‘Fear of a Black Republican’ a Provocative, Though Glossy, Look at Urban Relations in GOP
Black identification in the Republican party is at an all-time low. There are only two black Republican members of the U.S. House; no black Republican governors; and the party has nominated arguably the whitest, “Who let the dogs out”-singingest presidential candidate in modern history. Things don’t look like they’re about to change, either, seeing as how forwarding racist emails about the president and telling odd jokes about First Lady Michelle Obama’s non-existent weight problem have become a national pastime in the GOP.
With some of that in mind, Trenton, N.J.-based filmmaker Kevin J. Williams picked up his camera and decided to document both where the problem stems from and what’s being done about it in his new film, Fear of a Black Republican. To do so, he sat down with Princeton professor Cornel West, former Republican Party Chair Michael Steele, former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, commentator Tavis Smiley, former Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke (the only black Republican Senator since Reconstruction) and lots of others. Traveling throughout the 2008 presidential campaign, Williams manages to get comments from many of the nominees to paint a picture of where the Republican Party really stands with African Americans. The picture he gets is a convoluted one.
West, the first person interviewed in the film, comes right out and says it: If the Republican Party wants to appeal to the African-American community, it not only has to have a conversation with the people, it has to offer something they may want. A plan for urban America and poverty might be a start. But, as Williams shows through re-enacting a meeting he had with a suburban Republican official in New Jersey, the Republican Party often has so little interest in the inner city, they won’t hand out door hangers to potential volunteers so as to upset the suburban Republican representation, who don’t want to rile up the inner cities or give them a reason to vote.
It’s not just a problem in the Northeast. At one point in the film, Williams follows a 2006 U.S. Congressional race in Atlanta, Georgia, in which the GOP candidate, Catherine Davis, tries desperately to gain the attention of the national Republican Party to help her in the race to defeat then-candidate Hank Johnson. Davis goes to the Conservative Political Action Conference, where she’s essentially ignored by then-GOP chair Ken Mehlman. She tells the story of traveling up to Washington, D.C. for a meeting, in which party representation doesn’t even bother to reserve a conference room for her but rather asks the janitor to arrange chairs in a hallway so they can speak. And she is snubbed at a pre-Election Day rally by Georgia’s Republican then-Governor Perdue, who fails to recognize Davis during his speech, though does manage to recognize every other (white) candidate on hand at the rally.
As Philadelphia Weekly discussed with Williams last week, the problem with the Republican Party is not new, but it’s not very old, either. Historically it was the Democrats who opposed emancipation and started the Ku Klux Klan. It was Republican President Abraham Lincoln who led the North in the Civil War and emancipated the slaves. As Williams sees it in the film, what went wrong was Richard Nixon’s unrelenting quest for victory in his multiple presidential elections. The creator of the ‘Southern Strategy,’ he essentially handed the African-American vote to the Democratic Party with multiple snubs and a political calculation that called for racist “dog whistles” (i.e., subtly coded language to mask overt racist platitudes) and the idea that it was more important to win now—with the help of the racist South—than build a party over time.
It’s a provocative film and an issue Philadelphians should be aware of, especially as the city Republican Party continues trying to change itself. But this film is not hopeful.
Many of the characters in Fear talk of the same issues Republicans frequently bring up in casual conversation these days: Democrats are always calling them racist, homophobic and, sometimes, traitors. My God, the saying goes, it’s so hard being a Republican.
Self-pity aside, the documentary fails to cover why Republicans are often considered racist, even though it covers the racial history of the party. Glossed over is Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act (with, the film notes briefly, the help of Republicans). After that occurred, there was a major shift in representative electoral politics throughout the country: As history notes, Johnson’s push-though of the Act as Senate Leader, then again as president, lost him the South in 1964. And many of the states he lost were ones Democratic presidents had taken for granted years before. (FDR earned 99 percent of the vote in Mississippi in 1936, for instance). This was not a coincidence, as Johnson took over 60 percent of the national vote in his landslide pulverization of Republican Barry Goldwater, nominated over pro-civil rights Republican Nelson Rockefeller. Johnson later noted civil rights had lost the Democrats the South “for a generation”—though of course it’s now been much longer than that.
LBJ, whatever his intentions, signed the bill and others like it during his only full term in office. That same year (1964), several civil rights workers would be killed in Philadelphia, Mississippi. And 16 years later, it was in that same other-Philadelphia that Ronald Reagan would launch his campaign for president, noting the importance of “state’s rights.”
Fear also fails to note that the Civil Rights Act and Great Society as a whole led several Democratic politicians in the South—Dixiecrats, as many were called—to literally change party affiliation to Republican (the late infamous racist Jesse Helms being one; Strom Thurmond being another) because of this single issue. Republicans Helms and John McCain both voted against a national holiday for Martin Luther King in the 1980s. And in Helms’ case, he supplemented that vote with a vicious, racist rant against King’s “communist” legacy. President Reagan only begrudgingly signed the bill after it was passed with a veto-proof majority in the Senate.
Fear mentions that the civil rights era solidified African Americans as being a part of the Democratic Party. But it fails to mention that, before this time, the civil rights issue had not been a particularly partisan one. Progressive Democrats in the North had often joined alongside progressive Republicans in supporting civil rights legislation—until the ’60s polarized the whole thing by party. One of the only Democrats not to change over due to this issue was Robert Byrd of West Virginia, and Fear makes sure to point that out. Unlike Helms, though, Byrd apologized and denounced his past as a racist. Helms, on the other hand, spent the ’90s blocking black judges from being appointed by the Clinton Administration and fighting against AIDS research, believing it to be a gay disease. He served until 2003.
Today, things aren’t much better. As mentioned earlier, there’s no shortage of examples of nasty emails coming from the inboxes of grassroots Republican activists and party officials, whether they’re portraying Michelle Obama as a monkey or depicting a watermelon garden on the White House lawn. These are not freak occurrences.
Even black Republican Michael Steele, whose interviews are perhaps the most provocative in the film, does not offer a clear path to the Republican Party gaining a better understanding of the inner city or African Americans. During a talk about the federal government’s handling of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Steele offers subtle criticism of the Bush Administration (since the Democratic mayor and governor failed, the federal government should have stepped in sooner, he says). But then he actually claims things could have been different if only George Bush had pretended to care. If Bush had landed in New Orleans and hugged many now-homeless residents, Steele says, things might’ve been different in terms of race. Incredibly, he calls Bush’s lack of a NOLA hug a “missed opportunity.”
But what that makes clear is the biggest missed opportunity is exactly that mentioned by Cornel West in the film’s first scene: Even amongst African Americans like Steele, the conversation is about the Black community, not within it — which is an incredibly political way of thinking. A George Bush hug may have made for a photo op, but little else. And turning an entire block of voters from one party to another is going to require a lot more than that.