-dominated Supreme Court is poised to eviscerate a crown jewel of civil-rights law, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, at a time when, if anything, it should be expanded to address the growing obstacles to voting in ever more jurisdictions: long lines, the mischievous purging of voting rolls, and new registration requirements redolent of the Jim Crow South.
Paradoxically, this is all happening as the GOP makes a big postelection show of trying to jettison its image as an all-white party hostile to almost every minority group in the nation. The GOP chairman, Reince Priebus, announced a $10 million outreach plan to minorities. Congressional leaders, gobsmacked by the discovery that Hispanics were more inclined to vote Democratic than to “self-deport,” have manacled themselves to Marco Rubio and started slouching toward immigration reform. A smattering of Republican senators and Fox News personalities has even joined the Democratic stampede to “evolve” on same-sex marriage. And African-Americans? Well, that’s now, as always, where it gets truly embarrassing.
Romney may have received a paltry 27 percent of the Latino vote, but that was an incipient landslide next to his 6 percent of the black vote. Six percent is the exact percentage of blacks who voted for the GOP in the 1964 presidential election, when its standard-bearer, Barry Goldwater, kick-started the metamorphosis of the Party of Lincoln into the Party of Strom Thurmond by defying most of his own Republican senatorial colleagues to oppose that year’s landmark Civil Rights Act. You’d think the persistence of the GOP’s near-total estrangement from black America almost a half-century later would merit the most drastic corrective action in its new outreach effort. But you would be wrong. The party still believes it can spin its racial history and, when required, literally and figuratively whitewash it.
For the moment, the GOP is recycling its time-honored, if increasingly threadbare, publicity stunts to address the problem. As part of a postelection “listening” tour, damned if Priebus didn’t listen to twenty—count ’em, twenty—bona fide African-Americans at a megachurch in East Brooklyn in March. He has hired not one but two blacks to staff the Republican National Committee’s minority-outreach program: the 24-year-old son of the Fox News commentator Juan Williams and a suburban-Washington real-estate agent whose brief career as a legislative assistant on the Hill ended in 2002. The party has also recruited a new telegenic black conservative with no record of public service, the Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Benjamin Carson, to take on the Alan Keyes–Herman Cain role of delivering incendiary sound bites (inevitably describing the Democratic Party as a “plantation”) while pretending to be a plausible presidential candidate.
Such ruses won’t fool anyone now any more than in the past. It’s not a stretch to imagine that the party chairman knows this and that neither he nor anyone around him cares. As McKay Coppins of BuzzFeed discovered three weeks after Priebus parachuted into Brooklyn to genuflect before authentic urban blacks, there’s still “not a single racial minority among the twenty most senior officials who run the Republican National Committee, National Republican Congressional Committee, and National Republican Senatorial Committee—the three wings of the GOP apparatus charged with promoting candidates and winning elections.” This newfangled integration fad doesn’t come easy to the right. At the Conservative Political Action Conference’s annual conclave in Washington in March, a black “Frederick Douglass Republican” had to fend off a white attendee defending slavery at the Tea Party Patriots’ panel “Trump the Race Card: Are You Sick and Tired of Being Called a Racist and You Know You’re Not One?” (Trump may not have been the mot juste to deploy in this particular title.)
Perhaps some GOP leaders can still rationalize the party’s racial status quo, not to mention its all-white hierarchy, because scant black support has not been a bar to winning past presidential elections. Mathematically, the GOP doesn’t need African-American voters. Blacks, who made up 12 percent of the population at the start of this decade (versus 17 percent for Latinos), are likely to remain a fairly static demographic in the future—rising to only 13 percent of the population in 2050, by which time Latinos could be at 29 percent, according to Pew projections. Their votes will rarely be decisive in the Electoral College.
But in a more and more diverse America, the real political risk in the GOP’s continued apartheid is greater than ever. The party’s alienation from black Americans threatens to turn off larger and larger blocs of nonblack voters—white, Latino, young—who don’t want to be associated with a brand still carrying a whiff of twentieth-century, and even nineteenth-century, racial animus. From the birth of the GOP’s “southern strategy” in the Nixon years until now, that risk has defined the party’s most vexing political calculus: How does it convince mainstream, non-racist America that it is still the color-blind, racially ecumenical party it purports to be, even as it has remarkable luck in attracting whatever die-hard bigots are still out there and perennially fails to win over any but a fringe of black voters? The ascent of America’s first black president has only compounded that challenge by inspiring the GOP’s racial provocateurs to be more uninhibited, and hence more visible, than they have been since Anita Hill testified in Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings in 1991, or perhaps since the George H.W. Bush political strategist Lee Atwater exploited a black felon, Willie Horton, to slime Michael Dukakis in 1988.
There have been various public-relations strategies throughout the years for finessing this conundrum, many of them as silly as Priebus’s listening tour. Few who were present will ever forget the legions of break-dancers and gospel singers tossed onstage at the 2000 GOP convention in Philadelphia to distract from the lily-white delegate pool in the hall. But the most durable and effective tactic has been the right’s transparent effort to sanitize its own modern history on race to hide it from voters who might find it distasteful. As last year’s election results proved yet again, black Americans, who lived through this history firsthand and were sometimes victimized by it, aren’t fooled for a second. They remember what happened. But as more time goes by and the right’s concerted mythmaking about its history takes root in the culture, many other Americans don’t question it. Indeed, a new generation of conservatives seems to be downright cocky about its ability to falsify the Republican past and peddle the fictions to an inattentive or ill-informed public.
This was most recently illustrated by the new Great White Hope of the GOP base, Rand Paul, the winner of CPAC’s presidential straw poll this year and a man who is not shy about his White House ambitions. In pursuit of higher office, the image-conscious Paul took his own stab at outreach last month, giving a speech at Howard University. Facing a mostly young and African-American audience, he was determined to airbrush history—even very recent history of his own. He had “never wavered” in his “support for civil rights or the Civil Rights Act,” he claimed, when in fact he had done exactly that in a Louisville Courier-Journal interview during his 2010 Senate campaign. Back then he’d argued that while it was “abhorrent” of Woolworth’s to refuse to serve Martin Luther King Jr. at its lunch counter, a private business still should retain the freedom to do what it wants. He espoused similar views in a contemporaneous prime-time appearance with Rachel Maddow, who replayed her interview with Paul the night of his Howard address.
But far more representative of the larger Republican effort to neutralize its racial history in the civil-rights era was another passage in Paul’s speech. “How did the Republican Party, the party of the Great Emancipator, lose the trust and faith of an entire race?” he asked rhetorically. “From the Civil War to the civil-rights movement, for a century, most black Americans voted Republican. How did we lose that vote?” After a meandering account of the party’s glorious record on black emancipation in the post–Civil War era, Paul arrived at the Great Depression and this answer: “The Democrats promised equalizing outcomes through unlimited federal assistance while Republicans offered something that seemed less tangible—the promise of equalizing opportunity through free markets.” In other words, African-Americans of the thirties were deadbeats bought off by FDR’s New Deal, much as those of the sixties (in the right’s eyes) were bought off by LBJ’s Great Society entitlements and those of the present day (along with the rest of America’s downtrodden “47 percent”) were seduced by Democrats brandishing still more of what Romney called “free stuff” and “gifts,” starting with Obamacare. In this telling, the GOP’s growing opposition to civil-rights laws in the past half-century (Rand’s opposition included) is blameless for black defections; the party was just too high-minded, too egalitarian, too devoted to freedom to compete with Democratic bribery.
This kind of historical fantasia—and worse—has become more brazen than ever since Obama arrived on the scene. Three years ago, while contemplating his own presidential run, Haley Barbour, the former Mississippi governor and Republican leader, went so far as to praise the rabidly segregationist White Citizens’ Councils of his youth for their opposition to the Ku Klux Klan. (The racist Councils had opposed the Klan, a rival, in the same sense that the Capone gang opposed the Moran gang in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.) Barbour also boasted about attending integrated schools in Yazoo City, Mississippi, in the sixties, even though the courts didn’t step in to finally enforce desegregation there until 1970 (when he was 22). “I just don’t remember it as being that bad,” he said of the racial climate in his hometown in 1962. That was the same year that a riot killing two and injuring more than 300 broke out 150 miles away, in Oxford, Mississippi, when the then-governor, Ross Barnett, defied a court order forcing the university to admit a black student, James Meredith. Almost matching Paul and Barbour in historical fabrication is another Republican with presidential ambitions, Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia, who in 2010 omitted any mention of slavery from his already dubious declaration of Confederate History Month; he explained he wanted to focus on issues he thought “were most significant” for his state. (McDonnell, like Barbour, soon had to undertake a public reeducation tour and backpedal.)
Yet the most insidious and determined campaign to rewrite racial history on the right has come not from yahoo political hacks but from a coterie of writers who pop up at relatively highbrow conservative publications like The Wall Street Journal, National Review, and The Weekly Standard. Their work, often underwritten by conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation, feeds the politicians their source material. Some of these writers’ spurious output makes it into the so-called liberal media as well, including that of Gerard Alexander, an AEI “scholar” who published a piece titled “Conservatism Does Not Equal Racism. So Why Do Many Liberals Assume It Does?” in the Washington Post in September 2010. Alexander, the author of a previous Weekly Standard article defending the GOP as “the party of civil rights,” wrote in the Post that “many white conservatives swoon when members of minority groups proudly share their values” and that “the old conservatism-as-racism story has outlived all usefulness and accuracy.” Oh, really? In just the six months before his article appeared, a short list of conservatism-as-racism stories would include Andrew Breitbart’s attempted high-tech lynching of the black Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod; the epithets hurled at the civil-rights hero John Lewis, among other members of the Congressional Black Caucus, in a mêlée on the Capitol grounds; and a “parody” letter by a Tea Party Express spokesman in which the “NAACP head colored person” called Lincoln the “greatest racist ever.”
The history that such Republican water-carriers want to blot out was succinctly summarized recently by the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz: “Everybody knows that in 1964, a proud southern Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, pushed hard to secure the civil-rights bill, with the aid of a coalition of northern Democrats and Republicans. This sent the defeated segregationist southern Democrats (led by Strom Thurmond) fleeing into the Republican Party, where its remnants, along with a younger generation of extremist conservative white Southerners, including Rand Paul, still reside.” The only part of this that is not true are Wilentz’s first two words: In our amnesiac country, everybody does not know what happened 50 years ago, which is why the revisionists have an opening to fill the vacuum.
And so we have Kevin Williamson’s essay “The Party of Civil Rights—It Has Always Been the Republicans” (in National Review last year) asserting that the rise of the GOP in the South in the sixties was mostly about economic issues, the Vietnam War, the counterculture, law and order, and anti-communism, because race was then in “decline” as “the most important political question.” (That decline may have been less evident to black Southerners of that time who witnessed, among other seminal events, Bloody Sunday in Selma in 1965 and the King assassination in Memphis in 1968.) Williamson also stated that Goldwater’s vote against the 1964 civil-rights bill was only that of a “principled critic,” as opposed to that of a candidate pandering to segregationists in southern states, five of which just happened to go Republican that year for the first time since Reconstruction. In a new National Review essay last month, Williamson goes further still, portraying Goldwater as a civil-rights hero next to the “low-rent” LBJ.
It’s a leading plank among these revisionists that Goldwater and other conservative heroes opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 championed by that “low-rent” Johnson only because of constitutional objections (much like those Paul raised about the law in his 2010 Senate campaign). As Noemie Emery tried to make this case in 2011 in The Weekly Standard, “the law was opposed by leading members of the emerging conservative movement—Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and William F. Buckley Jr.—for reasons having to do with small-government principles that nonetheless permitted their theories and the interests of the segregationists for that moment in time to converge.”
She and her fellow travelers in racial revisionism protest too much. To believe that the convergence between lofty conservative theory and expedient racial politics was innocent, you have to forget Buckley’s 1957 declaration that “the white community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically.” You have to ignore Goldwater’s famous 1961 political dictum that the Republican Party “go hunting where the ducks are” and pander to southern white conservatives. You have to believe that it was a complete accident that Reagan chose Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of the “Mississippi Burning” slaughter of three civil-rights workers, to deliver a speech on “states’ rights” in 1980. You also have to disregard the political game plan codified by Kevin Phillips, the Nixon political strategist whose book The Emerging Republican Majority helped cement the party’s “southern strategy” of mining white backlash to the civil-rights movement. Speaking to the Times in 1970, Phillips said, “The more Negros who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are.” Or, in Goldwater’s earlier parlance, the ducks.
To buy that it was only “small-government principles,” uncorrupted by cynical racial politics, that led these conservative leaders to oppose the Civil Rights Act of 1964, you most of all have to redact the crucial role played by Thurmond when he bolted to the GOP in 1964 and enlisted in the Goldwater campaign. By all accounts, Goldwater himself was not a racist. But he knew the political value of playing the race card. There was no reason for him to welcome the militant white supremacist Thurmond into the GOP except for the obvious one: His presence sealed the deal with voters who wanted confirmation that, whatever Goldwater’s “principled” opposition to the Civil Rights Act, his election as president would help assure that similar laws would be resisted for years to come. (Goldwater, not so incidentally, was the only senator in either party who filled in for Thurmond when he took a bathroom break during his record filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.) Thurmond gave the Republican ticket—and by extension the entire party—the imprimatur of a top-tier bigot. The South Carolina senator had previously left the Democrats to run as a third-party Dixiecrat in 1948—“All the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes,” he had declaimed then—and had opposed civil-rights legislation, even anti-lynching laws, ever since.
The primacy of Thurmond in the GOP’s racial realignment is the most incriminating truth the right keeps trying to cover up. That’s why the George W. Bush White House shoved the Mississippi senator Trent Lott out of his post as Senate majority leader in 2002 once news spread that Lott had told Thurmond’s 100th-birthday gathering that America “wouldn’t have had all these problems” if the old Dixiecrat had been elected president in 1948. Lott, it soon became clear, had also lavished praise on Jefferson Davis and associated for decades with other far-right groups in thrall to the old Confederate cause. But the GOP elites didn’t seem to mind until he committed the truly unpardonable sin of reminding America, if only for a moment, of the exact history his party most wanted and needed to suppress. Then he had to be shut down at once.
A decade-plus after Lott’s fall, the whitewashing of Thurmond and his role in defining the modern GOP continues. When Joseph Crespino, a historian at Emory University, published the most authoritative study on Thurmond to date, Strom Thurmond’s America, last year, The Wall Street Journal assigned a review to a writer named Lee Edwards, whom it identified as a Goldwater biographer and “a fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.” What the Journal didn’t say—but Crespino did, in his book—is that Edwards was also “an assistant press secretary in the Goldwater campaign and editor of a 1965 exposé of alleged Communist connections to the civil-rights movement.” Unsurprisingly, Edwards’s review portrayed old Strom as a principled constitutional conservative and a “shrewd pragmatist who loved the Old South but welcomed the New South, with its voting rights for all citizens.” In Edwards’s estimation, “the majority of South Carolina voters, black as well as white,” would accept so benign a judgment. Edwards also praised Thurmond for being a generous dad to his secret African-American daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, who had revealed her paternity six months after the senator died in 2003. “Her mother had worked for Thurmond’s parents” was how the Journal’s writer blandly described the circumstances of Washington-Williams’s birth.
What he might more accurately have written was that Washington-Williams’s mother was a family maid, and that Thurmond, then in his early twenties, had impregnated her when she was only 15. For all the racial hypocrisy this episode entails, let’s not forget that today such a scenario might also be grounds for a charge of rape, an avenue of justice not open to Essie Mae’s mother in the South Carolina of the twenties. It’s an indicator of how much the Republican Party and the conservative movement want this shameful history to go away that when Washington-Williams, the human embodiment of Thurmond and segregation’s legacy, died at 87, in February, her death went unmentioned in National Review, The Weekly Standard, and most other conservative outlets, and unacknowledged by any conservative columnist at the Times, the Journal, or the Washington Post.
As an accident of timing would have it, Washington-Williams died a few weeks before the Supreme Court heard arguments in Shelby County v. Holder, the Alabama challenge to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that Thurmond and his fellow segregationists—Republican, Democrat, Democrat-soon-to-turn-Republican—tried so hard to defeat and then to thwart. It’s no coincidence that the case has come before the court simultaneously with the proliferation of those new local laws abridging voting rights. This is a calculated two-pronged effort to fix the GOP’s minority deficit by extra-democratic means.
The boosters of the new voting regulations would have us believe instead that their efforts are in response to a (nonexistent) rise in the country’s minuscule instances of voter fraud. Everyone knows these laws are in response to the rise of Barack Obama. It is also no coincidence that many of them were conceived and promoted by the American Legal Exchange Council, an activist outfit funded by heavy-hitting right-wing donors like Charles and David Koch. In another coincidence that the GOP would like to flush down the memory hole, the Kochs’ father, Fred, a founder of the radical John Birch Society in the fifties, was an advocate for the impeachment of Chief Justice Warren in the aftermath of Brown. Fred Koch wrote a screed of his own accusing communists of inspiring the civil-rights movement.
The current chief justice, John Roberts, has made his perspective on the landmark civil-rights laws of that era clear. His now notorious pseudo-aphorism—“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race”—is nothing if not an echo of Goldwater’s (ghostwritten) laissez-faire philosophy of racial justice as delineated in his 1960 manifesto The Conscience of a Conservative. Goldwater said that while he supported school desegregation in principle, he believed it wrong “to impose that judgment” on “the people of Mississippi or South Carolina” or to instruct them on how to achieve that goal. “I believe that the problem of race relations, like all social and cultural problems, is best handled by the people directly concerned,” he concluded. Or, in other words: The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race. No law enforcement is required.
Should the Goldwater-Roberts view prevail next month, it will be a setback for American voting rights. But I also wonder if so reactionary a decision could backfire on a GOP that has tried and is still trying so hard to disguise its role in the history that necessitated the Voting Rights Act in the first place—as well as the act’s repeated extension by Congress, most recently with near-unanimous bipartisan support in 2006. It’s that history, not happenstance or habit or “free stuff,” that drove African-Americans to give the Republican ticket the exact same 6 percent of its votes in both 1964 and 2012.
A gutted Voting Rights Act might spark an uproar so raucous that a whole new generation of voters could be compelled to learn just how we got there. The more Americans who are armed with the truth, the better it is for the country, of course, but also for a party that is unlikely to move forward in a fast-changing 21st-century America until it is forced to free itself from its past.