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Perception or reality: Why GOP still can't persuade enough blacks to join the party

By Stacey Samuel, CNN
updated 10:32 AM EST, Wed January 25, 2012
In 2008, GOP presidential candidate Sen. John McCain attended the NAACP convention, but received only 4% of the black vote.
In 2008, GOP presidential candidate Sen. John McCain attended the NAACP convention, but received only 4% of the black vote.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Forum focused on recruiting blacks into conservative movement
  • Only 4% of blacks voted for Republican John McCain in 2008
  • "We have a sales and marketing problem," said one black GOP congressman

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Washington (CNN) -- At a forum this week focused on recruiting more black Republicans, the message was clear: "We have a sales and marketing problem."

A dozen panelists, including South Carolina Rep. Tim Scott, echoed the sentiment: Amplifying the voice of the black conservative movement has been an uphill climb.

Hosted by first-term congressman and tea party darling Rep. Allen West, R-Florida, the forum was meant to loosen what West sees as the Democratic Party's stranglehold on black voters.

"The Republican Party isn't good at messaging and communicating. We can sit around and we can whine about it, or we can take an action," said West.

The purpose of the forum was to challenge how black conservatives are perceived, and to present what West says is the reality.

Panelists said that one-third of African-Americans say they are conservative in their leanings, but acknowledged that 95% vote for Democrats, by West's estimate. In 2008, only 4% of blacks voted for Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain.

"Most black people don't think alike, but most black people vote alike," asserted black former Rep. J.C. Watts, who has endorsed Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich, the current GOP front-runner, is under fire for what many see as race baiting -- making incendiary remarks about African-Americans on the campaign trail and using "coded" language in South Carolina. But marketing the Republican message to black voters may be an even greater challenge when the sitting president is an African-American Democrat.

"Someone who looks like us needs to be at the strategic table and say, 'I know what you're trying to say, but I wouldn't say that like that,'" explained Watts, adding that "perception is reality."

Partway through the discussion, the former congressman asked the filled room for Republican National Committee members to raise their hands. No hands were raised.

Panelists also agreed the focus needs to remain on changing black voters' understanding of the party's principles.

"I believe that the free enterprise system is the most productive supplier of human needs," said William Cleveland, a city councilman from Alexandria, Virginia, espousing the Republican precept that government entitlements should be terminated.

But conservatism has long been equated with racism by many African-Americans. Panelists agreed that changing that perception was a necessity. Conservative activist K. Carl Smith, founder of the Frederick Douglass Republicans in Alabama, pointed to the history of the Democratic Party as once having been the party of Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan.

So black conservatives continue to ask why supporters only whisper when they're in agreement with the Republican agenda.

"We are losing the propaganda war," said Fred Solomon, a conservative community activist from Alabama and one of three white guest speakers.

"Where is the face of the conservative movement that you can send down into the gallows of our urban centers, with the resources, being able to connect emotionally, not reason and logic?" asked David Clarke Jr., sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin. He called for a strategy to counter the pre-eminence of left-leaning activists like the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, who are thought to speak on behalf of a large swath of the African-American community.

The panel addressed another Republican mantra: personal responsibility for achieving success.

"What I think we need to do, to address the misconception that government somehow comes to rescue you, is to tell our own stories," Scott said, referring to how he overcame his own impoverished upbringing. "America's story is one of struggle and triumph, tragedy and more triumph."

As black conservatives continue to refine the dialogue they hope will win the hearts and votes of African-Americans, it's their free market ideas they believe will be their greatest appeal.

"I want to see a black community that's diversifying its political capital," said West.

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