Republican Robert Brown (center) and party chairman Reince Priebus greet civil rights leader Wade Henderson (left) at RNC event celebrating the March on Washington (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)
Editor's Note: This is the second installment of a two-part feature about how the Republican National Committee's Black voter outreach effort is progressing. Part one can be viewed here.
On Aug. 28, undeterred by the intermittent drizzle and downpours, scores of people lined the National Mall to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. They represented various races, ethnicities, religions, economic classes, political ideologies and other things that sometimes divide.
There was one glaring omission, however: not one Republican stepped up to the podium to speak about the historic event.
Contrary to initial rumors, several Republican leaders, including Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, were invited to participate, but declined, a misstep cited by more than one Black conservative.
"If they didn't feel comfortable [attending] or had conflicts, they should have gotten in touch with some of the Black Republican activists to participate," said Donald E. Scoggins, president of Republicans for Black Empowerment.
Just two days earlier, much to Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus' pride, the RNC had hosted a luncheon celebrating the march, a bipartisan affair attended by several prominent members of the civil rights community. Unfortunately, the absence of Republican representation at the "official" event is what made the headlines.
Maryland pastor Darryl Williams said it was a missed opportunity for the party to be counted as present and caring.
"By not being present you give people the opportunity to say you didn't care," he said. "Whether that's true or not isn't really relevant, because the visual was they didn't care."
Like the voting rights issue, it is also another example of a lack of much-needed coordination between the RNC and the broader party.
Priebus says the RNC has no control over how other Republican leaders and lawmakers act on voting rights laws and other thorny issues, and even applauds a diversity of views within the party. But according to Williams, that's a poor excuse and a primary example of how the RNC needs to build a coalition of support for the Black outreach effort among congressional, state and local Republican parties and leaders.
"That's just not smart politics because the Republican brand is represented every time a Republican-controlled legislature does something, and it reflects on the RNC," he said. "So if the RNC really wants to be seen as being genuine in their outreach efforts, they have to do some real thinking about what these things are going to look like in public perception."
Washington, D.C., consultant Hughey Newsome suggested that it might be a good idea for the RNC to build a consensus within the party before moving forward with the outreach effort. Priebus' heart is in the right place, he said, "but maybe the first important step should be to internally make sure there's a broad commitment within the party before we begin to engage communities. It takes just one bad headline to destroy tons of outreach."
Shannon Wright, a New Jersey-based minister, thinks the RNC should create a platform centered around issues that are important to Black communities across the nation.
"If you think about what affects people in their day-to-day lives, such as education, jobs and the economy, [the GOP message] will resonate better," she said. "We have more in common than issues that divide us."
But the things that divide Republicans and the African-American community cannot be ignored, which is why Williams and others believe that getting to know the Black electorate and figuring out a way to deal with the tough stuff is essential.
"They can do it through polling, town halls, really any number of things, but you really have to get to a point where you essentially hear what could be a hostile audience time and time again until you understand what they're saying and then you can address it," he said.
Despite their criticism, most African-American conservatives still have high hopes for the party's Black voter outreach effort, and understand it could take several years to achieve significant benchmarks.
"I think that the RNC is doing the best it can all things considered," said Scoggins, whose familiy's affiliation with the Republican Party dates back to the Eisenhower era. "Priebus is coming into this new and many of the people taking this on are sort of new. So I don't expect a miracle overnight, but will give them an A for effort."
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