Guess Who’s Not Coming to Tea?

The morning after the midterm elections news outlets across the nation ran with headlines like, “Minorities ride GOP wave to groundbreaking wins.” According to an Associated Press article, “Latina, African-Americans lead a notable list of Republicans to win last night.” In the Atlanta Journal Constitution one columnist declared, “Inspired by Obama, Republicans of color win more seats.” An editorial in the New York Daily Post put it to its readers: “guess who’s coming to tea,” claiming that “the Tea Party-inspired wave that produced historic Republican wins also revealed a substantial diversity in the movement.”

However, a closer look at this supposed “diversity in the movement” reveals a less than convincing picture of racial progress within the GOP and its voter base. The high profile of a few Republicans of color instead points to a relatively new and circumscribed phenomenon in white political ideology: white conservative voters in select districts and states are now willing to vote for Republican candidates of color, but only under certain conditions. White conservatives seem willing to elect Republicans of color who embrace a post-racial colorblindness, who are promote the Party’s far-right cultural and economic values, and still only in races without a centrist white option. Furthermore, in most high profile races the GOP’s new candidates or color have only prevailed when running against a woman or another person of color, and again only in races with a majority white electorate.

One of the first things that jumps out about the new supposed “wave” of Republicans of color within the conservative movement is that a simple accounting doesn’t add up to proclamations that they’ve made groundbreaking wins or added anything other than token diversity to the GOP. While there might be a few black faces in high places such as Michael Steel, statistically the Republican Party remains about as white as it has been since the mid-1980s, having gained no meaningful political ground within communities of color. The Republican Party’s voting base remains overwhelmingly white, as do its successful candidates for national offices.

This year’s elections did result in two black Republican representatives who will take their seats in the 112th Congress, but these two men do not even account for one percent of the GOP’s caucus in the House. In contrast there are 42 black Democrats in the House, comprising 21% of the Party’s ranks, a level of representation that exceeds the general population in fact. There are of course no black senators.

In this year’s primaries thirty-two black Republican candidates ran for nomination, the largest in a single year since Reconstruction, spurring commentaries about the new post-racial era. Commentators claimed, among other things, that even the modern day Republican Party —founded as it was after segregationist Dixiecrats joined the pro-corporate GOP establishment— is embracing blacks, Latinos, immigrants, and homosexuals. The results of Tuesday’s elections don’t support the claim that the Republican Party’s white voter base is openly embracing communities of color or acting in a post-racial way. Only fourteen black Republicans progressed into Tuesday’s elections. And after the ballots were counted, a mere two prevailed – Allen West in Florida’s 22nd Congressional District, and Tim Scott in the 1st District of South Carolina. The remaining twelve were mostly trounced by their Democratic Party rivals.

Interestingly black Republicans West and Scott prevailed in districts that are overwhelmingly white, making them politicians of color with mostly white constituencies. Such is an anomaly in the Democratic Party where except for the commander in chief, black congresspersons nearly all represent districts in which either blacks or Latinos are the solid majority. It would seem then that black Republicans succeed in their campaigns in direct proportion to the extent that they succeed in representing a mythical post-racial America for white conservative voters who do not feel threatened by a candidate’s ethnic or racial identification, candidates who in fact go out of their way to deny the significance of their own race, and deny the salience of racial difference in the American political system.

In The 22nd District of Florida, where West prevailed with 54% of the vote, whites make up 82% of the population. Famous as an epicenter of 2000’s disputed presidential election, Florida’s 22nd was created in the 1990s census and was, congressionally speaking, Republican property for the fourteen years during which Eugene Clay Shaw, Jr. won multiple re-elections on the strength of white conservative voters who routinely out-mobilized white progressives and the district’s small Hispanic and black swing votes. Representative Shaw spent the better part of the 1990s bashing immigrants and welfare recipients, making claims such as, “many aliens immigrate to America with the express intent of accessing welfare as soon as they are eligible.” Shaw voted for every conceivable bill that would withdraw support for the nation’s poor and scapegoat them for everything from crime to budget deficits.

The racial subtext to Shaw’s positions were clear to the elderly white population that made up his conservative base. Allen West represents a return of the district to Shaw’s white conservative voters after four years of centrist Democrat, and white male, Ron Klein. Klein’s ability to win in the 22nd seemed to hinge on the nationwide repudiation of the Bush administration and Republicans in 2006 which mobilized more of the poor, youth, people of color, and other likely Democrats to the polls, and then again in 2008 when Obama’s candidacy aligned with the district’s congressional election, again boosting turnout of progressives.

Hailed as a new face of diversity within the Republican Party, black Republican Tim Scott again represents a district that is three quarters white and which has a long history of electing segregationists and racists politicians who in words and deeds have opposed legislation to advance racial justice. South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District has been a Republican stronghold since 1981 when Ronald Reagan’s election signaled the final consolidation of the Republican shift among white southern conservatives away from the Democratic Party which had become, in their eyes, irredeemably colored.

In 1986 the 1st District’s voters elected Arthur Ravenel, Jr., a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans who once called the NAACP the “National Association for Retarded People.” Even the District’s previous Democratic Congressmen, like L. Mendel Rivers who held the post from 1941 to 1970, have been ardent segregationists. To appease his own white voter base Scott supported a compromise to move the Confederate battle flag from statehouse to a monument nearby. His platform is popular among conservative white South Carolinians; he is anti-abortion, supports further militarization of the US-Mexico border, and has called for legislation to enforce English as the official language. On the whole he does not support legislation that in polls has been shown to be popular with the majority of African Americans.

Outcomes for the Republican Party’s new black “wave” have been poor in congressional districts with black and Latino majorities and a history of supporting the civil rights, labor, women’s rights. The race in Tennessee’s 9th District, roughly encompassing Memphis, is an excellent example. In a race pitting Charlotte Bergmann, a black woman endorsed by the Tea Party movement, against Democrat Steve Cohen, the district’s black majority overwhelmingly voted against Bergmann. Cohen won handily with 75% of the vote. Black voters had no problem seeing beyond race and voting for the candidate who they felt best represented their interests, even though he was a white man.

In a radio interview during the campaign, Cohen described the Tea Party as a bigoted reaction against blacks, gays and lesbians, and surmised that its the rank and file’s motivation seemed to be “hostility to anybody who wasn’t just, you know, a clone of George Wallace’s fan club.” Bergmann’s local Tea Party supporters responded by calling Cohen racist and demanding a retraction of his statement which he refused to do. Tea Party bloggers pointed to Bergmann’s race to refute Cohen’s observations about the movement’s overall tenor and the impacts that Tea Party policies would have on blacks, gays and lesbians, and others he considered key members of his constituency. Sticking to his words, Cohen had no problem garnering votes from a majority of black constituents who would seem to agree that the Tea Party’s agenda will result in systematically racist harms to people of color, whether implemented by white or black politicians.

In the few remaining races that featured black Republican contenders they mostly faced black Democratic Party opponents. The Democrats easily won election in districts with non-white majorities, producing some of the largest spreads in the nation. Black Democrats had few problems dispatching their Republican rivals by running on platforms that the vast majority of black and many Latino voters identify with: repealing the Bush administration’s tax cuts for the wealthy, ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, providing universal health care coverage, protecting Social Security and Medicaid, raising the minimum wage, increasing unemployment insurance, and just about anything else that runs opposite the Tea Party and Republican Party establishment.

The conditions under which Republicans of color can win office appear to be very circumscribed and particular. In many cases where non-white Republicans have won office, they have done so against opponents who are women. Where Republicans of color have beaten Democrats of color, they tend to do so only in districts or states with large white majorities which are given the choice between a black candidate who represents the mainstream of black political thought, and a right-wing black candidate whose platform more resembles white conservative thought.

Gov. Elect Nikki Haley’s triumph over Vincent Sheehan in South Carolina appears to be the exception to this rule. However, in Louisiana where the Republican Party elected its first non-white governor in modern history in 2007, Bobby Jindal prevailed over Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a centrist female Democrat, with 54% of the vote. Barack Obama’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries may indicate a similar tendency among among Democratic Party voters for high office?

Susana Martinez’s historic election in New Mexico this year pitted a Latina Republican against Democrat Diane Denish, a white woman who lost by a spread of 10 points. While Martinez has been offered up by some as evidence that the Republican Party is inclusive of Latinos and immigrants, a closer look at Martinez reveals quite the opposite.

New Mexico has elected one of the most anti-immigrant politicians in the nation, largely on a wave of white xenophobia. Gov. elect Martinez has promised that one of her first initiatives will be to ban “illegal immigrants” from obtaining driver’s licenses. Further playing to popular myths of immigrants who “leech” the welfare state (and sounding like a clone of Florida’s Eugene Clay Shaw, Jr. no less), Martinez has promised she will oppose “providing illegal immigrants with free tuition through taxpayer-funded lottery scholarships.”

In her campaign ads and appearances she bragged about carrying her own pistol and portrayed herself as a tough on crime leader, especially against “illegals.” As the District Attorney of Dona Ana county, borderline to Mexico, she aligned herself with Albuquerque’s conservative white Mayor and City Council to the north. In the last year Albuquerque’s officials have implemented Arizona-like procedures within the Sheriff and Police Departments and county jails. In June of 2010 a mini-scandal threatened to break when an e-mail leaked from her office. In the note a staff members of the chief law enforcement officer for Dona Ana County joked about killing muslim and mexican immigrants, but the episode blew over with Martinez claiming to have “reprimanded” the underling.

Weighing the actual numbers of Republicans of color in office, the constituencies they represent, the policy programs they intend to implement, and the circumstance by which they won office, claims of a diversifying GOP are much overblown. Rather than representing a shift of voters within communities of color into he Republican Party, or a GOP policy agenda that includes initiatives which resonate with people of color, the new (and small) cohort of black and Latino Republicans in office is mostly a phenomenon resulting from the specific dynamics of particular races, and the willingness of white conservatives to occasionally break racial ranks and vote for non-whites who will represent their interests.

DARWIN BOND-GRAHAM is a sociologist who splits his time between New Orleans, Albuquerque, and Navarro, CA. He can be reached at: darwin@riseup.net



More articles by:

Darwin Bond-Graham is a sociologist and investigative journalist. He is a contributing editor to Counterpunch. His writing appears in the East Bay Express, Village Voice, LA Weekly and other newspapers. He blogs about the political economy of California at http://darwinbondgraham.wordpress.com/

September 19, 2018
Bruce E. Levine
When Bernie Sold Out His Hero, Anti-Authoritarians Paid
Lawrence Davidson
Political Fragmentation on the Homefront
George Ochenski
How’s That “Chinese Hoax” Treating You, Mr. President?
Cesar Chelala
The Afghan Morass
Chris Wright
Three Cheers for the Decline of the Middle Class
Howard Lisnoff
The Beat Goes On Against Protest in Saudi Arabia
Nomi Prins 
The Donald in Wonderland: Down the Financial Rabbit Hole With Trump
Jack Rasmus
On the 10th Anniversary of Lehman Brothers 2008: Can ‘IT’ Happen Again?
Richard Schuberth
Make Them Suffer Too
Geoff Beckman
Kavanaugh in Extremis
Jonathan Engel
Rather Than Mining in Irreplaceable Wilderness, Why Can’t We Mine Landfills?
Binoy Kampmark
Needled Strawberries: Food Terrorism Down Under
Michael McCaffrey
A Curious Case of Mysterious Attacks, Microwave Weapons and Media Manipulation
Elliot Sperber
Eating the Constitution
September 18, 2018
Conn Hallinan
Britain: the Anti-Semitism Debate
Tamara Pearson
Why Mexico’s Next President is No Friend of Migrants
Richard Moser
Both the Commune and Revolution
Nick Pemberton
Serena 15, Tennis Love
Binoy Kampmark
Inconvenient Realities: Climate Change and the South Pacific
Martin Billheimer
La Grand’Route: Waiting for the Bus
John Kendall Hawkins
Seymour Hersh: a Life of Adversarial Democracy at Work
Faisal Khan
Is Israel a Democracy?
John Feffer
The GOP Wants Trumpism…Without Trump
Kim Ives
The Roots of Haiti’s Movement for PetroCaribe Transparency
Dave Lindorff
We Already Have a Fake Billionaire President; Why Would We want a Real One Running in 2020?
Gerry Brown
Is China Springing Debt Traps or Throwing a Lifeline to Countries in Distress?
Pete Tucker
The Washington Post Really Wants to Stop Ben Jealous
Dean Baker
Getting It Wrong Again: Consumer Spending and the Great Recession
September 17, 2018
Melvin Goodman
What is to be Done?
Rob Urie
American Fascism
Patrick Cockburn
The Adults in the White House Trying to Save the US From Trump Are Just as Dangerous as He Is
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
The Long Fall of Bob Woodward: From Nixon’s Nemesis to Cheney’s Savior
Mairead Maguire
Demonization of Russia in a New Cold War Era
Dean Baker
The Bank Bailout of 2008 was Unnecessary
Wim Laven
Hurricane Trump, Season 2
Yves Engler
Smearing Dimitri Lascaris
Ron Jacobs
From ROTC to Revolution and Beyond
Clark T. Scott
The Cannibals of Horsepower
Binoy Kampmark
A Traditional Right: Jimmie Åkesson and the Sweden Democrats
Laura Flanders
History Markers
Weekend Edition
September 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Carl Boggs
Obama’s Imperial Presidency
Joshua Frank
From CO2 to Methane, Trump’s Hurricane of Destruction
Jeffrey St. Clair
Maria’s Missing Dead
Andrew Levine
A Bulwark Against the Idiocy of Conservatives Like Brett Kavanaugh
T.J. Coles
Neil deGrasse Tyson: A Celebrity Salesman for the Military-Industrial-Complex