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Romney's Chilly Reception at the NAACP | The Nation

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Ari Berman

Ari Berman

 On American politics and policy.

Romney's Chilly Reception at the NAACP

In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Barack Obama is beating Mitt Romney among African-American voters by 92 percent to 1 percent. Romney’s speech to the NAACP today isn’t likely to change that dynamic.

Romney was repeatedly booed for vowing to repeal Obamacare (which covers 7 million uninsured African-Americans) and saying he would be a better president for the African-American community than Obama, the nation’s first black president. The room looked rather empty during Romney’s speech, and the “standing ovation” he received at the end was a mere formality.

Most notably, Romney said nothing about the wave of new voting restrictions passed by Republicans since the 2010 election that will disproportionately make it harder for African-Americans to cast a ballot and participate in the political process. NAACP President Ben Jealous has called the new laws “the greatest attack on voting rights since segregation.” A quarter of African-Americans, for example, lack the ID necessary to comply with new voter ID laws passed by Republicans in ten states since 2010—which Romney supports. In Pennsylvania, 10 percent of statewide registered voters lack voter ID but the number is 18 percent in Philadelphia, which is 44 percent African-American. Pennsylvania GOP House Leader Mike Turzai recently said that the state’s voter ID law “is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”

Black voters are also disproportionately impacted by other prongs of the GOP’s war on voting—such as shutting down voter registration drives, cutting back on early voting and disenfranchising ex-felons—that have been implemented in crucial swing states like Florida (see Brentin Mock’s great piece “Florida to Minorities: Don’t Vote Here.”)

In Florida, African-American voters were twice as likely as white voters to register to vote through nonpartisan voter registration drives run by the likes of Rock the Vote and the League of Women Voters, which had to suspend their registration efforts in the state because of new onerous bureaucratic requirements (a federal judge has subsequently rescinded the law). As a result, black voter registration has declined 10 percent in Florida relative to 2008, according to the Washington Post. African-Americans also made up 54 percent of early voters in 2008; early voting has subsequently been cut from fourteen to eight days, with no voting on Sunday before the election, when black churches historically mobilize their constituents. And it’s virtually impossible for nonviolent ex-felons to cast a ballot in Florida, where African-Americans are 50 percent of the state’s prisoners but only 16 percent of the total population. Of the 7,000 felons purged by Florida in the first four months of 2012, 44 percent were African-American.

Romney’s failure to denounce or acknowledge his party’s efforts to suppress the African-American vote was particularly notable given that his speech took place in Texas, where the Department of Justice has blocked the state’s voter ID law and redistricting plan for violating the Voting Rights Act and diminishing the ability of minority voters to participate in the political process.

So why did Romney address the NAACP? Perhaps he believes he can pry some black votes away from Obama, despite his party’s horrid recent record on civil rights. Perhaps he wanted to seem “reasonable” in the eyes of suburban swing voters and courageous for addressing what he knew would be an unfriendly audience. Or perhaps he thought that getting booed by the NAACP would help him court conservative white working-class voters—the so-called “Southern Strategy” perfected by Richard Nixon. “If I were a political cynic, I’d wonder whether the Romney campaign wanted to be booed at NAACP,” conservative commentator David Frum tweeted. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed called Romney’s speech a “reverse Sistah Souljah moment.”

The recession could theoretically give Romney an opening to make a pitch to black voters. African-American unemployment is higher than the national average, rising from 13.6 percent to 14.4 percent last month. Unfortunately, the ideas advocated by Romney and his fellow Republicans, such as laying off more public sector workers, would only bring more pain. According to a UC-Berkeley study flagged by Slate’s Dave Weigel: “21.2% of all Black workers are public employees, compared with 16.3% of non-Black workers.  Both before and after the onset of the Great Recession, African Americans were 30% more likely than other workers to be employed in the public sector.”

Cutting back employment opportunities for African-Americans and making it harder for them to vote is not likely to win the GOP more African-American votes. And by staying quiet on the major civil rights issue of the day—the effort to restrict the right to vote—Romney proved which side he was on. After Romney’s speech, the NAACP asked its members to phone bank for voting rights.

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