It doesn't take a political scientist to figure out that the theme of this month's Republican National Convention was racial diversity. With Gen. Colin Powell and Congressman J.C. Watts heading up a long list of black, Hispanic and Asian speakers, the Philadelphia gathering was orchestrated to send a prime-time message that the GOP is no longer the party of the country club, segregated and lily white.
Look away from the podium, though, and the message started getting garbled. Blacks made up just 4 percent of the delegates, Hispanics 3 percent. Presidential nominee George W. Bush picked as his running mate Dick Cheney, a man who voted against a 1985 resolution urging the release of Nelson Mandela from a South African prison. The party platform declared that "rights inhere in individuals, not groups," and called for an end to affirmative action. The Philadelphia Daily News quipped that for an African American to join the Republican Party is much like a deer joining the NRA.
True, the convention did feature such black musicians as Chaka Khan and The Delfonics. "The only problem," writes Marty Jezer, a newspaper columnist from Brattleboro, Vt., "was that the diversity was in the entertainment, not the rank and file. White people have always loved seeing black people perform. It's equality of opportunity that right-wing whites have always resisted."
Try telling that to Gilbert Parker III.
"I don't think the Democrats have ever done anything that was true, meaningful and lasting in terms of establishing African Americans as individual citizens who own their own property and are self-reliant," says 25-year-old Parker, assistant director of the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Raleigh. "Look at the welfare state, what that did to generations upon generations of African Americans. Repulsive. There is no reason why African Americans should be a race that relies heavily on governmental assistance. I don't think Democrats have given me anything."
Parker was one of a handful of blacks to travel with the North Carolina delegation during the GOP convention. Though not a delegate himself, he was an honored guest: vice chair of the state's Young Republicans, a board member of the national Young Republicans, a staff member on several key political campaigns. Large and friendly, with a pear-shaped face, he traveled everywhere the delegation went, even scoring guest passes to watch the convention from the inside. In a sea of white faces, he nonetheless felt at home.
Parker, who grew up in Raleigh, comes from a long line of black Republicans, dating back to a distant relative who served in Congress and received a political appointment from President William McKinley at the turn of the century. Parker's grandfather, who died in 1984, used to display campaign signs for U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms in the window of the supermarket he owned on Bloodworth Street in Raleigh. With his parents divorced and his father often on the road, Parker says he learned his values at his grandfather's side.
"My grandfather was a sickly man; he had sickle cell anemia," Parker says. "Occasionally he'd get sick and he'd be at home, and I'd go by, and we'd always have these sessions where we'd discuss things about how a man is supposed to be. He would teach me lessons about himself. He came from nothing. He came from being poor, all the way up to owning his own business and several houses and a boat. He made sure that I understood what it took to get to where he was, and that I was not to squander what he had built up." On his deathbed, Parker says, his grandfather told him always to vote for Helms and for state treasurer Harlan Boyles, an old-style conservative Democrat. "I think he could identify with their hard work and commitment," Parker says. "I think he identified with the language they spoke and the kind of men they were: self-reliant men, self-taught men and self-made men."
Parker never disobeyed his grandfather's wish, and he went on to work for Helms' 1996 re-election bid. To other blacks, it must have seemed like a deer-in-the-NRA decision. Helms developed a fierce following during the 1960s, when he editorialized against the racial-equality movement on WRAL-TV. "Are civil rights only for Negroes?" he asked in one commentary. "White women in Washington who have been raped and mugged on the streets in broad daylight have experienced the most revolting sort of violation of their civil rights. The hundred of others who had their purses snatched last year by Negro hoodlums may understandably insist that their right to walk the street unmolested was violated." Although the senator later toned down his rhetoric, he continued to oppose civil-rights bills throughout the decades. In 1993 he started singing "I wish I was in the land of cotton" to Carol Moseley-Braun in a congressional elevator, after the black Illinois senator criticized the Confederate flag. "I'm going to sing Dixie until she cries," Helms told a colleague.
Parker says Helms' racial attitudes have been exaggerated by his opponents. "I have yet to find where Sen. Helms has ever made a racist remark," he says. Rather than listening to others, "I decided I would meet Sen. Helms, and I would make my opinion of him based on what I saw. Since the first time I ever met him, he's never ever been anything but nice and cordial to me. That's how you judge a person." As for the civil-rights measures, "I think Sen. Helms had legitimate opposition to specifics of the legislation. He voted his conscience, and I don't have a problem with that. I don't think it's because he hated black people."
It frustrates Parker that his African-American neighbors don't see that the GOP is the party of opportunity for everyone. He believes that blacks, like all voters, are "easily tricked" by 30-second TV commercials and last-minute church visits by Democratic candidates. But he thinks the Republican Party is becoming savvier at reaching into the black community, and that the coming election might offer some surprises.
"The Democrats are better at bludgeoning and better at spinning and better at relations than Republicans are," he says. "But the Republicans are changing that."