Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, missed an opportunity last week to push forward a new era in race relations with the admission that his party was wrong to use race as a wedge issue to win political elections.
Had he ended with an acknowledgment of moral wrongdoing on the part of his party, he would have taken the high ground. Instead he could not resist the temptation of diverting attention away from his party by accusing the Democratic Party of benefiting from racial polarization.
Speaking at the national convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Mehlman said in a prepared text, “Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican Chairman to tell you we were wrong.”
Mehlman said in his very next sentence, “But if my party benefited from racial polarization in the past, it is the Democratic Party that benefits from it today.”
His flawed moral logic is that Republican wrong isn’t so bad because Democratic wrong exists now. Of course, two wrongs never make a right, something that apparently eludes Mehlman.
What a pity that he could not leave behind for one day the pattern of always attacking the other party to divert attention away from one’s own party.
Nevertheless, Mehlam does deserve some credit. He did commend Lyndon Johnson for pushing through Congress the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s, which advanced social justice and enraged racists in the South.
The RNC chairman also took a good step forward with the admission that Republicans used “the Southern Strategy,” which began under Richard Nixon, to shift racist Democrats into the Republican Party.
Beginning with the Southern Strategy, the South moved from a predominantly Democratic region to a predominantly Republican region. Racial anxiety was so high in the South that conservative Christians rushed to start race-based academies, churches fled to the white suburbs and the religious right was born.
Mehlam’s admission and appeal to African-Americans to give his party a second look were met with denunciation from the angry right.
Rush Limbaugh called reports about Melham’s plans “absolutely absurd.”
The nationally syndicated talk-radio host accused Mehlman of leading Republicans to “bend over” in an allusion to sodomy.
Limbaugh referred repeatedly to the NAACP meeting as the NAALCP meeting, by which he means the “National Association for the Advancement of Liberal Colored People.”
Mehlman, on the other hand, respects the NAACP. He rightly said, “The NAACP is too important, your mission too urgent, to be identified with one political party.”
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.