Editor’s note: Roland S. Martin is a syndicated columnist and author of “The First: President Barack Obama’s Road to the White House.” He is a commentator for the TV One cable network and host/managing editor of its Sunday morning news show, “Washington Watch with Roland Martin.”
(CNN) — It’s a safe bet that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney will not garner many votes from African-Americans in November.
Not only is he running against the first black president, Barack Obama, the GOP has done such a lousy job of cultivating black voters over the past 40 years that it has pretty much given Democrats an easy path to winning 90% and more of black voters.
Yet despite the long odds, Romney’s decision to speak to at the NAACP national convention in Houston next month is a smart move, and one that could be beneficial to his candidacy and the future prospects of the party.
Let’s face it, the Republican Party is as white as it could be. Sure, the party can boast of the electoral wins of Reps. Allen West and Tim Scott, both African-American; Indian-American Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Nikki Haley of South Carolina; and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, both Hispanic. But the GOP gets virtually nothing from black folks, and Hispanics predominantly vote for Democrats.
And with minorities in America quickly becoming the majority, the GOP had better figure out real soon that relying on white voters to win local, state and national elections ain’t the smartest electoral strategy.
Most of the GOP’s outreach to minority groups is targeted at Latinos. Anything that targets black folks is cursory at best, and frankly, that is really the GOP’s fault.
Any number of white Republicans — Doug Hoye, who now works for Rep. Eric Cantor; former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman; Ari Fleischer, former press secretary for President George W. Bush — have told me personally that they have prodded the party to expand its messaging to appeal to African-Americans.
Yet it seems the GOP is deathly afraid of reaching out to black folks. I’ve even said that it seems like the GOP is scared of black people. That has ticked off some conservatives, but it’s real.
I’ve had a difficult time getting white Republicans in Congress to come on my TV One cable network Sunday morning news show, “Washington Watch.” We’ve had an open invitation for the last three years for every member of the GOP’s House and Senate caucuses to come on the show, but only Reps. Tom Price of Georgia, Pete Olson of Texas and Steve King of Iowa have accepted the offer.
You would think a backbencher who never gets called by a network would be willing to get some face time on the only one-hour Sunday morning news show targeting African-Americans on a black cable network, but GOP press secretaries have been pretty awful at even returning e-mails and phone calls.
By making the effort to attend the NAACP, Romney will have an opportunity, finally, to present an agenda that will be of interest to African-Americans.
Now I’m sure there will be some who will say, “A black agenda should be an American agenda.” But let’s be real: Politicians appeal to constituencies all of the time. What you say to socially conservative evangelicals isn’t the same thing you tell Latino elected officials, and we know that speaking to women’s organizations isn’t the same as talking a LGBT group.
The reality is that when issues such as mandatory minimum sentences are discussed, that affects African-Americans in a different way than the rest of the country.
If the issue is HIV/AIDS, there is no doubt a general message is vital, but when the rise today is among African-Americans, then a different focus is necessary.
The nation’s housing crisis, of course, is a general issue. But 53% of black wealth was erased between 2005 and 2009 due to the housing foreclosure crisis, according to an analysis of government data by Pew Research, and with the Census Bureau reporting this week that whites have 22 times the wealth of blacks, how to close that gap is worthy of a discussion.
As a major education advocate, I support every form of education — public, private, charter, magnet, home school, online, vouchers, you name it. Romney should be willing to specifically address what he plans on doing about education, especially as it relates to African-Americans. The high school dropout rate in the nation is way too high for African-Americans, and that should be on the table.
With GOP state legislatures adopting onerous voter suppression laws, Romney better understand that protecting the right to vote is mandatory among African-Americans.
Bottom line, Romney has a lot of material to work with when he comes to the NAACP, and Republicans need to understand that speaking on issues that black folks care about, and offering substantive policies and not just happy talk, can lead to success.
When Mike Huckabee was governor of Arkansas, he enjoyed black support at the polls above 40%, and the same for Ohio Sen. George Voinovich. But that only happens when you don’t run from African-Americans, and instead engage them, dialogue with them and work with them.
The GOP should be thinking of the long term and not the short term. Sure, in the interim, it’s not going to result in a huge bloc of votes, but the only way the GOP can break the Democrats’ lock on the black vote is to go after it.
But Mitt, just do me one favor when you speak to the NAACP: Please don’t come with that “Party of Lincoln” crap. The GOP of today ain’t the GOP of the 1800s. Black folks rewarded Republicans for decades based on Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and Richard Nixon erased that with the implementation of the “Southern strategy,” which was all about alienating black voters and appealing to white voters.
I say it’s time to emancipate the GOP from its hostility toward African-Americans. Speaking to the NAACP is a step, but that must be followed by many other outreach efforts large and small.
But it’s a start. And I’ll be right there in my hometown of Houston, Mitt, to see if you offering empty platitudes or a real blueprint for change that black folks could realistically consider.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Roland Martin.