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Powell calls out GOP on race — now what?

Keli Goff

Republican leaders must ask themselves how their party can become more racially tolerant and relevant in 2013

As President Obama grapples with criticism that his Republican predecessor’s cabinet better reflected the diversity of our country than the first black president’s, one of former President George W. Bush’s most high-profile black cabinet members is harshly criticizing the GOP for racial insensitivity.

In an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, Colin Powell declared himself still a Republican but also made it clear that the party has a long way to go in gaining the trust and votes of African Americans. Citing specific instances of racially offensive comments, Powell said, “There’s also a dark vein of intolerance in some parts of the party. What do I mean by that? What I mean by that is they still sort of look down on minorities.”

He referred to Sarah Palin’s use of the term “shuck and jive” — which Powell called “a racial-era slave term” — in a Facebook post about the president. He also referenced Mitt Romney campaign surrogate John Sununu’s dismissal of the president as “lazy” after his poor performance in the first presidential debate.

Powell went so far as to insinuate that historically, racial slurs often followed when a black man was called lazy. “He didn’t say he was slow, he was tired, he didn’t do well; he said he was ‘lazy.’ Now, it may not mean anything to most Americans, but to those of us who are African Americans, the second word is ‘shiftless,’ and then there’s a third word that goes along with it.”

Powell’s critique rippled through the political chattering classes, in part because he is the highest-profile black Republican to speak so candidly on the record about the party’s racial baggage. But his comments also highlight one of the major hurdles the GOP faces in its quest to reclaim the White House and the Senate: how to avoid stepping on the land mine that is race in the age of Obama and how to remain politically relevant when you are a predominantly white party in an increasingly brown country.

The pre-Obama GOP was not the complete disaster the modern-day one is when it comes to minority voters. In 1996, Bob Dole won 21 percent of the Latino vote and 12 percent of the black vote. In 2000, George W. Bush won 8 percent of the black vote and 35 percent of the Latino vote. In 2004, George W. Bush won 11 percent of the black vote and 40 percent of the Latino vote. John McCain won 31 percent of the Latino vote and just 5 percent of the black vote. In 2012 Mitt Romney won 24 percent of the Latino vote and just 2 percent of the black vote.

The numbers tell the story. The GOP has experienced a steady decline in its support among voters of color over the last eight years. While some of the erosion of support among black voters may be due to there being a viable black presidential candidate on the ballot the last two elections, that can’t account for the shift entirely, particularly considering the dramatic decline in Latino support for the GOP as well.

Part of the shift may also derive from the fact that the most recognizable black political figures in the country during President George W. Bush’s terms in office were black Republicans like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Bush’s cabinet included other minorities, including Secretary of Education Rod Paige, who is African American.

But the other shift appears to be the tone of the GOP. Whereas the party of Bush was known as one of “compassionate conservatism,” the modern-day GOP has become known for Tea Party extremism. Much of the extremism has become synonymous with racial intolerance, beginning in the early days of President Obama’s first term.

A poster of civil rights icon Rosa Parks was ripped up at a Senate town hall about health care reform during the president’s first year in office, and a member of Congress called him “boy.” There were so many racially charged jokes, email forwards, tweets and Facebook posts by Republican activists and elected officials his first year that New York magazine actually compiled a slideshow.

What’s especially troubling is that some of the racism appears to be so ingrained that many of the offenders appeared genuinely unaware that their comments and behavior have no place in 21st-century America. So the question becomes, how does the party grow and evolve into one that is racially tolerant and relevant in 2013?

Well here’s a suggestion. After the GOP lost female voters overwhelmingly in the 2012 election — in large part because of a number of offensive comments about rape and abortion that Republican candidates made — former Bush adviser Karen Hughes had this to say: “And if another Republican man says anything about rape other than it is a horrific, violent crime, I want to personally cut out his tongue. The college-age daughters of many of my friends voted for Obama because they were completely turned off by Neanderthal comments like the suggestion of ‘legitimate rape.’”

Perhaps she needs to issue the same warning and zero-tolerance policy to GOP leaders when it comes to discussing race.

Keli Goff is The Root’s political correspondent.