Several days removed from the release of a WSJ/NBC poll showing presidential candidate Mitt Romney's support among African-Americans at "0%," the Republican Convention enters Wednesday evening with African-American Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice scheduled to deliver a prime-time keynote address.
To some, this may not seem like news. As the first president to self-identify as African-American, President Obama's support for core Democratic principles, his careful courtship of black media outlets, and his stable family life have allowed him to maintain his personal appeal among African Americans, a largely Democratic-leaning electorate.
Likewise, Condoleeza Rice, a former secretary of State and official in several Republican administrations, seems to be a logical choice for a coveted speaking role. Her limited forays into electoral politics and long history representing America abroad distinguish her from many other Republican speakers. That she can frame her support for things like the 2nd amendment as an accomplished daughter of the “Segregated South” makes her participation even more novel.
Still, neither Condoleeza's support nor the diverse roster of African American candidates speaking this week obscures the continuing reality of the Republican Party. Despite the persistent presence of a handful of black elected officials & candidates and a challenging economic climate, Republicans, not just Mitt Romney, still enjoy little support among voting African Americans nationwide.
Looking at the roster of speakers at this year's Republican Convention, you'll see that in terms of African American representation, Condoleeza Rice is far from alone. Artur Davis, the former congressman/Obama Campaign Chairman/Alabama Gubernatorial candidate gave a rousing, humorous speech on Tuesday. Saratoga Springs, Utah Mayor and current Congressional candidate Mia Love and South Carolina Congressman Tim Scott spoke as well. It's likely that Florida Congressman Allen West will make an appearance at some point.
As usual, the black faces in the crowd are a bit sparse. Former Onion Digitial Media Director and author of "How To Be Black" Baratunde Thurston highlighted and took pictures with some of those present, documenting his efforts on Twitter with the hashtag #negrospotting.
However, “facecounting” the crowd and the stage yields an incomplete picture of the relationship between blacks and Republicans this election cycle. The prominence of individuals of color within the political party may signal diversity, but it's an inadequate marker of progress. For Republicans, the brass ring can’t simply be the presence of people of color in the room. Rather it should the ability to understand how political messages and economic policies will be perceived across different groups and the confidence and competence to effectively tweak policies and messaging to ensure success.
Consider this:According to the 2010 Census, of the 17,804 residents of Saratoga Springs, where Mia Love is currently mayor, 0.5% are black. That's 89 people. Keep in mind, Mia Love has 3 kids. Together, they make up more than 4% of the town’s African American population. Similarly, in Allen West's previous Congressional District, African Americans made up 7.4%. In Tim Scott's old district a comparatively robust 19.8%.
What do these numbers indicate? In short, facial diversity aside, in contrast to most black Democrats, Black Republicans by and large represent overwhelmingly white Congressional Districts.
Because of this dearth of black constituents, the current crop of black Republican Representatives are largely discincentivized from critically examining problems unique to (or endemic wihin) African-American communities and from speaking up when Republican policy prescriptions or positions are presented in ways likely to offend black voters.
While their presence underscores the encouraging reality that white voters are willing to trust black candidates to represent their interests in Washington, the demographic analysis suggests that these representatives are unlikely to help carry the Republican message to African American voters.
As Jamelle Bouie explained in The Prospect, the bipartisan deficiency of black representation in Congress isn't solely attribitableto the convenient scapegoat of "Republican indifference." Other factors, including the principles upon which we draw congressional districts and the challenge of initial fundraising come into play as well. Once elected, pioneering black officials must also fight to stay on message while navigating complex cultural waters, some of which Ta-Nehisi Coates explored recently in a compelling piece in The Atlantic.
Without strong connections to visible elected leaders with firm roots in minority communities, it’s harder for a Republican candidate to recognize the opportunities to massage his message (and his policies) to appeal to those minority groups including African Americans. Without the honing commonly employed to appeal to evangelical, conservative, rural, or even Libertarian voters, Republican messages fall flat. That, in turn, leads a nominee to underestimate his chances and thus write those voters off.
With little investment in black voters, and a platform that lacks their input, a speech before the NAACP becomes seen as a heroic act rather than the bipartisan tradition it has been for decades. It allows the electoral eligibility of an already elected president to become a serious topic of debate and it forecloses serious discussion of issues within African American communities that undercut American competitiveness with far more populous nations like India and China.
When it comes to Republicans, black voters are attention-starved. With an unemployment rate far surpassing that of the national average and a dropout rate that can only be described as alarming, Republicans can’t simply point out where Democrats have failed, they also have to show in words and in actions that the failure is something they care deeply about; not philosophically, or generally, but personally. They have to listen and not just talk. They have to be willing to moderate their positions.
Most importantly, their investment has to go beyond black individuals to also include black communities.