Let’s face it – if the Republican Party doesn’t figure out a way to gain minority voters, it will become the permanent minority by 2050. That’s when white Americans will account for only 46 percent of the U.S. population. Last year, a Gallup poll showed that while the easy majority of white voters supported Republicans, Democrats enjoyed a 67 percent to 25 percent advantage among non-white registered voters.
“Fear of a Black Republican,” a documentary by New Jersey filmmaker Kevin Williams, addresses why one minority group – black Americans – so rarely vote for Republicans. From 2004 to 2008 Williams traveled to Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, New York and Washington, D.C. And interviewed leaders like then-senate candidate Michael Steele, then-RNC chairman Ken Mehlman and former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman on why black Americans vote Democrat.
It’s a strong first documentary for Williams, and his passion shows as he and his crew doggedly pursue their subjects, sweeping viewers into the events he captures.
The film establishes the history of black voters, pointing out the key events that transformed black America from a solidly Republican voting block to a solidly Democratic one.
First, the Great Depression’s hardships pushed black Americans to vote for FDR and his New Deal. Then President Harry Truman’s integration of the military saw 56 percent of black voters voting Democrat.
This switch was further solidified when, as vice president and the Republican Party candidate, Richard Nixon ignored the imprisonment of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1960. But with a simple phone call to King’s wife, John F. Kennedy won glowing words from Dr. King, and those quotes helped him win an extremely close election.
The final straw was presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, whose vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act sealed his fate among black voters. His reason for opposing the Act was not racial, but black voters opposed him by 92 percent when he ran anyway. As Williams says in the film, “We haven’t had a two-party system in urban America ever since.”
Since then, Republican candidates have focused their energy on the suburbs while Democratic candidates have been able to use scare tactics to maintain power.
In 2005 and 2006, the Republican Party under Ken Mehlman went on the offensive, trying to target minority groups with the slogan, “Give us a chance and we’ll give you a choice,” meaning, a choice in policy on things like education and health care. Much of Williams’ film focuses on this new focus for the party, during the 2006 campaign cycle.
But 2006 was an historic year for Democrats, as another documentary film, “HouseQuake,” clearly shows. “HouseQuake” followed then-DCCC Chair Rahm Emanuel and a number of congressional candidates in the historic 2006 election cycle that swept Republicans from power and made Nancy Pelosi Speaker of the House. “HouseQuake” has an undercurrent of excitement and building sensation as election day 2006 nears. Emanuel is a ruthless leader, pushing young Democratic candidates to the limit. In Williams’ own film, that same sensation on the Republican side is coupled with a sense of anxiety, and then a jolting depressed let-down as the five 2006 black Republican candidates that he focuses on in the film – Keith Butler for senate in Michigan, Ken Blackwell for governor in Ohio, Michael Steele for senate in Maryland, Lynn Swann for governor in Pennsylvania and Catherine Davis for the U.S. House of Representatives in Georgia – all lose. This disappointment has a bitter edge, since Williams captures a Republican Party largely ignoring black Georgia House Republican candidate Catherine Davis during her race. Her victory against a black Democrat would be unlikely in her district even during a typical election cycle, and politics demands that resources be applied where they can do the most good, but this defeatest mentality still hurts when seen.
Continual election cycles cement a truth that media commentator Travis Smiley notes in the film: The real question isn’t what will Republicans do to pick up black votes, but what will Democrats do to keep black voters. Former Senator Edward Brooke, the only black Republican Senator since Reconstruction, tells Williams in the film, “You get corruption in government when you don’t have a vital two-party system.” That system is long gone in much of urban America.
Take a look at Williams’ hometown. He’s from Trenton, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 14 to one. Since the 1950s, when white Americans left Trenton for the suburbs, taking their jobs with them, and black Americans became the city’s majority, the city’s entire framework has changed. Today, Trenton’s high school dropout rate is almost 50 percent, and housing values have sunk to a third of those in the suburbs. In the decades of the Democratic Party’s control of Trenton, it has only become a worse city to live in. It should be ripe for Republican picking.
Trenton isn’t alone. Democratic strongholds across the nation – our inner cities – are terrible. This is largely due to failures in education and family policy, with big education (see “Waiting for Superman”) and progressive social institutions (both of which fight to insert big government between kids and their parents) to blame.
What’s sad is that black Americans, who elect liberal Democrats, are more socially conservative than liberal, notes former Philadelphia Eagle Garry Cobb. Black Americans largely believe in strong family and moral values. “They’re not in favor of gay marriage, they’re not in favor of abortion,” Cobb said. And he’s right. In Maryland, a Democratic stronghold if there ever was one, black voters convinced their representatives on the state level to stop homosexual marriage from being legalized. One of the bill’s original sponsors even voted against it after hearing from her constituents that they opposed the bill. The socially conservative view was upheld in a liberal state, and it was significantly bolstered because of black churches mobilizing against homosexual marriage.
But Williams found that fear of inspiring lackadaisical Democrats to get out and vote has continually prevented Republicans from putting effort into winning Trenton back. Thus, generation after generation votes Democrat, further cementing the status quo.
The film ends with a warning: At a rally, presidential candidate Sen. John McCain dodges a question about how he hopes to gain the black vote. Then, as the scene fades, President-elect Obama thanks McCain for conceding the race. It’s a powerful moment, and one that Republicans would do well to remember.
Now, obviously there’s more to the story than this documentary captures. While Williams focuses on black America, the story of the 2006 and 2008 elections has to do with more than race. 2006 was a year of landslide victories for Democrats, and as the documentary “HouseQuake” shows, anti-Bush sentiment helped fuel the victory. The eloquent Barack Obama, and significant differences between how his and McCain’s campaigns operated, launched a hard liberal into power under the pretense of being a moderate, while the truly moderate “Maverick” was dubbed Bush 2.0.
This doesn’t forgive Republicans for continual failure to connect with the minority population. Republicans operate on logical policy, not emotional policy, and this is harder to pitch at the beginning. But when implemented, it always wins out. And it’s a truth that Americans of every race can recognize. But it takes effort. As strategist Grover Norquist noted in the film, “The wall has to come down.” Republicans have to make this a priority. If they don’t, soon the party will be gone. It’s a truth fully recognized, and powerfully portrayed, in Williams’ documentary, and this brief history of the black Republican is well worth the $22.95.
Visit www.fearofablackrepublican.com for more information.