Thursday, July 28, 2005

Race and Politics

The GOP's surprising apology

The Republicans are finally making amends, said Jim Wooten in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Ken Mehlman, head of the Republican National Committee, last week admitted that the party won over the South by playing to the racial fears of white voters. In an appearance before the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Mehlman apologized for the "Southern Strategy," inaugurated by Richard Nixon in 1968. "Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization," said Mehlman. "I am here today as the Republican national chairman to tell you we were wrong." Mehlman's speech is "an important turning point," said Brendan Miniter in Opinionjournal.com. The GOP is realizing it needs black voters, just as blacks are realizing the Democrats have been taking their vote for granted. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

How gullible do Republicans think black people are? said Bob Herbert in The New York Times. Mehlman's "insulting" apology glossed over the ugly reality of the Southern Strategy. Far more than ignore black voters, Republicans exploited resentment of the Democrats' civil rights initiatives, using "code words" and symbolism to fan the flames of racism. In 1980, Ronald Reagan kicked off his presidential campaign with a speech on "states' rights" in Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil-rights workers were murdered in 1964. George H.W. Bush gained the presidency partly through his notorious "Willie Horton" TV ads, which used the menacing mug shot of a black rapist-murderer. And George W. Bush wooed Southern primary voters by giving a speech at Bob Jones University, famous for its ban on interracial dating. Given this history, my guess is Mehlman's apology was aimed not at blacks--of whom the GOP is still "utterly contemptuous'--but at "softening the party's image in the eyes of moderate white voters."

It's even more cynical than that, said Bruce Reed in Slate.com. The GOP really is retiring the Southern Strategy, but only because it's stumbled upon on an even more divisive "wedge issue": gay marriage. Not only does fear of gays deliver the votes of the same white, right-wing Southerners who used to vote GOP out of racism, it also plays well with blacks, Latinos, and even many white Democrats. Best of all, "it works in every part of the country, not just the South." Sure, gay-baiting may be just as cynical and abhorrent as race-baiting, but for the GOP "the key is staying true to your principles: Win first, apologize later."
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