Conservative groups insist that the dream of winning over African Americans from the Democratic party is not a lost cause
A recent poll showed only 2% of black Americans support Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Photograph: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
Timothy Johnson was angry. The black Republican, and a co-founder of the black Republican group The Frederick Douglass Foundation, believes his party is ignoring black Americans.
As the party nominated former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney to face off against America’ first black president Barack Obama, the Republican convention in Tampa sported just 46 black delegates representing about 2% of the total number.
“Once again not a lot of attention has been paid to the blacks. This party does not seem willing to invest in attracting the black community and until we do a better job we have this mindset of the Republican party as the white party and the Democratic party as the black party,” he said.
Johnson’s group was helping host a forum in Gulfport, near Tampa, to discuss the Republican party’s strong links historically to black America as the leader of the fight against slavery in the 19th century. But in recent times the partoy has been noticeably lily-white, especially at the grassroots level.
Kevin Daniels, the head of the foundation’s North Carolina chapter, was also disappointed. “I really don’t see any interest other than a couple speeches,” he said, pointing to convention slots given to rising black Republican congressional hopeful Mia Love in Utah and black Democratic convert Artur Davis.
Polls consistently show more than 90% of black Americans will support Obama. A BET poll of African Americans in battleground states found just 2% of blacks supported Romney. That might explain why black conservative activists’ complain they are being ignored at the grassroots level, especially when compared to Republican efforts to woo Hispanic voters. “They are spending a lot of money reaching out to the Hispanic community but I don’t see that effort in the black community,” Johnson said.
Indeed the 2012 campaign has been dogged at all levels by accusations of “dog-whistling” race in ways sure to put off black voters. Romney himself recently cracked a joke referring to the so-called “birther” movement which holds Obama may not have been born in America. A movie called “2016: Obama’s America” is currently a hit in cinemas and it suggests the president’s political beliefs lie in anti-colonialism inherited from his Kenyan father.
On Tuesday night at the convention two attendees were ejected after throwing nuts at a black CNN camerawoman. One was heard to say: “This is how we feed animals.”
Many black Republican activists, however, insist that the dream of winning over large numbers of black voters is not a forlorn one. They point out that the social conservatism of many leading black churches on key issues like abortion and gay marriage should be incompatible with the liberal stances of the Democratic party. “They [the Republican party] may not see the opportunity, but there is an opening there,” said the reverend C L Bryant, a conservative pastor and the driving force behind a black conservative anti-welfare documentary called Runaway Slave.
Other conservatives insist that there is a hidden well of Republican support among black communities just waiting to hear the party’s message on abortion and gay marriage. “A lot of black voters just give a socially acceptable answer when asked if they are going to vote for Obama,” said conservative black author Carol Swain. “Black people don’t have to be Democrats. It is OK to be in a different party.”
One of the small number of black Republican delegates in Tampa is John Clendenin, who is the Republican delegation chair from the Virgin Islands. Clendenin insisted the party was making the effort to be more inclusive, though he admitted that finding a black Republican was still unusual for many people, especially black Democrats. “I get curious looks. They say: ‘How can you do that?’ But they are ignorant and they have not studied history,” he said. He added that he then tries to win people over to the Republican side.
“They call me the great converter,” he said.