Speaking at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith suggested black people vote for Republicans en masse. "What I dream is that for one election, just one, every black person in America vote Republican," Smith told the crowd. "Black folks in America are telling one party, 'we don't give a damn about you.' They're telling the other party, 'you've got our vote.'" Smith argued that that meant black voters were labeling themselves "disenfranchised," because "one party knows they've got you under their thumb," while "the other party knows they'll never get you and nobody comes to address your interest."
Smith's suggestion is nothing new. Malcolm X made a similar observation in the 1960s, when about four in five black voters voted Democrat. In his "The Ballot or the Bullet" speech in 1964, the civil rights activist explained that while black people helped Democrats get elected, the party wasn't so interested in helping black people."They get all the Negro vote, and after they get it, the Negro gets nothing in return," X said of Democrats. "All they did when they got to Washington was give a few big Negroes big jobs. Those big Negroes didn't need big jobs, they already had jobs. That's camouflage, that's trickery, that's treachery, window-dressing. I'm not trying to knock out the Democrats for the Republicans. We'll get to them in a minute. But it is true; you put the Democrats first and the Democrats put you last."
Malcolm X didn't return to Republicans specifically in the speech, but he did note critically the wealth acquired by the U.S. government from black slave labor and taxes on black wages, his belief that black Americans were always the first to volunteer to die for their country, and his support for black people's Second Amendment rights.
At The Washington Post's The Fix blog, Chris Cillizza didn't quite agree with Smith's assertion that Republicans have never come around to address black people's interests just because they don't vote Republicans, pointing to a number of previous minority outreach efforts but criticizing them for focusing on gaining black support without articulating policies that would be attractive to black people.
Setting aside the collectivist, even white supremacist mindset—after all, who wouldn't be laughed out of a room for expressing a belief that all white people should vote the same way politically because of the color of their skin—needed to believe an entire race of people would have their political interests and desires perfectly aligned, while Republicans may not offer policies that would appeal to a significant portion of the black populations, neither do Democrats. Decades of all-Democrat rule in places like Detroit and Baltimore have led to more police violence, more poverty, and a lower quality of life.
It's a realization the Black Lives Matter movement is starting to engage with. This weekend, they protested at a presidential forum at the progressive Netroots convention. Activists have been particularly keen on holding former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor Martin O'Malley, who is running for president, accountable for aggressive policing policies that helped destroy a generation's worth of black lives even as they won the Democrat elections in the majority black city.
Cillizza is unsure whether one election cycle is enough to change the trend of Republican presidential candidates receiving no more than 10 percent of the black vote. Democrats have been ignoring the issues of criminal justice reform and policing for decades. Bill Clinton recently apologized for his contribution to the problem of mass incarceration, nearly 15 years after leaving office. President Obama has directed his focus on criminal justice reforms only in the twilight of his second term, and only after the issue of police violence exploded onto the national scene.
If Republicans fail to make inroads in the black vote in 2016, it will be the fault of the Republican candidate, not how much time is needed to buck a trend or black people's unwillingness to consider non-Democrat candidates. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has made criminal justice reform one of his signature issues since taking office in 2010, part of his "libertarian Republican" image, leading him even to be mentioned by President Obama as a force for good in criminal justice reform.
Unfortunately, so far on his run for president, Rand Paul has appeared to distance himself from the "libertarian" label in favor of parroting the same old talking points that have helped drive black voters into the hands of Democrats. There is still, of course, plenty of time to go, and no candidate has seized on the power of criminal justice and policing reform as an issue in the presidential race. Suggesting every black person vote Republican is an interesting thought experiment to illustrate black political power but it's not realistic. The Black Lives Matter movement's demand that candidates address the issue of police violence is realistic. Given the lackluster engagement by Democrats so far, that a Republican might offer the clearest solutions is realistic too, if the worst elements of the Republican base don't get in the way.
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