The Optic Nerve
Colin Powell irked Republicans on Sunday with comments he made during his appearance on “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos. Asked about his years’ old professions about racism in the GOP, Powell said that he still sees a “dark vein” of intolerance in some parts of the Republican Party. This assertion comes on the same weekend of the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Selma that led to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Each of these points represent perfectly aligned stars forming the constellation “Teachable Moment” for every Republican to see. Getting Republicans to look skyward, though, can be a difficult task.
The “dark vein” Powell sees happens not to be a vein at all—it is, in fact, the Optic Nerve. Republicans hasten to rebut Powell’s assertion in our usual fashion, by noting that the first black elected to the Senate since Reconstruction is Republican Tim Scott; that blacks fared far better under George W. Bush than they are currently, under President Barack Obama. Ironically, these statements about the GOP’s race problem come from the first black Secretary of State who served under Mr. Bush and was succeeded by the second black to hold that position—Condoleeza Rice. Substantive Republican apologetics can continue (ad nauseum), but they fail at attacking the problem at its root—Republicans fail miserably at optics.
The Republican Party, founded on ending slavery, walked lockstep with blacks for generations. In fact, many black American icons (Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Robinson, Sammy Davis Jr. Frederick Douglass) were vociferous supporters of the GOP (King, less so near the end of his life). Perhaps the greatest blow to the Party’s relationship with blacks came just one year before the Selma march, when “Mr. Conservative” (Senator Barry Goldwater) left the mainstream of the Republican Party to vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Goldwater maintained that his vote rested upon principle—an indubitable fact that nevertheless led to his landslide defeat and the beginnings of a horrible image problem for Republicans among blacks. Goldwater’s vote overshadowed his pristine record on civil rights because the optics portrayed a man who went out of his way to join the ranks of the racist Southern Democrats. When the Republican Party chose him as their standard bearer, to run for president, it unwittingly sent the message that it embraced Goldwater’s stance against civil rights at a time when blacks stared down death and needed reliable support. Politics is about perception, whether or not that perception is based in reality. Goldwater’s vote (and the Party’s embracing him) changed the perception of the GOP and it struggles to shake that stigma.
Admittedly, the Party’s failure to make headway on race relations, even when it perennially lists this as a priority, leads some to wonder how much it actually cares about attracting blacks. From sour notes hit during the Civil Rights Era to David Duke’s Republican campaign, from Willie Horton imagery to Trent Lott’s lauding Strom Thurmond, from race-baiting robocalls in the 2000 primary to the inept Hurricane Katrina response, from Birthers to Representative Steve Scalise speaking to a group founded by David Duke; Republican efforts to capture and obliterate its racist reputation too often mirrors Wile E. Coyote’s pursuit of the Roadrunner. Scalise’s address before the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO), for example, may constitute a silly mistake, though I wonder how EURO made its way into his Rolodex in the first place. Majority Whip Scalise also failed to attend the 50th Anniversary commemorative March on Selma—the same weekend Powell made his “dark vein” comment. House Majority Leader John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (arguably, the two most powerful Republicans in the country right now) joined Scalise in abstention, weeks after Republicans’ surmising that President Obama’s absence from the Paris march against Islamic Terrorism demonstrated apathy toward terror victims. The headline on Joe Concha’s piece in Mediaite states matters clearly: “By Shunning Selma, Boehner and McConnell Miserably Fail Optics 101.”
Indeed, to reflexively reject Powell’s statements is to deny reality: Some Americans hold racist views, and as a party that broadly represents Americans, some of those racists will inevitably make their way into the fold. Equally wrong is to overstate Powell’s remarks about “some” parts of the Republican Party as meaning the Party more generally, and to neglect the totality of his comments which does not single out the GOP as a hotbed of hate. As Republicans look at Powell’s claim on the backdrop of the missed opportunity for the Party to aggressively reclaim its rightful place alongside blacks in the fight for civil rights, we should remember that imagery matters (perhaps, even more than substance). What better proof of that do we need than the election and reelection of a man light on ideas, but masterful on style?
Maybe Powell’s comments will cause Republicans to listen, look up and see the constellation.
This Republican remains hopeful.