THE NATION : Republicans and Race: Facing a Party Dilemma

A death knell for Gov. Pete Wilson's presidential ambition was sounded at an event that received little coverage. The issue raised there was that of race and the internal arrangements in the Republican Party. Wilson is gone from the campaign, but the issue is more explosive than ever--especially after the racially divisive O.J. Simpson trial. The question has enormous relevance to the campaigns of the other GOP hopefuls, above all, to prospects of Colin L. Powell.

On Aug. 16, Wilson was the guest of his chief political sponsor in New England, Gov. William F. Weld of Massachusetts, at the most auspicious GOP affair of the summer. Weld had carefully arranged for Wilson to be keynote speaker at the Middlesex Club's annual Lincoln Dinner. But before Wilson spoke, the stage was taken by Michael Murphy, a black GOP state committeeman, who delivered the club's traditional "Lincoln Oration."

"I find it most interesting that those who attack quotas that help minorities are strangely silent about the quotas that hurt minorities in the Republican Party," Murphy said. "If indeed this assault on affirmative-action quotas is based on principle, I expect Gov. Wilson to attack with the same daily vigor the inequities within the Republican Party . . . . Its lack of rules reform renders its inclusion and outreach campaign, marketing shams, window dressing, hollow rhetoric, a myth. It insults the name of Lincoln."

Wilson was stunned.

The GOP's national rules, in fact, go far beyond the affirmative-action programs he opposes in their explicit designation of racial, religious and ethnic categories; these categories, moreover, are part of a complex system that undervalues the voters of large states, including California. How the GOP came to be that way has turned into an issue of immediate political significance, as Wilson discovered. Today, there is one black who is a voting U.S. citizen on the 165-member Republican National Committee. He is from the District of Columbia. There are three other blacks on the RNC--the delegation from the Virgin Islands.

Some Republicans suggest that if more blacks were aligned with the GOP, there would be a greater representation of blacks in its councils. But the rules of the RNC not only establish demeaning racial classifications; the RNC and the Republican National Convention also systematically underrepresent the populous states where large concentrations of minorities are found. None of this is happenstance.

For more than 60 years after its founding, the GOP's organization was premised on a system of Electoral College representation. Between 1916-1924, how- ever, its decision-making became infected with an acceptance of the denial of the franchise to Southern blacks and a nativist suspicion of the immigration masses of the big Northern states. "Only men of a certain type could have built this great nation . . . the newer immigration is profoundly altering the racial constitution of our people." Frederick H. Gillett, the GOP Speaker of the House, remarked in his 1920 report to the Republican National Committee.

To remake the GOP as a "Nordic" party, adhering to Social Darwinist tenets, where the favored were more favored, the original Lincolnian structure of representation was abandoned. In its place, a delegate-allocation method was adopted that drastically slashed previously significant black participation and skewed the overall convention against the large states, where immigrants were concentrated.

Those who made the party rules were, in fact, the same individuals who promoted and enacted new immigration laws virtually shutting out Southern and Eastern Europeans and excluding Asians entirely. "America must be kept American," President Calvin Coolidge insisted in his 1923 report to the Congress. In support of this policy, the official party organ, the National Republican, published a series of editorials decrying the increase of "unassimilable elements." Just as the nation was to be purified, so was the leading agent of that purification: the GOP.

At the same time, black convention delegates and RNC members, all from the South, a legacy from the Civil War, were replaced by what were called "the lily-whites." The party of Frederick Douglass, the great liberated slave, friend of Lincoln and adherent to the GOP, was no more. This "ethnic cleansing" of the GOP in the 1920s helped prepare the ground for the inclusive Democratic Party of the New Deal. Even so, there was still no formal recognition in the GOP of openly racial categories in the rules.

Between 1976 and 1984, for the first time, the GOP introduced explicit racial language into its rules--gestures intended to palliate their exclusionary effects without altering the basic structure. New auxiliaries were created, for "Jewish Americans," a Republican National Hispanic Assembly, the National Republican Heritage Groups and a National Black Republican Council.

These groups are granted a peculiar category of membership on a so-called executive committee of the RNC--where they perform no duties and are given none of the responsibilities of an executive committee, whose power resides elsewhere, under the name of the executive council. The auxiliaries, indeed, have no vote on the RNC itself, and cannot cast votes for the chairman or on resolutions. These ethnic categories are not quite as broadening as quotas and are something more invidious than tokenism. They are a mocking, distorted image of "affirmative action" without any inclusive substance.

In 1991, a black-led group called the Freedom Republicans filed a suit against the Federal Election Commission charging that federal funding of the Republican Convention was a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Freedom Republicans felt compelled to enter the courtroom after transcripts of closed hearings on the rules before the RNC in 1986 were strangely "lost;" a summary document prepared by the RNC falsely attributed quotations and arguments to them, and the RNC voted to affirm it had never discriminated against blacks or immigrants in the formulation of its rules from 1916 to 1924--a willful act of historical airbrushing.

The Federal Election Commission, in its legal defense, claimed exemption from the Title VI provision forbidding discrimination in all federal financed activities--though no such exemption had ever been passed by Congress. A year later, Federal Judge Charles R. Richey ordered the FEC to draw up regulations for enforcing Title VI in relation to national party conventions. The RNC then entered the fray with an amicus brief against the Freedom Republicans.

The D.C. Court of Appeals, however, dismissed Richey's judgment without ever addressing its merits. It ruled on the grounds that the court could not "with any confidence predict that action on our or the FEC's part would redress Freedom Republican's asserted injury"--a self-defeating tautology. Thus the FEC was allowed to remain the only federal agency without regulations to implement Title VI, and the RNC has remained the only recipient of federal funds to be allowed its crude racial, religious and ethnic classifications--a mockery of affirmative action.

One irony of affirmative action being used by the GOP as a divisive "wedge issue" is that, for all intents and purposes, the policy was begun by President Richard M. Nixon. Laws specifically applying to the condition of blacks and originating with the GOP, of course, antedate Nixon. Republicans were the party of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. These acts were the early Republican answer to the "affirmative-action" program inserted into the Constitution that counted each slave as three-fifths of a man.

When the new Republican-dominated 104th Congress stormed into Washington, in January, the first item in its "contract with America" was the application of all existing federal laws to itself. To further emphasize its opposition to special constituency categories, the GOP abolished all the officially sanctioned and funded caucuses--including the Black Caucus.

Unsurprisingly, the Republicans have avoided applying the same principles to their own party because it would precipitate a large internal disruption. Unraveling one part of the GOP rules would expose the whole structure. Attacking one part--removing the special designations on the RNC--would inevitably lead to attacking another--the tilted delegate-allocation formulas, which were forged out of nativist, anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic phobias. Instead, led by Wilson, they issue their statements on affirmative action as though from moral high ground.

What Wilson failed to calculate was that a black Republican in New England would hold him to account for his new convictions. "An attack on affirmative action without an attack on these party rules suggests a pandering to the worst sentiments of this nation, something principled Americans must abhor and reject," said Murphy.

The incident that helped undermine Wilson does not speak to his candidacy alone. He made himself the point-man against affirmative action, but the other Republicans are now on that point. How long can they continue to stump the country railing against affirmative action without engaging the question of the GOP's rules?*

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