Republican National Committeeman Henry Barbour gave black Americans a slap in the face when he orchestrated a cynical, race-baiting campaign targeting fellow Republican Chris McDaniel in the Mississippi Senate primary runoff against incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran. It was insulting to African-Americans, unfair to McDaniel, and dirty pool by any reasonable measure. But the refusal of the Republican National Committee to censure Barbour’s actions shows an astonishing tone-deafness by RNC Chairman Reince Priebus and portends continued failure by the GOP to attract black voters.
If Priebus wants to understand what’s happening in black communities and learn how to draw them closer to the GOP, I invite him to join me for a visit to Roger’s Barber Shop on Maumee Street in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where I’ve been getting my hair cut for the last quarter-century. It’s something of a landmark in the local African-American community, a hotbed of political discourse and a place where visitors are guaranteed to get an earful and an education.
What Priebus would learn at Roger’s is what black Americans actually think about politics. When many blacks hear of a candidate or party that wants to “prevent you from voting,” or eliminate particular social programs – as happened in Mississippi – a red flag goes up in their minds, reviving images of the civil rights era of the 1960s. It even happens among younger blacks who did not witness the tyranny of Bull Connor and George Wallace (both of whom were staunch Democrats) but learned the stories from their elders.
For many black Americans, there is an almost reflexive opposition to the GOP that surfaces any time there’s an accusation of racial bias by Republicans, a message Democrats have pounded on for decades. So when Republicans go out of their way to reinforce the lies told about their party, it plays right into the hands of liberals. Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz must be doing cartwheels for joy because of Henry Barbour’s actions.
Regardless of where they live, a lot of blacks don’t see Barbour’s racially incendiary campaign as an isolated, parochial incident. Instead, it is seen as validating the false narrative promoted by Democrats about Republicans, making it a lot tougher for black conservatives like me to explain and defend conservative principles among other blacks.
As one of the original members of the Tea Party, I have worked with hundreds of black community leaders across my home state since 2009, trying to educate and engage them on the critical issues confronting our nation and how Tea Party Patriots has proven, principled policies to tackle those issues.
But when we start getting a little traction, the Republican establishment pulls a stunt like we saw in Mississippi and we wind up losing momentum. The folly of Barbour’s antics is compounded when Priebus and other RNC members refuse to even entertain a motion censuring Barbour, indicating that what he did was just fine. Small wonder that some refer to the GOP as The Stupid Party.
There are vast numbers of African Americans who are willing to stand up against the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons of the world and acknowledge that they do not speak for all black Americans. They are looking for political inspiration, and with black unemployment more than double the jobless rate of whites, many are dissatisfied with Democrat policies, providing a tremendous opportunity to advance conservative principles.
Instead, the opportunity is wasted because the chairman of the Republican Party would rather promote the falsehoods of the opposition than discipline a fellow member of the RNC. The only thing new about Barbour’s tactics is that they were set in motion by a Republican who simply borrowed a few pages from the Democrat playbook. But whether Barbour realizes it or not, his efforts smeared more than McDaniel; they smeared the entire Republican Party.
Republicans will fail to attract more blacks to their party as long as they abide by the cheap politics of race hustling and refuse to hear what the community is saying. Whether it’s in Roger’s Barber Shop or any of the thousands of others across America, Republicans need to start listening to what’s being said instead of administering more self-inflicted wounds.
Emery McClendon is the Tea Party Patriots state coordinator for Indiana.