[Note: This op-ed originally appeared on CNN.com on February 5, 2014.]
It’s February and Black History Month, and networks and major consumer brands are reprising their annual ad campaigns honoring the contributions of African-Americans to the arts, politics, technology and commerce.
In spots airing on black radio and television stations in select media markets, the RNC praises the contributions of black Republicans such as Louis Sullivan, a former secretary of health and human services under President George H.W. Bush.
This ad campaign is part of a larger Republican strategy to reach out to minority voters. After President Barack Obama won more than 70% of the vote among blacks, Latinos and Asian-Americans (93% among blacks alone) in 2012, the Republican National Committee redoubled its efforts to court minority voters. This ad campaign is a part of that effort.
A well-produced, uplifting ad campaign will not be enough to convince black Democrats to switch their party identification, though.
For every ad praising Sen. Tim Scott, the Republican Party has had to put out fires created by state and local officials who make insensitive racial comments. For instance, in the past two weeks, the Iowa Republican Party had to fire the mastermind behind the “Is Someone a Racist?” flow chart on its Facebook page. The flow chart flippantly charged that racists are white people you don’t like.
By this point, some Republicans are probably wondering why blacks don’t seem to punish liberals and Democrats for their racial missteps. Democrat-friendly MSNBC has faced strong and valid criticism for its recent taunts of the Romney family’s transracial adoption and its assumptions that conservative Republicans don’t marry interracially. For his part, Fox host Bill O’Reilly raised eyebrows when he asked Obama why he had not done more to lower the out-of-wedlock birth rate among blacks.
The answer is rooted in a long, complicated history of race and partisanship and in psychological frames that the GOP ignores at its peril.
Some Republicans rightfully point out that during the civil rights movement, Southern Democrats tried to block passage of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts. They forget, however, that in the past 50 years, white Southern Democrats (both racists and non-racists) have gradually shifted their party identification to the Republican Party. They don’t account for the fact that GOP has admitted to (and apologized for) purposely using racially coded language to win over racially resentful whites in the wake of the civil rights movement.
And they ignore data that confirm that while black political views have moderated in the past generation, blacks still tend to prefer a stronger federal state and greater governmental intervention, in large part because they perceive the federal government to have done a better job than state and local officials at protecting civil rights.
Perhaps the biggest impediment to the GOP’s outreach efforts among blacks, though, is its misunderstanding of the importance of group dynamics to individual political decision-making.
Republicans value limited government and personal liberty, traits that celebrate rugged individualism and a view of politics that assumes that self-interest informs most policy preferences. Numerous studies have shown that many blacks and Latinos believe that what happens to other blacks and Latinos affects them. This belief that their fates are linked to the fates of their co-ethnics informs liberal policy and political preferences.
It means that an affluent black person might be willing to pay higher taxes if it helps maintain the food stamp program, which helps poor, disproportionately minority people. Or that a Latina born in the United States might wince when Republican congressional candidates voice their opposition to immigration reform because she perceives that tone of the opposition evinces a general antipathy toward Latinos regardless of their nativity.
Don’t get me wrong, Republican outreach to blacks is a good thing, and I hope to see more of it.
Republican candidates who win office need to engage their black and minority constituents, and Democrats should not assume that blacks (or any other group) will always vote Democratic.
However, a polished ad campaign alone is not enough to win over black voters. If the GOP hopes to become significantly more competitive among blacks, it will have to acknowledge the importance of group identity to blacks and other minorities and learn how to frame their principles in terms of group interests.
Andra Gillespie is associate professor of political science at Emory University and author of The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America (NYU Press, 2012).