The Real Whitewash: The Republican Party as the White (Man’s) Party

In a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, titled “Whitewash: The racist history the Democratic Party wants you to forget,” Bruce Bartlett vigorously criticizes the Democratic Party for its long racist heritage, with an accent on actions before its shift to support civil rights and desegregation in recent decades. There’s been some mention of this in the relatively quiet holiday-blogosphere, including an interesting discussion over at Steve Benen’s Carpetbagger. Bartlett argues that those in the Democratic Party were:

“openly and explicitly for slavery before the Civil War, supported lynching and ‘Jim Crow’ laws after the war, and regularly defended segregation and white supremacy throughout most of the 20th century.”

There is certainly truth to this assertion, though… “most of the 20th century” is a bit of an exaggeration, for the Democratic Party began to break with its rabidly segregationist past in the later administrations of Franklin Roosevelt and in that of Harry Truman.


Bartlett goes on to quote racist commentaries from Democrats over the years, quotes that are included in his new book, Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past. Among other things, Bartlett makes the rather odd and erroneous assertion that the party of those Democrats he quotes “is far more culpable in promoting and defending racism” than those in the Republican Party, such as Ronald Reagan, whose blatantly racist, calculated political actions (one of which I note below) are now coming under assertive criticism again.


Let’s review some U.S. political history since the 1960s to see which party has been the most whitewashed. In the 1968 presidential primaries, the segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace, had substantial political success South and North. Wallace garnered 14 percent of the vote nationally, including many white votes in northern states. While Wallace is remembered as just a southern segregationist, he played an important role nationally in creating the potent combination of white racial fears of the civil rights movement and desegregation, white longings for a less diverse nation, and right-wing “free market” thinking, a combination that helped generate white conservative resurgence since the late 1960s.


By the late 1960s and 1970s, these factors had stimulated the movement of many working-class and middle-class whites, South and North, to move from the Democratic Party into an aggressively pro-white Republican party. Since the 1960s, the Republican Party has become the party representing barely disguised racist goals of the white majority that fears major desegregation of society. Elected politicians from the Republican Party, virtually all white, have led in intentionally weakening or destroying government programs aimed at reducing racial discrimination and inequality in major institutional arenas.


A leading political activist, Ralph Reed, commented in the late 1990s on the future of the Republican Party in a revealing manner. Reviewing the past and future of the Party, Reed suggested that,

“you’re going to see a new Republican party that is still primarily white and that is fiscally and morally conservative, but that also is attempting to project an image of racial tolerance and moderation.” [from: Kevin Sack, "South's Embrace Of G.O.P. Is Near A Turning Point," The New York Times, March 16, 1998, p. A1.]

Reed and most of his white colleagues seem to want a Republican Party that is overwhelmingly white, but also to desire the party to look good, to “project an image of racial tolerance.” Image, not reality, seems to be their concern. Today, the Republican Party is the omnipresent guardian of whiteness, while trying to appear non-racist to Americans of color. This façade is created by token appointments of a few black Republicans (like Rice and Thomas) to very visible political positions. One might have hoped for a more positive vision of multicultural democracy from a Republican party that had long benefited from the great loyalty of black voters, yet the opposite has happened.


Since the 1932 presidential election, in which the Republican Party lost to Franklin Roosevelt, the Republican Party has moved from the party of Abraham Lincoln that had for decades garnered the votes of most black Americans to one that is anti-black in many of its issue positions and, for that reason, now draws a very small percentage of black voters in elections at all levels. With the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater in 1964, the Republican Party intentionally abandoned black voters for a strategy openly targeting what are seen as the primary interests of a majority of white voters. This explicitly pro white political strategy has put emphasis on the interests of whites in suburbia and the southern states. Codewords such as “quotas,” “states’ rights,” “busing,” and “crime in the streets” have been substituted for the more explicitly racist terms of the days of legal segregation. Texas Senator John Tower, one of the first Republican senators in the South since Reconstruction and a very great force in remaking the Republican party, was until his death a major leader in this pro-white political effort in the South and nationally. This was evident in his opposition, as an overt segregationist, to the 1954 school desegregation decision, the 1960 and 1964 Republican national platform proposals favoring civil rights, the 1964 and 1965 civil rights acts, and numerous other civil rights laws.


Initially developed by Barry Goldwater and other white conservatives in the 1960s, this white-interests strategy could be seen in the famous Republican “southern strategy”– a strategy aggressively seeking southern white Democrats with overtures to their racial concerns. The white conservatives’ strategy secured a victory in keeping a key civil rights plank out of the 1964 Republican platform. Although the Party lost nationwide in 1964, the racist southern strategy did work regionally in capturing a majority of white voters in five traditionally Democratic southern states and in winning over those states on a permanent basis for the Republican Party. The southern strategy was effectively used by Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972 to win the first two Republican elections with that racialized strategy. This political approach was celebrated in Kevin Phillips’ The Emerging Republican Majority, a book that became the ‘Bible” of many in the Republican Party in the 1970s and 1980s. [Kevin P Phillips, The Emerging Republican Majority (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1969).] Phillips explicitly argued that Republicans did not need appeals to “urban Negroes” and other progressive “vested interests” to win nationally.


Once elected, President Nixon, who frequently used the words “nigger,” “jigaboo,” and “jigs” in phone calls, brought in conservative white officials opposed to enforcing the new civil rights of other Americans of color. Nixon instructed officials to weaken enforcement of most federal school desegregation orders, removed strong civil rights advocates in federal positions, and pressed the FBI to go after civil rights groups. Nixon regarded government social programs as not benefiting black Americans because, as he said, they were “genetically inferior to whites.” While sometimes supporting limited civil rights measures and periodically courting moderate black leaders and some black voters—usually only for calculated political purposes such as forcing Democratic Party officials to pay attention to black voters and further identify that party with blacks–Nixon worked with his Republican Party operatives to hone and buttress the political strategy of securing white voters in the South and the suburbs.[from: Kenneth O'Reilly, Nixon’s Piano: Presidents and Racial Politics from Washington to Clinton (New York: Free Press, 1995), pp. 292-330.]


The neo-segregationist strategy targeting southern and suburban whites was also used effectively in the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush campaigns of the 1980s and early 1990s. Reagan began his presidential campaign asserting strongly a states’ rights doctrine, and he intentionally picked Philadelphia, Mississippi–where civil rights workers had been lynched in the 1960s—to make this symbolic appeal to southern white voters. Reagan and his associates sought to dismantle further federal civil rights enforcement efforts, including weakening the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and attacking affirmative action programs, to please white constituents. The FBI and other agencies were used to intimidate and reduce voter registration and turnout campaigns on behalf of voters of color.


When Reagan’s vice-president, George H. W. Bush, undertook a run for president, he ran a racist campaign. In 1988 Bush and his advisors conducted an infamous advertising campaign that used visual images of a disheveled black rapist, from his opponent’s home state, to intentionally scare and recruit white voters to the Republican Party. The campaign intentionally targeted white voters with an aggressively racialized message of crime. Not surprisingly, Republican political strategists used no images of the most common rapist in the United States, the white male rapist. Once in office, Bush and associates extended Reagan rollbacks of government equal opportunity efforts, attacking new civil rights legislation and multiculturalism in speeches and, in a cynical move, appointing arch-conservative black judge Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.


Most recently, after losing elections in the 1990s to moderate Democrat William Clinton, the Republican Party succeeded in electing George W. Bush. Bush gained the presidency in two consecutive elections, 2000 and 2004. In both, the Republican Party focused heavily on securing white voters in the South and suburbs, and some Republican officials sought to restrict black voting in key states.


At one time centered in the states of the East and upper Midwest, today the Republican Party is, as a result of its recent political remaking, now centered in the South, parts of the Midwest, and the Rocky Mountain states. In recent political campaigns, the Republican Party has continued to be the “white party,” the one aggressively representing white interests, albeit often in disguised language. Thus, in elections between 1992 and 2004 the Republican Party got a remarkably small percentage (8-12 percent) of black voters, and a minority of most other voters of color as well. Since the 1960s the southern states have increasingly become states divided between a Republican Party that is overwhelmingly white and centered politically in predominantly white areas such city suburbs and a Democratic Party that is multiracial and centered politically in rural and urban areas heavily populated by people of color. Indeed, just over half of all black voters are still in the southern states where they are effectively disenfranchised when it comes to state and presidential elections because they are consistently outvoted by whites who vote heavily for the Republican Party and against any candidates seeking aggressively to further desegregate racially most U.S. institutions.


Not only has there been only a handful of black delegates at recent Republican party conventions, but the Republican National Committee has had few black members. The percentage of black delegates at national party conventions has oscillated up and down, between 1.0 percent and 6.7 percent since 1964. (These percentages compare with Democratic Party percentages now at about 20 percent.) Service at the highest decision-making levels of the Republican Party has in the last few decades been almost exclusively white. Thus, in late 2004 there was only one African American from the fifty U.S. states (plus a black member from U.S. Virgin Islands) among the 165 members of the Republican National Committee. This compared to the 97 black members on the Democratic National Committee, more than one fifth of the total membership about the same time. This pattern still pretty much holds today. In addition, most black Americans in positions with state Republican Party organizations are involved in minority outreach programs, in contrast to the far more numerous black members of state Democratic Party organizations, where most are active outside minority outreach programs. Today, all black members of the U.S. Congress, and something like 98 percent of the 9,000 black officeholders at all government levels across the United States are members of the Democratic Party. [from: David A. Bositis, "Blacks and the 2004 Republican National Convention,"  Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, Washington, D. C., 2004, pp. 1-10.]


This highly segregated pattern of political party interests and participation has characterized U.S. politics now since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In the southern and border states, the Rocky Mountain states, and numerous states of the lower Midwest, white voters now tend to vote overwhelmingly for the Republican Party in presidential elections, and for that reason some people now explicitly refer to the Party as “white party.” The Republican party has brought about its political resurgence since the major losses in presidential elections of the early and mid-1960s by explicitly using a politics of “race” that works mainly because of the racist legacies of slavery and legal segregation have persisted aggressively into contemporary U.S. society.


Interestingly, virtually no mainstream analysts in the mainstream mass media or in academia have analyzed the dire consequences of this huge racial divide for real democracy in the United States. Certainly, not Bruce Bartlett.