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Romney At The NAACP: A Filial Tragedy

Mitt Romney’s appearance at the NAACP convention in Houston was the occasion for much media tittering—after all, the candidate’s prior attempts to ingratiate himself with African-Americans had produced some awkward moments. The speech did not disappoint in the awkwardness department — Romney opened with a cringe-worthy line of praise for the convention’s organ music, and the same organ later tried to prematurely usher him off the stage, like a verbose Oscar recipient. All in all, though, it was hard to find the speech amusing, because when it comes down to it, there is something about Mitt Romney’s relationship with African-American voters that is just uniquely depressing.

The story of the Republican Party’s arc on race is well known—from the party of the abolitionists and the Emancipation Proclamation to the party of the "Southern Strategy" and Willie Horton. What helped make Romney’s appearance in Houston so charged is that he himself personally embodies that shift more explicitly than many of his fellow Republicans. His father George retained the progressive outlook on race of the moderate northern Republican—he walked out of the 1964 GOP convention over the rejection of a civil-rights plank and marched in Detroit in support of Martin Luther King Jr.’s marches hundreds of miles to the South. His noble instincts were challenged by the reality of the 1960s—the Detroit riots broke out while he was governor of Michigan, and his subsequent attempt to grapple with black anger, on a quixotic inner-city tour during his ill-fated 1968 presidential campaign, had a pathetic quality to it, captured so well by Ben Wallace-Wells:

In Watts one day, Romney and Lenore were sitting in the back of a sedan, being chauffeured to the airport by a local driver, with Romney’s bodyguard riding shotgun. According to a story that circulated all through the campaign, Romney leaned forward: “Say, what is that word they keep saying to me? I don’t understand, it begins with an M…” The driver and the bodyguard racked their brains as Romney tried to pronounce it, working his western consonants around an inner-city accent. Then the driver straightened up and said, “Governor, I think what they’re saying is”—and here he let his voice get kind of ghetto—“mo’fucka.” And then, because Romney was legendarily a Mormon and these vulgarities may have been somewhat beyond him, the driver clarified: “Motherfucker, sir.” And Romney sank back into his seat, like a part of the car that had been mechanically retracted.

The times were passing George Romney by—both in Watts and in his party, which was about to nominate for president the man who put the Southern Strategy to work. And his son? Well, as much as he sought to emulate his father, on the matter of race, he was cut from a different cloth. Jason Horowitz has documented how, as a student at Brigham Young University, Mitt Romney grew incensed over other universities daring to boycott BYU football games over the Mormon church’s discriminatory policies against blacks—a report that seems to stand at odds with Mitt’s own account of pulling over in his car and weeping in joy the day he heard, a few years later, that the church was dropping the anti-black rules. As others have documented, Romney had repeated run-ins with the NAACP while governor of Massachusetts. And then there is his more recent failure to call out racism on the right’s fringes—what could be his own Sister Souljah moment—and his embrace of Voter ID laws that will suppress black voter turnout. I still recall the rally in Greenville, South Carolina last winter where Romney beamed as Governor Nikki Haley proclaimed that “President Romney [will say] that’s our right,” to pass voter restrictions.

But here’s the thing: Romney actually had something to offer his Houston audience. He could have told them about the signal accomplishment of his term as governor, a law that disproportionately benefited blacks and other minorities in Massachusetts, and that laid the groundwork for a national law that will extend health coverage to millions of African-Americans. But of course, Romney would not do that. Instead, he reiterated his intention to repeal said national law, for which he was unsurprisingly booed (an outcome that his campaign surely expected and may even have desired—a Romney adviser said today that the goal of the event was less to win over black voters than to be seen trying.) Before the speech was over, Romney was already getting media huzzahs on Twitter for standing his ground in attacking Obamacare despite the audience; but is it really standing one’s ground to disavow one’s greatest policy accomplishment? Also little-noted in the initial reaction to the speech was the utter dissonance between Romney’s decrying of high black unemployment—his main argument why his audience ought to rethink its support for Barack Obama—and his support for the public sector cuts that are disproportionately hurting black workers.

Inevitably, as the speech neared its closed, Romney invoked his father:

It wasn’t just that my Dad helped write the civil rights provision for the Michigan Constitution, though he did. It wasn’t just that he helped create Michigan’s first civil rights commission, or that as governor he marched for civil rights in Detroit—though he did those things, too. It was the kind of man he was, and the way he dealt with every person, black or white.  He was a man of the fairest instincts, and a man of faith who knew that every person was a child of God.

His father, Mitt Romney told the crowd, was his "example" in this regard. But George Romney would not have gone through a speech to the NAACP without mentioning the universal health care law he had signed. And he would not have supported laws that will make it harder for many African-Americans to vote this fall—even the few who may decide, despite all, that Mitt Romney is the man for them.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis