Republican field most diverse primary slate ever – what does it mean for 2024?

An African American man whose grandfather dropped out of school to pick cotton. A daughter of Indian immigrants raised in the Sikh faith. A son of Cuban immigrants, an Indian-American entrepreneur, a Black talk radio host and a former undercover CIA officer who is mixed race.

A casual observer might assume that these candidates for the White House in 2024 must be from the same Democratic party that produced Barack Obama. In fact, they all contenders in the Republican presidential primary field – the most diverse in the party’s history.

But what should be an important breakthrough for a party long criticised for racist dog-whistling is overshadowed by some significant caveats. First, the opinion polls are dominated by Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, two white men whose words and deeds have alienated many Black voters.

Second, they are, critics say, seeking to benefit from identity politics and deny the existence of racism at the same time. Senator Tim Scott, former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, Miami mayor Francis Suarez, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, conservative radio host Larry Elder and ex-congressman Will Hurd refer to their own struggles but are reluctant to acknowledge a wider social and historical context.

“It’s great to see the quality and diversity of the candidates who have emerged and are emerging,” said Michael Steele, who was the first Black chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC). “It does matter what they say and how they sound and how they represent not just Republican values but the values of the communities they come from, and that’s always been where the wheels start to come off. You can’t be authentically you if you’re parroting what white Republicanism is.”

Steele’s elevation to RNC chairman after the 2008 election of Obama, America’s first Black president, implied that the party of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan had finally recognised the need to broaden its appeal. There was early vindication in 2010 when Steele successfully backed Haley for governor of South Carolina, Scott for Congress in the same state and Susana Martinez for governor of New Mexico.

But the following year, Steele lost his re-election bid to Reince Priebus, a white man from Wisconsin who would later become Trump’s White House chief of staff. When Republicans were defeated by Obama again, the RNC produced an “autopsy report” that urged them to diversify or die. Yet in 2016 Trump effectively tore that up with attacks on immigrants and Muslims that were cheered by white nationalists. He lost the popular vote but won the electoral college.

There have been gains and setbacks since then. In last year’s midterm elections, the RNC said its lineup of candidates was more diverse than ever: 32 Latinos, 22 Black candidates, 11 Asian Americans and two Native Americans. Among them was Herschel Walker, who denied the existence of racism and lost a Senate race in Georgia to Raphael Warnock, a Democrat steeped in the civil rights legacy of Martin Luther King.

Now the presidential primary candidates vying to take on Joe Biden, an 80-year-old white man, seem unwilling to discuss racial politics, except in the past tense or with an individual anecdote rather than a societal diagnosis. Haley, the first Asian American woman to compete for the Republican nomination, has described the discrimination that she and her family suffered as immigrants in the south while rejecting the idea of systemic racism.

Launching his presidential campaign, Scott, the sole Black Republican in the Senate, spoke of feeling angry and disillusioned until a mentor “told me in the most loving way possible to look in the mirror and to blame myself”, leading Scott to choose “personal responsibility over resentment. I became the master of my fate.”

It was a message that implied: if Scott could live the American dream, any Black person can. He accordingly likes to frequently swipe at the left with lines such as, “My life disrupts their narrative. The truth of my life disrupts their lies,” – even though has in in the past described incidents in which he was racially profiled by police, including US Capitol police.

Steele, for one, is not impressed. He said: “Tim knows me, he knows I’m not going to sugarcoat shit; I’m going to be straight up. That’s just playing to a white audience because that’s not his own experience. He’s the one who told us of the time he was profiled as a member of Congress. So what are you talking about?

“You can be aspirational about your own story and your own future while at the same time being honest and recognising the history of your story as it’s related through your parents, grandparents, neighbours, friends, who I would probably argue with Tim would not necessarily view their experience with America as exclusively, ‘I did all this by pulling myself up by my bootstraps and white America appreciated me as an American’. That’s just not how that narrative plays out.”

Republicans have taken pains to reject the New York Times’s 1619 Project and the concept of slavery being part of America’s origin story. A fashionable reflex is to selectively quote King’s “I have a dream” speech about a nation where children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” in an effort to justify colour blindness. This is seen by critics as disingenuous cherry picking from a civil rights leader who also highlighted police brutality and systemic poverty.

Like previous Black Republican candidates, such as Herman Cain and Ben Carson, this year’s field has little incentive to dwell on the party’s divisive past and risk being accused of going “woke”. Leah Wright Rigueur, a political historian at Johns Hopkins University, told the Guardian’s Politics Weekly America podcast: “There is no reward for calling the party out on racism or bigotry. There’s none for Black Republicans.

“In fact, we have documented evidence that the Black Republicans who get support from within the party … are the ones who either support the party uncritically, who echo whatever the party’s standard bearer is saying, or who find this space to carve out where they don’t alienate their audience while also adhering to certain conservative principles.”

Trump at a campaign event in Council Bluffs, Iowa, earlier this month.

Rigueur, author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican, added: “The latter is where Tim Scott is, and so that’s why you hear him say things like, ‘I have experienced racism on an individual level but I don’t believe America is a racist place.’ And so it becomes something which alleviates the conscience of the base, where they can say, well, it doesn’t affect me, that’s something he experienced, that’s his individual experience. That can be true, but it has nothing to do with me, and I can feel OK in this moment.”

Although the current Congress has more Black Republicans than at any point since 1877, the number is still only five. Efforts to recruit diverse candidates and appeal to voters of colour have been repeatedly undermined by party leaders and allies. Trump, the runaway leader in primary polls so far, dined last year with Nick Fuentes, an outspoken antisemite and racist.

Last month, the former president’s appointees to the supreme court were instrumental in ruling against affirmative action in colleges and universities. Scott told Fox News that it was “a good day for America”; Haley tweeted, “Picking winners & losers based on race is fundamentally wrong”; Ramaswamy told Politico: “Affirmative action is the single greatest form of institutional racism in America today.”

This week Tommy Tuberville, a senator for Alabama, gave several media interviews in which he repeatedly declined to describe white nationalists as racist before finally backing down. And Ryan Walters, Oklahoma’s state superintendent of public instruction, said teachers should tell students that the Tulsa race massacre was not racially motivated.

Tara Setmayer, a political commentator who received a torrent of online racist abuse following a recent TV interview, argues that the diversity of the Republican primary slate will not address the deeper malaise. “The irony in this is that the diversity is on paper and the party that claims that they’re so against affirmative action is seemingly intent on putting up racial numbers to show, look, we’re not racist, we have diversity. You can’t have it both ways.

“Taking away the rights of women, the rights of minorities – these are all issues that are being advocated by a Republican party that wants to laud itself for ‘diversity’? They’re perfectly OK with a governor of a major state like Ron DeSantis banning diversity and inclusion programmes. They’re OK with book-banning on Black history. It doesn’t make sense.

Setmayer, a senior adviser to the Lincoln Project and former Republican communications director on Capitol Hill, criticised Haley, Scott and others for denying that systemic racism has an impact on Black communities.

“To try to whitewash that, I’m embarrassed for them, because you cannot tell me that they don’t go home at night and watch the news, read the newspaper, look at the bills and the laws that are being passed in their own states and the experiences of people of colour in this country and not acknowledge privately that, guess what, racism still exists in America.

“It’s so disingenuous for them to say that, and Tim Scott more infuriatingly, given that he’s a Black man in the south, who himself claims he was racially profiled as a senator, but turns around and denies that there is still a problem with race in this country when he’s speaking in front of predominantly white audiences. He’s not going to go to the NAACP convention or the Urban League convention or speak in front of the Congressional Black Caucus saying those things.”

The Democratic party remains more diverse by every measure. Some 80% of racial and ethnic minority members in the current Congress are Democrats. A new Pew Research Center analysis of last year’s midterm elections shows that 93% of Black voters supported Democrats while just 5% backed Republicans.

Hispanic voters favoured Democratic candidates by a 21-point margin in 2022 – but that was a sharp drop from the 47-point margin they enjoyed in 2018. Such shifts give Republicans hope that they will continue to make inroads next year – with or without a Black nominee.

Antjuan Seawright, a party strategist based in Columbia, South Columbia, said: “That word diversity means different things to different people and for us as Democrats, not only have we talked the talk when it comes to diversity, but we walk the walk with age, race, gender, geographics and demographics.

“The browning of America is happening right before all of our eyes and, truth be told, is that Republicans have not given any voters of colour a reason to even think about joining their chorus.”

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