Skip to main content

Why blacks voters reject Romney

By Sherrilyn A. Ifill, Special to CNN
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Thu October 11, 2012
Members of the tea party movement demonstrate against President Obama in San Francisco.
Members of the tea party movement demonstrate against President Obama in San Francisco.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found black support at 0% for Mitt Romney
  • Sherrilyn Ifill: Black voters see GOP treatment of Obama as an assault on racial dignity
  • Ifill: Tipping point was a GOP lawmaker heckling the president during a televised speech
  • The upshot could be a more covertly racial GOP campaign to gain white male voters, she says

Editor's note: Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and the chairwoman of the U.S. Programs Board of the Open Society Foundations. She is the author of "On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-first Century."

(CNN) -- Mitt Romney's strong debate performance and his apology for his callous remarks deriding 47% of the American public appear to be moving his poll numbers up in some states. But Romney's reinvigorated campaign is unlikely to move black voters.

Black support is at 0%, according to a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll (PDF) reported in late summer. The reasons for this may have powerful implications for the future of black political strength in presidential elections.

It's worth recognizing that the unwillingness of black voters to offer any measurable support for the Republican presidential candidate is unprecedented. It's not enough to say that blacks are voting for President Obama because he's black and that racial solidarity trumps politics. Or to note that black voters are overwhelmingly affiliated with the Democratic Party.

Sen. John McCain and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin ran against a considerably more charismatic and untarnished Obama -- who was still black in 2008. McCain received 4% of the black vote. Black voters offered measurable levels of support to George W. Bush, 8% in 2000 and 11% in 2004; Ronald Reagan, 11%; and even Richard Nixon, 18%.

Opinion: Romney's foreign policy twilight zone

Sherrilyn A. Ifill
Sherrilyn A. Ifill

One of the reasons African-American voters do not support Romney is that they see the Republican Party's treatment of Obama, from the first weeks of his presidency, as an assault on a kind of racial collective dignity. This includes remarks such as GOP trash-talker John Sununu's description of the first black president of the United States as "lazy" after his poor debate performance.

Sununu stands by welfare criticism
Mitt Romney speaks with Wolf Blitzer
Stacey Dash on Romney and Twitter
Burton: Race hasn't fundamentally changed

It may seem like a long time ago to most Americans that Obama gave his first post-State of the Union speech before a joint session of Congress. But for many African-Americans, it seems like yesterday that the shaky credibility of the Republican Party began its final downward slide. What we now know as the "you lie" moment, when Republican Rep. Joe Wilson actually heckled the president of the United States, will one day be remembered as a watershed moment in racial politics.

Only the immediate, fierce and united Republican condemnation of Wilson could have possibly mitigated the effect of that moment on millions of African-Americans. That kind of condemnation did not happen.

Interactive: Racial voting bloc

At its very core, racism has always been experienced as an attack on dignity. Whether it was referring to a black man as "boy" or to black women by their first names, exiled to the back of the bus or to a separate water fountain, racism was a daily indignity for many early 20th-century blacks. Segregation itself was an attack on dignity. The idea that the very presence of blacks would sully white schools, lunch counters or hotels struck at the dignity of blacks as human beings and fellow Americans.

The civil rights movement worked to bring about economic and political power, to be sure. But at the core of those rights was that people be treated with dignity and respect. So when the Harvard-educated, eloquent, high-minded first black president of the United States is heckled in front of his wife by a member of Congress during a nationally televised speech, it is a game-changing moment for millions of blacks.

Rather than an isolated event, the Wilson affair was followed by other affronts, both big and small. Republican leadership's priority of ensuring Obama's failure in office. The refusal of formerly moderate Republicans to stand by positions they had advocated in the past in order to isolate the president. Parental protests against Obama's desire to send a message about studying and working hard to schoolchildren before the first day of school in 2009.

Arizona State University refusing to give the Columbia and Harvard-educated president of the United States an honorary degree. The rise of the tea party and the Republicans' cowardly refusal to call out racist elements in the movement. The video image of a tea party advocate apparently spitting on a black congressman. Tea partiers and others who bring weapons to events marked by vitriolic anti-Obama rhetoric. The entire "birther" movement and the ongoing attacks on Obama's legitimacy and nationality. The bumper sticker that reads "Don't Re-Nig."

Opinion: Romney's sorta-kinda call to arms

Each of these affronts was directed at Obama -- but was experienced viscerally and personally by millions of black voters.

The phenomenon is not easily reversible, at least not in the short term. It could even get worse: National Republican Party strategists might ramp up racial appeals to increase white voter turnout, efforts such as Romney's "welfare president" TV campaign and the party's crude efforts to suppress the black vote with voter I.D. laws.

In effect, having fully alienated black voters, the Republican Party may now see its only option as doubling down in an effort to increase the voting strength of white voters. It's a cynical ploy, to be sure, but it explains Karl Rove's recent assessment of the vote in Indiana. And it may explain why the chairman of the Republican Party insists on invoking the image of Obama as a stick-up kid who "stole" millions of dollars from Medicare "to fund Obamacare" and whom Republicans should "prosecute."

The ironic result is that the election of the first black president may well have moved us further back in removing race from politics than forward. What will this mean?

For the immediate future, we should expect Republican partisan politics to be fronted by an increasingly no-holds-barred use of racial appeals, particularly in places where Rove and like-minded strategists believe that working-class whites can still be manipulated by race. This will also mean stirring up hostility to policies that have been successfully racially identified in the minds of many working class white, male voters. These include welfare, criminal justice reform, support for cities and for public schools.

Until Election Day, we won't know whether the Republican Party assault on the president's dignity will translate into passionate black voter turnout for Obama. But what is certain is that black voters have collectively cut ties with the "Party of Lincoln." Instead, for blacks, the 21st-century Republican Party may one day be remembered as the party of Joe Wilson.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sherrilyn Ifill.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:50 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT