Something funny happened in New Orleans this weekend. Or, rather, something decidedly unfunny happened in New Orleans this weekend.
As you may have seen, one of the speakers at this year’s Republican Leadership Conference was an impersonator of President Barack Obama.
It didn’t go well.
Obama-impersonator Reggie Brown launched into a series of racially-tinged “jokes” about the president’s racial background, the president’s parents (for example: “My mother loved a black man and, no, she was not a Kardashian,”), and perhaps most regrettable of all, a photo comparison of the president and first lady to Fred G. Sanford and Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son. [Check out political cartoons about the 2012 GOP field.]
Simultaneous to the audience reacting with nervous laughter, the press seized on the remarks, followed immediately by the Twittersphere of the Left. Reaction, as you can imagine, was not positive.
It should be easy to dismiss the event as a bad decision and total aberration. However, in this age of viral YouTube videos, tweets, Facebook comments, and instant news, this happens all too frequently.
Earlier this month, a YouTube video criticizing Democratic congressional candidate Janice Hahn used such gratuitous and racially stereotypical hip-hop imagery (think guns and strippers and language not suitable for the airwaves or this blog), that it has inflamed minorities in California and caused a backlash threatening to obscure legitimate questions about Hahn, potentially helping her candidacy. [Read Milligan: Sexist, Racist Ad Targets Democrat Janice Hahn.]
In April, a Republican Party official in California was forced to step down after sending an email that depicted the first African-American president of the United States as a chimpanzee.
To give those involved in situations like these some benefit of the doubt, it is possible these were thoughtless deeds, not racist actions. But the cumulative effect of actions such as these (and there are others) have a disastrous effect on the Republican Party they apparently seek to help and risk putting party leaders in an indefensible position—not defending these actions, party leaders will not and should not do that, but having to answer questions about such actions in the first place.
After President Obama’s election, Republicans were defined as a white, regional party. Two and half years later (to a great extent because of the Obama presidency), that is not the case. The election of Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio; Reps. Raul Labrador, Tim Scott, and Allen West; and Govs. Nikki Haley, Susana Martinez, and Brian Sandoval shattered that myth. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on Obama.]
At the same time, issues having especially hard-hitting impacts on minority voters, including unemployment and education—for example, Opportunity Scholarships in the District of Columbia, where Speaker John Boehner championed 1,700 low-income, largely minority students President Obama abandoned—should allow Republicans to be on the offense in seeking the minority voters we have long lacked.
In New Orleans, before the Obama impersonator’s regrettable appearance, Govs. Bobby Jindal, a first-generation American, and Haley Barbour, a governor many in the press claimed had a race problem, struck the right tone, urging attendees to push stridently for victory while not being strident in their personal views towards President Obama. [See a slide show of GOP 2012 contenders.]
Politics is about people. If you want to win their votes, you have to demonstrate an understanding of the issues affecting them and a willingness to do something about it. But that is harder to do when the unforced errors of others send the signal that some of your colleagues either do not care or do not want your vote.
And in the meantime, if you want to know why many minorities have a problem with the GOP—a party that believes in empowerment, and the party of Lincoln—look no further than the hiring of an Obama impersonator telling “black jokes” to a Republican audience. When we continue to shoot ourselves in the foot, we have only ourselves to blame.
Corrected on 6/23/11: A previous version of this article misidentified the affiliation of the Republican Party official in California.