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The contradictory Republican case to Black voters — and why it matters

The RNC is trying to make inroads with Black voters. But that’s going to be tough for the party of Trump.

Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron delivers his speech on the second night of the 2020 Republican National Convention.
Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

In his primetime remarks on the second night of the Republican National Convention, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron epitomized the Trump campaign’s pitch to Black voters in 2020 — and all of its contradictions.

“The question is: Will we choose the path that gives us the best chance to meet those universal desires?” he said after noting Americans want jobs, opportunities, and comfortable lives for their children. “Or will we go backward, to a time when people were treated like political commodities who can’t be trusted to think for themselves?”

In answering that question, Cameron made cancel culture, identity politics, and some of the participants in the protests against police violence — which have been targets for Republicans throughout the first two nights of their 2020 convention — the villains of his speech. And in doing so, he argued all of them were holding Americans, Black Americans in particular, from living up to their greatest potential.

There was some selective editing, of course: He accused “anarchists” of tearing down the statues “of people like Ulysses S. Grant, Frederick Douglass, and even Mr. Lincoln himself.” Of course, it has been Confederate monuments that have mostly been the targets for dismantling, out of a belief that people who rebelled against the United States should not be revered in public spaces. And it’s worth noting police are unsure who actually tore down a Douglass statue in Rochester, New York, or why.

But those nuances or the general propriety of Confederate monuments in American life, something explicitly supported by President Trump, did not warrant mentioning in Cameron’s speech.

He instead promised that the Republican Party would trust voters to think for themselves. Given the content of his remarks, it certainly appeared that message was meant especially for Black voters. He accused the “radical left” of believing “your skin color must dictate your politics.”

“The politics of identity, cancellation, and mob rule are not acceptable to me,” he said. “Republicans trust you, the people, to think for yourselves and to pursue your American dream however you see fit.”

Cameron’s tenure as attorney general typifies the complexities of the GOP’s attempts to win more Black voters

As he condemned the left’s supposed “all-out assault on Western civilization,” Cameron invoked a name that has appeared often in the news over the past six months: Breonna Taylor, who was killed by Louisville police officers in March. He promised her family, as well as the family of retired police officer David Dorn, killed in St. Louis this summer, that the ideals revered by the Republican Party would lead to a better America.

“Whether you are the family of Breonna Taylor or David Dorn, these are the ideals that will heal our nation’s wounds,” he said. “Republicans will never turn a blind eye to unjust acts.”

Left unsaid was that Cameron himself is in charge of the investigation into Taylor’s death, still ongoing nearly six months after her death and with no clear end in sight.

The Taylor case is legally complex. Police officers had a no-knock warrant to enter her apartment. Hearing noises and believing intruders were trying to break in, her boyfriend fired gunshots at the officers. The police returned fire, and Taylor was hit. She died at the scene.

As Ronald Wright, a Wake Forest University law professor, told Vox’s Fabiola Cineas, the difficulties in prosecuting cases against police officers can explain the long lag between an officer-involved shooting and any criminal charges. (Cameron recently said he is waiting for the results of ballistic tests before reaching a conclusion to his investigation.)

“If you’re talking about police use of force — if the police shoot somebody or maybe they kill somebody — those cases are going to be very difficult to win,” Wright told Cineas. “I don’t really fault prosecutors for taking their time, gathering the facts, being thorough. The timing doesn’t really bother me as much as the amount of effort.”

Nevertheless, the contrast in the cases Cameron chose to cite is quite stark.

A man was charged with Dorn’s murder, committed during a burglary amid the nationwide unrest after George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police officers, within days after his death. Taylor’s killers are still free. America’s justice system proved efficient at finding and charging a Black man who allegedly shot a retired police officer. But it has been painfully slow in deciding whether white police officers who shot an unarmed Black woman should be charged, because of the great leniency granted to US law enforcement in making those life-or-death decisions.

Such incongruities typify the Republican courtship of Black voters in 2020. There has still not been justice for Breonna Taylor, even as Cameron has promised not to turn a blind eye to unjust acts. And though he swore judging voters by the color of their skin is something the Republican Party would never do, the 2020 campaign season has shown that’s not the case.

Cameron has argued that it’s time for Black voters to break with the past

Cameron was adamant that Republicans will respect Black voters’ thoughtfulness and independence, but even as he made that pledge, political operatives affiliated with the Trump campaign are propping up Kanye West’s bid for president in a gambit based on a fundamentally prejudiced conception of Black voters.

“Trump’s approach and the approach of the people around him is obviously rooted in racism. How their racist beliefs manifest themselves when it comes to Black folks is not taking Black folks seriously as political thinkers,” Hasan Jeffries, a history professor at Ohio State University, told me recently. “They’re operating under the assumption Black folks will vote for any Black person, you just gotta put him in front of them.”

Getting West on the ballot, this thinking goes, will draw Black voters away from Biden — making a Trump victory more likely.

Cameron is absolutely right to say that Black Americans are not under any obligation to support the Democratic Party. He framed some of Biden’s more cringeworthy comments on race — “you ain’t Black” if you don’t vote for Biden, Republicans will “put you back in chains” — within his narrative about the Democratic Party taking Black voters for granted.

His words could find an audience, too, although it’s probably a small one. As Vox’s Jane Coaston has written, there is a stark gender divide among Black Americans, with Black men comparatively much more favorable toward the president than Black women, though Trump is still deeply unpopular with both groups. Some polling also suggests Trump has gained a small amount of ground with Black voters since 2016, though that has been more than offset by his losses with white voters.

Even small changes at the margins could certainly matter on Election Day, however. The 2016 presidential election was, after all, decided by about 100,000 votes across three states, including Wisconsin, where Black turnout was notably lower than it had been in 2008 and 2012. That’s why Cameron’s message matters.

But to make his case, he was forced to elide some basic truths, none more fundamental than this: The president of the United States has a long history of racist behavior, and his political project has been defined by sympathies toward white nationalism.

Black voters will decide for themselves how to weigh that record against what Cameron believes are the virtues of Trump’s politics and the Republican Party’s agenda. The Kentucky AG has obviously come down on the side of the president.

Historically, however, most Black Americans have gone the other way, sometimes setting aside more conservative beliefs on social issues to support Democrats because they believe the party will be better for race relations. Entire books have been published — 1995’s Behind The Mule by Michael Dawson is a seminal text — to explain how Black Americans synthesize their race, class, and other issues in their political behavior.

“Blacks vote and participate based on how candidates or policies will impact the entire Black community, not just their individual situations,” Lakeyta Bonnette-Bailey, a Georgia State University professor, told me recently. “Blacks understand that race is still a defining factor in their life chances and how they are viewed, and therefore, their race impacts their decisions.”

Those are the long-standing trends Cameron’s argument was meant to puncture. But that task is exceedingly difficult when it must be made on behalf of Donald Trump’s Republican Party.

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