The Racist Republican Party

By Isaiah Muhammed '13, Columnist

When I was a teenager, there was something I could not put my finger on about the Republican Party. I just did not trust it. I thought their principled political opposition to anything that would slightly benefit African-Americans was suspicious and it turned out my adolescent sixth sense for racism was right. While researching for my political science thesis, I found that the modern Republican Party, created in 1968 with the successful election of Richard Nixon, was founded on racism.

The America of 1968 was very different from the one of today. Broad opposition to the Vietnam War was coalescing and the Civil Rights Movement had given way to a more militant Black Power Movement that sought to address racism and economic injustice in the North as well as the South. In the first six months of 1968 alone there were 138 urban rebellions throughout American cities where the National Guard was called in to restore order. Protests, boycotts, sit-ins, and student strikes spread across the nation as increasing segments of American society became radicalized. Depending on your perspective, America was boldly entering a new world or tearing apart at the seams.

For the Republican Party, things were clearly tearing apart at the seams. As a response to this “excess of democracy,” especially the African-American protest movement, Republican candidates began running on a platform of “law and order.” The platform basically announced that the “politics of protest” were over and that African-American activists would have to deal with their concerns through established political channels (which had historically been unresponsive), or face punitive action by the government. In 1968, Nixon’s campaign ads pointed to the disruptions of civil rights protestors and rioting of disenfranchised and frustrated African-American youth as a breakdown in the nation’s “law and order” and thus gave white voters a legitimated alternative to the Democratic Party. “Law and order” was a part of the Southern Strategy, which was essentially created to play off of the racial fears and resentments of Southern white to bring them into the Republican fold.

Republican strategist Lee Atwater succinctly summed up the strategy: “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N*gg*r, n*gg*r, n*gg*r.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n*gg*r’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites… ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘N*gg*r, n*gg*r.’”

As president, Nixon’s racism went unabated. His Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman, recounted a conversation in which Nixon admitted “the whole problem is really the blacks…the key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” The Republican Party essentially became a reaction to the “excess of democracy” in the 1960s where African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, women and eventually the LGBTQ community began pressuring the federal government to help them embark on creating a more inclusive society.

Let’s fast forward to the 1990s and the Republican attacks on any attempt to include the historically disenfranchised in America make sense. The Republican Party framed affirmative action, welfare, school busing, housing policy, among others, as evidence of how the government was taking money and resources away from “good hard working Americans” to give to others (ostensibly lazy and black) who were somehow less deserving. The Democratic Party, because it attempted to implement inclusive policies, became the “party of special interests.” The terminology of this is interesting because it connotes that African-Americans are not really American, but rather some type of outside force trying to force their issues onto the American public.

Now, however, the appeal to racial resentment is losing its saliency as an option. President Barack Obama won the 2012 election even though he garnered only 38 percent of the white vote. Governor Mitt Romney lost even though he commanded 62 percent of the white vote. The Republican Party is currently in a moment of reflection because it is probably at a profound loss on how, after being predicated on racism for so long, it can appeal to people of color who are slowly but surely changing the nation’s demographics. As the modern Republican Party slowly dies off, hopefully the fundamental issues facing all Americans can finally be intelligently addressed and a new, more inclusive America can be built.