No one could accuse Mitt Romney of pandering by telling black civil-rights leaders that he would slash government programs African-Americans depend on more than others.
And it took no shortage of gumption for him to stand before the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and proclaim that African-Americans would be better off with him as president than the black man 95 per cent of them voted for in 2008.
If most in the Houston audience on Wednesday let that one pass, they could not even feign politeness when the Republican nominee promised to “eliminate every non-essential expensive program I can find,” including President Barack Obama’s health-care law.
Mr. Romney called it “Obamacare,” a term many found insulting enough. But the law would disproportionately benefit blacks, who are more likely than whites to lack health insurance. Mr. Romney smiled awkwardly during the 15 seconds of booing that ensued.
Still, Mr. Romney’s largely perfunctory appearance before the NAACP was not the disaster it might have been. He got a standing ovation at the end, more for having the courage to show up than for the content of his speech. He may even have scored a few votes.
Indeed, though NAACP president Benjamin Jealous later called Mr. Romney’s agenda “antithetical to many of our interests,” Mr. Romney laid out a credible case for why he deserves to be polling at more than 5 per cent among black voters.
For instance, he said, he promises to put $25-billion of federal education funding into a voucher-like system that would let parents choose to send their children to any public or charter school. The idea has widespread support among black parents.
Almost 60 years after the Supreme Court banned racial segregation in public schools, American education is only integrated in principle. In practice, minority students are separated from white ones by virtue of geography and socio-economic status.
The result, Mr. Romney explained, is that black children account for 17 per cent of students, but make up 42 per cent of those in the country’s worst-performing schools.
“If equal opportunity in America were an accomplished fact, black families could send their sons and daughters to public schools that truly offer them hope of a better life,” Mr. Romney said.
The country’s largest teachers’ unions are dead set against Mr. Romney’s voucher plan and the NAACP is their strong ally. It joined the United Federation of Teachers in a lawsuit against New York City over its expansion of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run and usually non-unionized.
Mr. Romney also vowed in his speech to “defend traditional marriage.” Though the NAACP’s board passed a resolution in May in support of same-sex marriage, after Mr. Obama’s move to publicly endorse such unions, African-Americans are still more likely than members of other races to oppose gay marriage.
Mr. Romney’s stand could win him some votes among blacks in states where African-American pastors have encouraged their congregants to oppose gay marriage at the ballot box. North Carolina and Virginia are two such states, and they could swing the election.
Still, Mr. Romney’s plan to repeal the Obama health-care law is nothing short of a provocation for black Americans. Blacks account for 21 per cent of Americans without health insurance, even though they make up only 13 per cent of the population.
And blacks with insurance depend more than others on Medicaid, a joint federal-state program that offers basic coverage for the indigent. Mr. Obama wants to expand the program but Republican governors, empowered by the Supreme Court, are vowing to shrink it.
Republicans have also repeatedly tried to cut the federal food-stamp program, which has exploded since the recession and whose beneficiaries are disproportionately black.
The reasons for such dependence are complicated and there is no simple or quick fix.
But the members of the NAACP who attended Mr. Romney’s speech had every right to sit on their hands when he insisted that “if it were possible to communicate what I believe is in the real, enduring best interest of African-American families, you would vote for me for president.”