By Clarence Page
Tribune Content Agency
For years Bruce Bartlett has been trying to help his fellow Republicans to reconcile their long-broken marriage with African-Americans. Timing has not always been his friend.
We first met when I interviewed the former economic policy adviser to President Ronald Reagan on CSPAN about his book, Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party's Buried Past, a chronicle of the Democrats' sorry history as the party of slavery, segregation and white supremacy.
Republicans often bring up that history as if they don't think we African-Americans have ever heard about it. I'm grateful for the crucial help that Republicans gave to black advancement, but I also ask today's Grand Old Party, what have you done for us lately?
In that spirit, I support Bartlett's effort to restore a healthy competition by both parties for the black vote, instead of the current state of affairs, in which African-Americans are taken for granted by one party and ignored by the other.
But, alas, unfortunately for his book sales and that valuable conversation, the book came out just as Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign was taking off. Not since GOP-nominee Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign had there been a worse time for the GOP to seek black support.
But now, with Obama's presidency almost over, Bartlett is back, trying to revive that conversation in a Washington Post op-ed last Sunday, headlined, "Donald Trump doesn't need Latino votes to win."
Oh, yeah? My first thought: Tell that to Mitt Romney, who lost his 2012 race, despite winning 59 percent of the white vote, by losing even larger majorities of blacks, Hispanics and Asians.
Next year's Republican nominee will need 47 percent of the Hispanic vote to win the general election, according to a study by Latino Decisions. That looks bad for the GOP's front-runner Trump, who has made mass insults and expulsions of undocumented immigrants into central issues in his campaign.
But Bartlett suggests an alternative: Replace Latino voters with those of another large minority group that traditionally votes Democratic: African-Americans.
"I think some people, especially blacks, misunderstand my argument and think I am trying to hurt minorities by dividing blacks and Hispanics," Bartlett told me in an email exchange. "My main concern is with blacks and improving their condition."
With that, Bartlett repeats a line of argument that conservatives often give, that black voters lose leverage by having been captives on one or the other party.
My counterargument is that solidarity can improve leverage, too. Like any other voting bloc, we African-Americans vote our interests. When Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower, who won more than 35 percent of the black vote in 1956, appeal directly to black voters, we tend to respond.
Unfortunately Bartlett bases his argument on a Trumpian approach: He chronicles how black leaders and editorialists as far back as Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington have complained about job competition by immigrants — and called for strict quotas on how many new ones are to be admitted.
Omitted from Bartlett's argument as important details of context, such as the formal and informal Jim Crow segregation regimes that openly preferred immigrants, who were almost all white Europeans until President Lyndon B. Johnson's 1965 Immigration Act lifted racial and ethnic quotas.
Today's immigration debate pits dueling studies against each other. Some studies show immigration suppresses wages for blacks and others in the bottom income brackets. Others show more vigorous job creation in areas that have high immigration than in those that don't.
Despite efforts by some to exploit ethnic and racial rivalries for political gain, today's black political and community leaders tend to believe that their constituents have more to gain from the politics of addition, not Trumpian subtraction and division.
For example, Trump, despite his professions that "I love the blacks," gains few black friends by constantly denying Obama's birth certificate. As a result, Trump's disapprovals about equally bad — more than 80 percent — among both groups, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Ultimately, we're all better off remembering the unifying words of civil rights leader Whitney Young Jr., who said, "We may have come over on different ships, but we're all in the same boat now." Right. Let's not sink it. Reach Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.