The Party of Lincoln Abandons the Black Vote

The next time a New York City cop takes out his heater and shoots a black man he shouldn’t be shooting, let candidate Rudolph Giuliani do a little thinking before he does one of his fast-action responses with his mouth. If he has not ruined his chances in the fall election by his conduct toward blacks, it is nothing short of miraculous. Republicans almost always do.

They didn’t used to. Nelson Rockefeller courted the black vote and guess what? With the help of Jackie Robinson, his friend and close political collaborator, he got it or got enough of it to make him absolutely unbeatable in New York, a state with a reputation for being so left-liberal that to win Republicans have to steal votes or pile up absurdly large pluralities among whites. The current governor, that strange political figure who can be seen from time to time outside of his sarcophagus sleepwalking hither and yon in his winding sheet, owes his election to his Democratic predecessor’s degeneration into a tiresome hack.

Questions of morals, decency or due respect for the Constitution aside, Republican indifference to black voters is astonishing. You’d think they’d pay attention if for no other reason than a lusty desire to win a few elections. Close inspection of how votes have been cast in the last 20 years reveals a startling electoral fact that Republican campaign managers should have long since recognized: The famous gender gap has more to do with race than it does with gender.

Writing recently in The Washington Post , Richard Morin, the newspaper’s director of polling, said, “… the gender gap is significantly influenced by minority women, who vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Because minority women vote in greater numbers than minority men, the net effect is to inflate the size of the overall gender gap … In 1992, women as a whole voted 45 percent to 37 percent for Clinton over Bush. But among white women, the race was dead even: 41 percent voted for Clinton and 41 percent for Bush … Among black women (and men) the race was no contest: Eight in 10 voted for Clinton.” I’m surprised it wasn’t higher. Indeed, throughout the last decade, this voting pattern repeated itself so often you have to wonder why the Republicans have spent so much effort trying to work their way around “women’s issues” instead of addressing questions of race.

The Party of the Pachyderm may have been befuddled by the bells and bongos that white women’s political organizations flail at so as to make the biggest din possible about the gender gap. But that’s neither an excuse nor an explanation for the Republican abandonment of blacks. Should Mr. Guiliani’s career end in November, his inane handling of race and color will be the reason. After six years in City Hall, the Guiliani administration still has hardly any high-profile blacks. It’s much too late in the day to pull that crap about how we looked and couldn’t find anybody qualified for one of the big, big jobs. The lack of a few such blacks in the administration does make it difficult every time one of the Mayor’s cops pops another unarmed black man.

The Republicans are so awful at race relations they can’t even do a little cheap, hypocritical grandstanding when the opportunity presents itself, as it did in the South Carolina Confederate flag controversy. Neither George W. Bush nor John McCain could find enough soda pop in his veins to answer the question, “Yea, take the goddamn flag down and burn it.” A few weeks ago, Mr. McCain returned to the Palmetto State to confess he should have stood up for the Stars and Stripes instead of remaining silent for the Stars and Bars, but by then who was listening?

About the time Mr. McCain was doing his racial mea culpas, George W. Bush was meeting with the homosexual Republicans. This was explained as “a move back toward the center” after the rightward excesses of the primaries. We’ll leave it to the homosexuals to decide if Mr. Bush was lying to them when he was ignoring them or if he’s lying to them now. The point is, he has felt it necessary to make some symbolic gesture of a public nature toward these middle-class white men but none to blacks. With due apologies to our homosexual friends and a frank acknowledgment that they are occasionally beaten and even lynched, the truth is that their place in American society is a minor one compared to that occupied by the nation’s black population. America would not be America without black people. It wouldn’t be the same country, it wouldn’t have the same past and it wouldn’t have played the role it has in the world without the special blessing of having a black as well as a white history. Evidently, this means nothing to the Republican candidate. Say what you will about Bill Clinton, the one thing he will be happily remembered for is his appointment of so many men and women of color to the highest positions.

The Republican abandonment of Black America is of long standing. For 50 years wherever blacks came in our cities, Republicans responded by leaving. Decade after decade, election after election, in city after city, wherever black people voted, there are no Republican election workers, there is no campaign. The huge majority of blacks have lived in a one-party society in which elections are contested with the same partisan vigor as they were in the defunct Soviet Union. But the G.O.P. doesn’t give a hoot or holler in hell about getting black votes.

The practical consequences are just what one should expect from one-party politics-indifference, corruption and failure to do what needs to be done by the one party left to feast off the black vote. American Pharaoh , a new biography of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor, tells this story in depressing detail.

Where else except in a one-party society would you expect to find a man who owned a string of flophouses made the head of the public housing authority? And what was the reaction of the Republican Party, the party of business, to this? It was to buy in and back the Democrats. In Chicago, the downtown money people went so far as to prohibit Republican mayoral candidates from raising money for their campaigns. New York is hardly better, although it is different in that, once every generation, somebody, a Fiorello La Guardia, a John Lindsay or a Rudolph Giuliani, breaks loose, seizes the legal fiction which is the New York City Republican Party and wins Gracie Mansion for a term or two. These are Halley’s comet candidates who swing into sight, burn bright and are gone for another 25 or 30 years, leaving the essential one-party landscape unchanged. New York’s real political structure is revealed in the City Council where rows of Democrats sit in uncontested seats.

For New York, and for the nation, the Republican abdication of its responsibility as the second party in a two-party system has meant that liberal Democratic ideas about how to bring forth racial justice have never been opposed by another program, a different approach. The Republicans always find a way to say no but never a way to say what they would do, so we have been stuck with affirmative action, gigantic legal fees, mandatory sensitivity training, quotas, new math and a squalid kind of bureaucratically supervised anarchy that has gotten things done at the maximum cost and the minimum possible effectiveness. Such is the Democratic program, and, objectionable as it is, it beats no program-which is what the Republican Party offers.

So we are coming up on election time again, and, again, no ongoing Republican organization exists anywhere in black America. The reason the G.O.P. professionals offer is that their party has no hope of obtaining a majority among black voters. They choose not to know that 35 percent to 40 percent of the black vote would all but wipe out the gender gap and would perforce bring before the country an alternative plan for social justice.

All we will get from the Republicans this year at their convention will be Senator Foghorn and Governor Gasbag giving us the old guff that theirs is “the party of Lincoln.” Since nobody watches political conventions any more, it won’t matter. Nothing will.