Democrats and Republicans hold Black History Month celebrations with an eye on November’s election

FILE - Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel speaks before a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by NBC News, Nov. 8, 2023, at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County in Miami. Facing a cash crunch and harsh criticism from a faction of far-right conservatives, McDaniel, on Friday, Feb. 2, 2024, called for the party to unite behind the goal of defeating President Joe Biden. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, File)
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By MATT BROWN

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Black History Month, often a time to recognize the contributions of African Americans in U.S. history, was marked in the nation’s capital this week with a focus on present divides and the November election when Black turnout will be integral to the outcome.

At the White House, the Biden administration on Tuesday hosted more than two dozen family members of civil rights icons and major historical figures for a gala celebrating Black history. Vice President Kamala Harris made a surprise appearance where she praised the families and recounted the administration’s commitment to Black communities.

A few hours later, Republicans held a reception in Washington’s U Street neighborhood, a key part of Black history in the city, to celebrate former GOP officials and activists who have engaged Black voters.

The White House has taken Black History Month as an opportunity to highlight the administration’s efforts on priorities such as education, voting rights and jobs. Republicans see a chance to win more votes from a core Democratic constituency, noting President Joe Biden’s lower popularity with Black adults and the criticism he has taken for inflation and his handling of the border.

Biden’s approval rating among Black adults was 42% in a January poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, a substantial drop from the first year of his presidency.

Democrats are spotlighting Biden’s support with civil rights stalwarts and lambasting Republicans for enacting policies restricting how educators discuss race and history in the classroom.

“We know that those who don’t remember their history are doomed to repeat it,” said Democratic Rep. Terri Sewell, to the families assembled at the White House. Sewell represents Selma, Alabama, where white police beat Black civil rights marchers in 1965 on a day remembered today as “Bloody Sunday.”

“At a time when extremists seek to erase our history and roll back our progress, we should take a lesson from our foremothers and forefathers,” she said.

Republicans held their own Black History Month celebration later that evening with about 100 people.

“As RNC Chair, I have made it a mission to reach out to communities and voters that we have ignored as a party,” said Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel during Tuesday night’s event. “Black voters are going to make history this November because they’re going to vote Republican at the highest level we’ve ever seen,” McDaniel predicted to applause from the audience.

The RNC intends to expand its number of community outreach centers in Black communities after the GOP primary concludes. The party has been optimistic about its chances to improve its poor margins with Black voters since Republicans made slight inroads with them in the 2022 midterm elections.

But the party’s current focus on issues like the teaching of race and history may risk mobilizing Black voters against the GOP. Republican officials in at least a dozen states have enacted policies that regulate how educators discuss topics including race, history and gender in the classroom.

“This moment in time is evidence that our history is unbannable, that teaching it is core to our progress, and that Black history is American history,” Nevada Rep. Steve Horsford, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, told the White House crowd.

The Biden campaign dismissed GOP Black voter outreach as insincere and noted that former President Donald Trump, the current front-runner for the GOP nomination, had dinner in 2022 with Nick Fuentes, a Holocaust-denying white nationalist.

“In Donald Trump’s Republican Party, celebrating Black History Month means teaching kids that slavery benefited Black people, papering over slavery as the cause of the Civil War and sharing well-done steaks doused in ketchup with white supremacists at Mar-a-Lago,” said Biden campaign communications director Michael Tyler. “I’m sure they’ll serve up plenty of the same at their little event.”

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

On Tuesday, the Biden campaign rolled out new ads targeting Black voters by highlighting the administration’s investments in historically Black colleges and universities as well as the number of Black officeholders appointed by Biden, including Harris, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. And the Democratic National Committee on Wednesday unveiled digital ads targeting HBCUs in battleground states that touts Biden’s record on student debt.

Democrats point to record-low Black unemployment, policies capping the cost of insulin and Biden’s cancellation of about $137 billion in student loan debt as policies they hope will boost support among Black voters. And party officials and strategists stress that its emphasis on Black voters extends beyond a single month of events.

Biden also moved to increase Black political power when he upended precedent to place South Carolina and its substantial Black population first in the party’s primary calendar. South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, a veteran of the Civil Rights movement and a close Biden ally, co-chairs the president’s reelection campaign.

According to some of the assembled Republican activists on Tuesday night, many of whom are Black, the GOP simply lacked the sustained efforts needed to court more Black voters. Quenton Jordan, a Republican activist who won an award at the event, said that the GOP is now “putting forth an effort to capture the Black vote where in previous years, that just wasn’t the case.”

“I remember when we had a greater pool,” said Ken Blackwell, a former Ohio Republican secretary of state who received an award at the reception. “That’s why this is important. To reengage, to give our narrative and give them a choice. But first, we’ve got to show up.”