COLUMBIA, S.C. – When people think of South Carolina, they think of … I know, Comedy Central. Really, shouldn’t Jon Stewart send South Carolinians a cut of his pay?
What people do not typically think of is black Republicans, a perception that could change soon if a young man named Marvin Rogers has his way. This 33-year-old, Spanish-speaking former aide to South Carolina Rep. Bob Inglis has a plan for the GOP: He wants to change its complexion.
Until 2008 when he ran unsuccessfully for the state House of Representatives, Rogers may have been better known in Latin America, where he was an itinerant preacher for several years, than in North America. “Unsuccessfully” in this case should be qualified. Rogers won 32 percent of the vote in a blue stronghold, running as a black Republican in the year of Obama.
All things considered, not bad.
Rogers’ story is, shall we say, unorthodox. Born in the tiny town of Boiling Springs, S.C., he was raised by working-class parents with values rather than ideology. “So I was largely removed from the acrimony between the African-American race and the Republican Party.”
Without preconceptions about where his race placed him politically, Rogers began examining issues on paper and recognized that he was philosophically more aligned with Republicans than Democrats. But then a funny thing happened. When he began attending political meetings, he noticed, “Oh, my, I’m the only black guy here. What’s up with that?”
That question led Rogers on a quest that has resulted in a book nearing completion, “Silence Is The Loudest Sound,” in which he attempts to explain how the party of Lincoln lost its black soul.
Through five years of study and interviews, Rogers reached the conclusion that the chasm between the black community and the Republican Party is more emotional than philosophical. And, he says, that chasm is more a media template than reflective of reality.
The best explanation for what’s gone wrong, he says, was articulated by Jack Kemp, who told him during an interview: “The Republican Party has had a great history with African-Americans and they turned away from it. The Democratic Party has had a terrible history, but they overcame it.”
Part of the turning away followed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” that tried to harness votes by cultivating white resentment toward blacks. Rogers is no Pollyanna and recognizes this period for what it was – a “bruise” on the GOP. But he insists that Democrats use the Southern strategy when it suits them.
The biggest problem for today’s Republican Party, he says, is tone-deafness, as manifested by conservative talk radio and TV. Rogers says he and most blacks can’t listen to Rush Limbaugh because all they hear is anger.
“They might agree with Rush on the issues, but they can’t hear him because he sounds mad. People don’t follow fussers. People don’t follow angry men. They follow articulators.”
What about Michael Steele, the Republican Party chairman? Is he changing the perception of the GOP as a party of whites?
Rogers takes a moment to consider and answers carefully.
“Let’s say I think that when he ran for the Maryland Senate seat, and when he was lieutenant governor, that was when he was most effective in changing this perception.”
Another reason the GOP limits itself among African-Americans, says Rogers, is because Republicans don’t talk about issues that have currency in the black community – poverty, the challenges of single-parent homes, social justice, recidivism, black capitalism and crime. Studying Republican speeches through the decades was how Rogers came up with his book title.
The way for Republicans to attract black voters is pretty simple, says Rogers: Show up and solve problems.
When he moved to Rock Hill, where he currently lives, Rogers made his home in the inner city rather than the suburbs. When a local basketball team needed money for jerseys, Rogers helped them. Thus, when this inner-city team hit the court, their jerseys said, “York County GOP.”
“People don’t care what (political affiliation) comes after your name,” says Rogers. “They just want the jersey.”
With Rogers on the hustings, Democrats have cause for concern. Among other things, he’s telling African-Americans that they have rendered themselves politically impotent by voting monolithically. “If one party can count on our vote, then they can take us for granted. Predictability is suicidal.”
Predictability would seem not to be a problem for a Spanish-speaking, black Republican wonk who just might make South Carolina less of a joke.