The Republican Party is trumpeting its unprecedented number of African-American congressional candidates -- 32 in all. But serious political analysts know that it's going to take a lot more than long-shot candidates in Democratic districts, or the occasional election of a black representative from a white district like J. C. Watts in Oklahoma or Gary Franks in Connecticut, to convince black Americans that the G.O.P gives a damn.
There's a reason black voters will almost always vote for a white Democrat over a black Republican, and the term "black Republican" itself is an oxymoron. Most commentators understandably treat a figure like RNC Chair Michael Steele as, at best, a curiosity. After all, why would any self-respecting African-American participate in a party that has so many leaders flaunting on their lapels Confederate flags while celebrating "Confederate History Month"?
Steele's cohort can claim a legacy of African-American Republicanism stretching back to the party's 1854 founding and earlier. As the Party of Lincoln, the G.O.P was founded to oppose slavery, so naturally there were Republicans of color back in the 19th century. But black Republicanism lasted deep into the 20th century, just as the all-white, openly racist southern Democratic Party did; Alabama Democrats kept their official ballot emblem as "the Party of White Supremacy" into the late 1960s. In the North, black Republicans remained a useful bloc of urban voters, offsetting Democrats' strength among European immigrants. In Cleveland, Chicago, Boston and even Memphis, they built enduring local machines, and Chicago's proved powerful enough to send black Republican Oscar DePriest to Congress in 1928. Black men in states like Mississippi and Georgia retained power in the remnants of the southern Republican Party as delegates to presidential conventions, with seats on the National Committee into the 1950s.
A majority of blacks switched to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, but until 1964 Republicans fought to get them back, pointing out that segregationist Democrats blocked civil rights legislation in Congress. It's difficult to imagine now, but small-government conservatives in the 1940s and 1950s had no trouble embracing civil rights as part of old-fashioned Republicanism. But in 1961 Barry Goldwater's "movement conservatives" decided to "go hunting where the ducks are" and embrace the White South. Instead of stalwart civil rights leaders like Senators Jacob Javits, Charles Mathias and Ed Brooke, the black Massachusetts Republican elected in 1966, the G.O.P was taken over by ex-Democratic segregationists like Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond and Trent Lott.
America has always had a "white man's party." For most of our history it was the Democrats, whose big tent extended to Catholic immigrants like my Irish great-great-grandfather. The enduring political fact of the last half-century is how Republicans, beginning with Nixon's 1968 "Southern Strategy," stole the mantle of the White Party. Despite gestures like making Colin Powell Secretary of State, the Republicans are a party hostile to black interests. A large percentage of their base refuses to accept that President Obama is a U.S. citizen, a delusional and undeniably racist stance. Periodically, principled conservatives like Jack Kemp in the 1990s, or party chairman Ken Mehlman in 2005-2006, try to make amends, but these efforts are all stillborn. Until the G.O.P returns to its roots as the party insisting on the absolute equality of all human beings, for which it fought a bloody civil war, Michael Steele knows he is a man without a party, or rather, his party died a long time ago.