Black leaders and political analysts range from cautiously optimistic to downright skeptical of the Republican Party’s renewed campaign to reach African-American and other sidelined communities. The outreach arose out of the Republican National Committee’s Growth and Opportunity Project, a plan to reform the GOP after the stinging political losses of the 2012 election.
“Our efforts at the Republican Party to engage the Black community are sincere and we’re making a committed effort because people are hurting—regardless of color, but especially African Americans—as a result of the president’s (Barack Obama’s) policies and we have solutions to those problems,” said Orlando Watson, the RNC’s communications director for Black media.
As part of their campaign, Watson pointed to their recognition of Black Republican trailblazers and Black military veterans during Black History Month and visits to HBCUs, Black churches and other meeting places and media-based efforts to familiarize African Americans with the party and its ideals.
“We have to talk to people we have not always talked to or listened to in the past,” he told the AFRO, acknowledging the GOP’s alienation of the African-American community. “It is on us to make up that ground, not only because the success of our party depends on it, but also the success of our country.”
Some are dubious of the Republican Party’s latest promise to increase its inclusivity, however, saying it has become a tired refrain.
“I’ve been watching the Republican Party talking about this for a long, long time,” said David Bositis, a longtime expert on Black voters and politics. “I think it’s PR….There’s nothing there.”
Some local leaders say they have not seen or heard about any outreach efforts in their area, which makes them question the veracity of the GOP’s stated goals.
“I don’t think it’s real; I think they have written Maryland off,” said the Rev. Alvin Hathaway, senior pastor, Union Baptist Church in Baltimore. The well-known minister added, “I would think that in Baltimore – particularly when you think of the conditions of African Americans in the city – they would make a concentrated effort to offer a different option…[and] to recruit qualified Black Republican candidates.”
The Rev. Grayland Hagler, senior pastor, Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington, D.C., mirrored that complaint. “I haven’t seen any outreach at all,” he said. “They reach out to those who share their conservative, reactionary views. They would have no problem if they had hundreds of thousands of Clarence Thomases or Condoleeza Rices but they would have a problem with other Blacks.”
Watson conceded that the RNC’s campaign has a lot of uncovered territory but said their commitment is firm. “Our presence is growing—we have not reached the end goal yet, but we’re working to get there,” he said.
Still, Black leaders and political experts said their concerns about the GOP’s outreach efforts go deeper.
“The party has no real outreach agenda because it does not want to change or evolve [and] they have allowed themselves to be hijacked even further to the right,” Hagler said. “Words are words. The reality is if you’re going to become diverse you can’t operate out of a racist paradigm.”
Bositis added, “They want to still be the party of White Southern populists and want African Americans to come along and support the policies of the same people who used to lynch African Americans.”
Hilary Shelton, the NAACP’s senior vice president of advocacy and policy and director of its Washington bureau, said Republicans’ attempt to make inroads in the Black community will require more than words. “It’s a great idea that they are outreaching but it will have to come with changes to their policies because that is what people are more concerned about,” he said.
For example, Blacks are severely underrepresented as delegates to RNC conventions, which is reflected in the resulting agenda. “If you don’t have African Americans at the table then the policies don’t reflect the real needs and concerns of the African-American community,” he said.
Shelton expressed some optimism, pointing to Republican advocacy on issues such as Wisconsin Republican Jim Sensenbrenner’s push to renew the Voting Rights Act, Kentucky Republican Rand Paul’s outspokenness on re-enfranchisement of ex-felons and poverty and more. “We are really happy to see that in some small quarters there is leadership on issues important to the Black community,” Shelton said. “We have a few and that’s more than we had last year.”
Bositis, however, was unimpressed and said most African Americans are similarly unconvinced by the GOP’s outreach. “They think African Americans are stupid. But I have news for you—they’re not,” Bositis said. “The vast majority [of African-American voters] think it is a joke.”