The Republican convention’s race problem

Robert W. Glover, University of Maine

Originally posted in the Bangor Daily News on July 19, 2016


The Republican Convention is in full swing in Cleveland, Ohio. Amid all the reporting over splits within the Republican Party and the possibility of maneuvering to deny the divisive Donald Trump the nomination, there has been little attention paid to the racial makeup of the participants.

The absence of racial minorities within Republican ranks raises questions about the party’s legitimacy to participate in national conversations about race relations and the issues facing people of color at a time when attention to these issues is absolutely vital.

Racial minorities, particularly African-Americans, are virtually nonexistent among the Republican delegates at the convention. According to The Washington Post, as of last month, only 18 of the 2,472 delegates headed to Cleveland were African-American. That doesn’t even crack 1 percent of the total delegate count.

However, this is reflective of party identification in the U.S. more generally. As of 2013, African-Americans made up about 2 percent of self-identified Republicans. Latinos make up roughly 6 percent. Both numbers have been relatively stable since 2008. The contemporary Republican discourse is not resonating with racial minorities.

We’ve yet to see how the divisive candidacy and racially charged rhetoric of Donald Trump will affect party identification, but it’s hard to imagine how it could help the Republicans. In particular, recent polling has shown Trump to be remarkably unpopular among Latinos, with a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo poll showing 82 percent of Latino respondents viewed Trump unfavorably and 76 percent of Latinos intend to vote Clinton.

Furthermore, Hillary Clinton’s support among African-Americans, particularly in the South, was one of the reasons the Sanders campaign proved unable to unseat her as the Democratic front-runner. These trends don’t bode well for Trump, either. Recent polls suggest Trump would be lucky to get more than 5 to 6 percent of the African-American vote nationally.

The absence of any meaningful support for Republicans from key racial minority demographics drives two important conclusions. First, it’s difficult to imagine a Republican party of this racial complexion speaking with any sense of legitimacy on contemporary policy issues we face as a nation. Can a party that sends so few African-Americans to its national convention honestly talk about issues of racial inequality, mass incarceration and the palpable fear that so many people of color feel after seeing numerous police shootings of unarmed African-Americans?

Similar questions arise for Latinos. Can a party whose presidential nominee characterizes immigrants as criminals, drug dealers and rapists and that believes the construction of a massive border wall at Mexico’s expense constitutes a legitimate policy solution make inroads with Latinos who care deeply about immigration reform?

The poll numbers thus far suggest an emphatic no. The absence of meaningful minority participation in the Republican Party creates a setting where fiery statements on race and extreme policy solutions, such as those above, begin to seem legitimate — at least to those within the inner sanctum.

Beyond policy, however, is the second conclusion — the question of Republican electoral strategy. The defeat of McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012 led to calls among some Republicans that the party draw in a broader base of support and engage meaningfully with the issues that matter to racial minorities. This is particularly important with Latinos, who will be making up a larger and larger proportion of the national electorate.

This week’s convention seems to suggest a collective amnesia, an inability to recognize that ignoring racial and ethnic minorities in the construction of one’s policy priorities and the composition of the party itself is a disastrous strategy. This is true no matter how much the Republican front-runner dials up the inflammatory rhetoric aimed at the party’s fringe.

The nation as a whole benefits when we can have legitimate, sober conversations about policy differences, representing the diverse constituencies that make up this country, while seeking compromise and collaboration. In the absence of a legitimate, credible and representative spirit of partisan opposition, we see politics assume its most ominous form.

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