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THE NATION : Republicans and Race: Facing a Party Dilemma

October 08, 1995|Sidney Blumenthal | Sidney Blumenthal is the special political correspondent for the New Yorker and the author, most recently, of "Pledging Allegiance: The Last Campaign of the Cold War" (HarperCollins). His satire about the Washington press corps, "This Town," will be performed at the L.A. Theatre Works this week

WASHINGTON — A death knell for Gov. Pete Wilson's presidential ambition was sounded at an event that received little coverage. The issue raised there was that of race and the internal arrangements in the Republican Party. Wilson is gone from the campaign, but the issue is more explosive than ever--especially after the racially divisive O.J. Simpson trial. The question has enormous relevance to the campaigns of the other GOP hopefuls, above all, to prospects of Colin L. Powell.

On Aug. 16, Wilson was the guest of his chief political sponsor in New England, Gov. William F. Weld of Massachusetts, at the most auspicious GOP affair of the summer. Weld had carefully arranged for Wilson to be keynote speaker at the Middlesex Club's annual Lincoln Dinner. But before Wilson spoke, the stage was taken by Michael Murphy, a black GOP state committeeman, who delivered the club's traditional "Lincoln Oration."

"I find it most interesting that those who attack quotas that help minorities are strangely silent about the quotas that hurt minorities in the Republican Party," Murphy said. "If indeed this assault on affirmative-action quotas is based on principle, I expect Gov. Wilson to attack with the same daily vigor the inequities within the Republican Party . . . . Its lack of rules reform renders its inclusion and outreach campaign, marketing shams, window dressing, hollow rhetoric, a myth. It insults the name of Lincoln."

Wilson was stunned.

The GOP's national rules, in fact, go far beyond the affirmative-action programs he opposes in their explicit designation of racial, religious and ethnic categories; these categories, moreover, are part of a complex system that undervalues the voters of large states, including California. How the GOP came to be that way has turned into an issue of immediate political significance, as Wilson discovered. Today, there is one black who is a voting U.S. citizen on the 165-member Republican National Committee. He is from the District of Columbia. There are three other blacks on the RNC--the delegation from the Virgin Islands.

Some Republicans suggest that if more blacks were aligned with the GOP, there would be a greater representation of blacks in its councils. But the rules of the RNC not only establish demeaning racial classifications; the RNC and the Republican National Convention also systematically underrepresent the populous states where large concentrations of minorities are found. None of this is happenstance.

For more than 60 years after its founding, the GOP's organization was premised on a system of Electoral College representation. Between 1916-1924, how- ever, its decision-making became infected with an acceptance of the denial of the franchise to Southern blacks and a nativist suspicion of the immigration masses of the big Northern states. "Only men of a certain type could have built this great nation . . . the newer immigration is profoundly altering the racial constitution of our people." Frederick H. Gillett, the GOP Speaker of the House, remarked in his 1920 report to the Republican National Committee.

To remake the GOP as a "Nordic" party, adhering to Social Darwinist tenets, where the favored were more favored, the original Lincolnian structure of representation was abandoned. In its place, a delegate-allocation method was adopted that drastically slashed previously significant black participation and skewed the overall convention against the large states, where immigrants were concentrated.

Those who made the party rules were, in fact, the same individuals who promoted and enacted new immigration laws virtually shutting out Southern and Eastern Europeans and excluding Asians entirely. "America must be kept American," President Calvin Coolidge insisted in his 1923 report to the Congress. In support of this policy, the official party organ, the National Republican, published a series of editorials decrying the increase of "unassimilable elements." Just as the nation was to be purified, so was the leading agent of that purification: the GOP.

At the same time, black convention delegates and RNC members, all from the South, a legacy from the Civil War, were replaced by what were called "the lily-whites." The party of Frederick Douglass, the great liberated slave, friend of Lincoln and adherent to the GOP, was no more. This "ethnic cleansing" of the GOP in the 1920s helped prepare the ground for the inclusive Democratic Party of the New Deal. Even so, there was still no formal recognition in the GOP of openly racial categories in the rules.

Between 1976 and 1984, for the first time, the GOP introduced explicit racial language into its rules--gestures intended to palliate their exclusionary effects without altering the basic structure. New auxiliaries were created, for "Jewish Americans," a Republican National Hispanic Assembly, the National Republican Heritage Groups and a National Black Republican Council.

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