University of Virginia political scientist Gerard Alexander has an interesting essay in the Washington Post in which he argues that liberals are wrong to characterize conservatives as racist. The piece is very nuanced and deserves close reading. Some snippets:
The narrative usually begins with Barry Goldwater opposing provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and with Richard Nixon scheming to win the presidency through a "Southern strategy"—appealing to the racial prejudice of working-class whites in the South to pry them away from the Democratic coalition assembled by Franklin Roosevelt. In this telling, bigoted Southerners were the electoral mountain to which the Republican Moses had to come, the key to the GOP winning the White House. Wooing them entailed much more than shifting the party slightly away from Democrats on racial issues; in return for political power, Republicans had to move their politics and policies to where bigots wanted them to be. This alliance supposedly laid the foundation for a new American politics.
As Dan Carter, George Wallace's biographer, put it, "The Wallace music played on" in "Barry Goldwater's vote against the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, in Richard Nixon's subtle manipulation of the busing issue, in Ronald Reagan's genial demolition of affirmative action, in George Bush's use of the Willie Horton ads, and in Newt Gingrich's demonization of welfare mothers." More recently, it continues through inflammatory campaign ads ("Harold, call me!"), offensive tea party signs, Rand Paul's unusual-because-explicit skepticism about the Civil Rights Act—all the way to calls to end birthright citizenship for the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants and to keep Muslim worship well away from the nation's hallowed ground in Lower Manhattan. In this interpretation, core conservative principles—limited government, tax cuts, welfare reform and toughness on crime—actually have race at their heart….
These policy positions remain central to the conservative domestic agenda, but calling them racist, the third assumption, presumes something very strange: that conservatives do not mean what they say about them. Welfare reform is deliberately anti-black (or anti-minority or anti-poor) only if conservatives secretly believe that welfare actually does help its beneficiaries and are being deceitful when they argue that long-term dependency devastates inner-city communities. Tax cuts are part of a racist agenda only if conservatives do not believe that lower taxes will enhance economic growth and social mobility for all. Conservative opposition to raising the minimum wage is anti-poor only if free-marketeers are feigning concern that increases will price less-skilled people out of the workforce (as when Milton Friedman called the minimum wage "one of the most . . . anti-black laws on the statute books") and secretly agree with liberals that increases will benefit the working poor over the long term.
By such reasoning, conservatives should oppose all government programs that they believe help minority groups. But at least one expansive policy area defies this expectation: education. Most conservatives, even as they turned against busing and welfare, continued to support large public education budgets. Many conservatives may support issuing school vouchers and shutting down the federal Education Department, but those positions concern which level of government should control schools—not whether government should pay for education for all. Overwhelming majorities of Republicans joined Democrats in 2007 to reauthorize Head Start, the early-education program in which well over half the students are from minority groups. And substantial majorities of whites (conservatives as well as liberals) have voiced support for what sociologist William Julius Wilson calls "opportunity-enhancing affirmative action," policies that would unofficially but inevitably direct disproportionate benefits to minorities.
While I agree that conservatives (and Republicans more generally) are not motivated by racism or anything like that, I'm not fully persuaded by Alexander's argument that race hasn't played a significant role in the consolidation of the conservative movement.
For instance, Reagan talking about "welfare queens" driving Cadillacs on Chicago's South Side had a racial dimension to it that clearly spoke to a specifically white anxiety about urban and national decline; I don't think Reagan (or the vast majority of whites) are racist, but casting issues in those terms helped draw in-groups and out-groups in such a way that Republicans were not going to ally with blacks and other minorities. I don't think people such as Sen. Trent Lott, who lobbied against intergration as a student at University of Mississippi and scandalously praised Strom Thurmond for his Dixiecrat presidential run, define the GOP but he was a major player in it. Surely that matters to how parties are perceived by whites and black alike (and spare me the mention of Democrat Robert Byrd, the former Klansman who was a total piece of garbage; however conveniently, Byrd explicitly repudiated his racist past). One Trent Lott goes a lot further in creating a negative image regarding minorities than one Jack Kemp does in creating a positive or welcoming image.
For much of the late '60s through at least part of the current decade, there was little reason to think that Republicans cared about black and other minority voters very much, which might help explain why there are so few black and minority Republicans. I do agree with Alexander that this may be changing:
Marco Rubio, Nikki Haley, Susana Martinez, Brian Sandoval, Tim Scott, Ryan Frazier, Raul Labrador and Jaime Herrera are GOP nominees for the Senate, governorships and the House because Republican voters preferred them over their white opponents. Allen West in Florida and Jon Barela in New Mexico were the consensus GOP choices to run for competitive House seats. Many of these candidates are well-positioned to win their races and help change the public face of modern conservatism.
I suspect that as the public face of the GOP changes, so too will the complexion of its rank and file. Conservative policies are in no way inherently racist or anti-minority, but until recently the sociology of the party certainly wasn't particularly inviting to them either.