According to him, black people in this country are finally starting to realize that Democrats are “the party of slavery”, and Republicans are “the party of emancipation”. One might assume he was speaking metaphorically. There are black voters who have left the Democratic Party, reportedly in part because they believe that liberal policies supporting federal funding for social programs encourage dependency and are not in the best interest of black Americans. They believe that it is the Republican approach, with an emphasis on economic growth, tax incentives and deregulation that will do more to encourage expansion, create jobs, and help black small business owners and others. Those voters are being courted by the Tea Party, and by Republican Presidential hopeful Herman Cain, who spoke later in the same program.
The Republican Party, said Kamau-Imani, is the party that is going to "set the captives free!" But interestingly, when he went from the metaphorical to the literal to support his claim, he steered clear of a look at the current political ideologies of each party, and relied on ill-conceived emotional references to the Democratic Party of the Old South as far back as antebellum times.
Getting to specifics, the charismatic speaker explained that “If anybody is a racist, it's the Democratic Party that's the racist! The party of the Ku Klux Klan! The party of Jim Crow! The party of Bull Conner, the party of segregation!”
Nimbly jumping back to the present, somehow managing not to trip on roughly forty years of colossal evolution in the philosophies of the two parties, Kamau-Imani insisted, "They're the racists, not us! We're their friends! We're the emancipators! We're the liberators! We're their friends!" Perhaps in a half-hearted attempt to move from the historical to the immediate, Kamau-Imani added the sound-bite, "We're the ones that believe in freedom!"
Kamau-Imani is technically correct, of course, as far as he goes. Bull Conner, the infamous Birmingham lawman known for turning water-hoses and attack dogs on Civil Rights demonstrators. was a registered Democrat, and the party was famously pro-slavery before the Civil War, and fought integration for decades. But if you're going to make references to that period as though it defines what the Democratic Party stands for today, you should take a look at the way both parties developed, shifted, and evolved. And if you want to recruit black voters by claiming the platform of the early Republican Party, it would be more candid to describe all of its planks. After all, it was those wild-eyed, tax-and-spend Whigs who eventually formed the Republican Party, and those guys were pretty loose with the federal dollars when it came to propping up farms, setting up schools and building railroads across the frontier.
Throughout our country’s history, the political parties have morphed, splintered, and adjusted to reflect new realities. We have only consistently seen the current configuration of mostly-liberal Democrats and mostly-conservative Republicans since around the time of Kennedy and Johnson, and even since then there have been tremendous changes. We have seen both Nixon and Reagan successfully court moderate Democrats. We’ve seen Republicans occasionally wooed by Democratic plans to prioritize welfare reform, deficit reduction, and military strength. And we’ve seen extremist wings of both parties come to greater prominence and influence.
Many would argue, however, that measurable, society-wide, legal progress - in justice and economic opportunity - didn’t begin to occur for black Americans until the 1960's, under Democratic control of the White House and Congress. In terms of proactive political involvement and decisive party leadership, of the two parties it has been the Democrats that have fought for things like anti-discrimination laws; equal opportunity in housing, education, and employment; improved access to the ballot; and state-sponsored programs to improve the lives of minority youth. Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and ushered in the era of the Great Society, which, until it was dismantled year after year by Republican Presidents, dramatically reduced poverty, a problem disproportionately affecting blacks. It took a Democratic majority in Congress at that time to see these policies through. Countless lives were changed for the better with the implementation of affordable housing programs and school lunch programs, the expansion of public transportation, and the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid.
If Republicans think this approach to addressing the needs of black voters is the wrong way to go, they need to submit new ideas honestly and argue for them rationally. If Herman Cain believes, as he has said, that race no longer holds anyone back in this country, and that he himself never benefited from advances made (by Democrats) in the last half-century, let him explain exactly how that transpired, and how Republican policies better ensure success. More power to him if he can convince black voters things will work out well for them if only they will start voting Republican.
If what Kamau-Imani means is that there are good reasons for African Americans to vote Republican now, that’s what he should say. He is free to make that case. Contemporary Republicans are in their rights to promote fiscal conservatism as a means of attracting black entrepreneurs, or promote their social values to conservative black religious communities. They won’t fool many with their attempt to convince voters that the late-model GOP has any claim on the progress that has been made on race in this country. But if they want to take the lead going forward, they should state the case on its merits, not try to mislead voters with false comparisons between modern-day Democrats and Old South Dixecrats, with their lynch mobs and state-condoned segregation.