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Comedian, Author Baratunde Thurston on Vote Suppression & Romney’s 0% Support from African Americans

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A recent poll by NBC and the Wall Street Journal found zero percent of African-American voters support Mitt Romney, compared to 94 percent supporting President Obama. Critics say Republicans have lost support among people of color by pushing controversial laws to crack down on undocumented immigrants and suppress voting rights. Democracy Now! producers Sam Alcoff and Amy Littlefield had a chance to discuss some of these issues when they ran into the black comedian and author Baratunde Thurston at the Republican National Convention in Tampa on Monday. Thurston is the author of “How to Be Black,” and co-founder of the Black political blog “Jack & Jill Politics.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, “Breaking With Convention: War, Peace and the Presidency.” We’re in Tampa, Florida, covering the Republican National Convention, inside and out. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to the question that’s been under discussion recently here in Tampa: the participation in the Republican Party by people of color.

A recent poll by NBC and the Wall Street Journal found zero percent of African-American voters support Mitt Romney, compared to 94 percent for Obama. Critics say Republicans have lost support among people of color by pushing controversial laws to crack down on undocumented immigrants and suppress voting rights.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney recently drew criticism for wading into the racially charged “birther” controversy, saying he had never faced questions about where he was born. He was speaking to an audience in Michigan. Romney alluded to discredited rumors about Obama’s birthplace. He was speaking in his home [state] over the weekend, saying, quote, “No one has ever asked to see my birth certificate.”

Well, meanwhile, here in Tampa, former Republican presidential contender Herman Cain weighed in on the issue of race and the Republican Party Sunday during a speech at a tea party rally in the River Church. He responded to the [NBC]/Wall Street Journal poll, saying he and his black conservative friends were not “zeroes.”

Well, Democracy Now!’s Sam Alcoff and Amy Littlefield had a chance to talk about some of these issues when they ran into the black comedian and author Baratunde Thurston at the Tampa Convention Center. Thurston is the author of How to Be Black and co-founder of the Black political blog “Jack & Jill Politics.” He started off by describing his initial impressions of the Republican National Convention.

BARATUNDE THURSTON: A lot of delayed gratification so far at the RNC, which probably fits the sexual politics of the policies of the organization a bit. I think they’re trying to push off that satisfaction somewhat. So I’ve seen that.

A lot of talk about debt and the deficit. They have the debt clocks running, which is pretty interesting to see two of them. I found that to be more confusing than clarifying, though I get what they’re trying to do with the message.

Not a lot of rain and wind, which I’m grateful for. I did bring my hurricane pants. I brought special boots, and I wasn’t really able to use them, so I’m mildly disappointed, but mostly happy to not be super-inconvenienced, to have people actually hurt, obviously, by the storm.

And I’ve been counting the number of black people that I’ve been seeing here, ever since I’ve landed. I’ve been going as inclusive as possible with my count, because I don’t know if you’re a reporter, if you’re a delegate, if you’re someone Mitt Romney paid to be here. And so, I just want to give the GOP the benefit of the doubt as much as possible. So I’m up to 49 now. It was—actually, no, it’s 48. Soledad O’Brien left. She went to New Orleans. So, we’re down to 48 spotted black people, at least by me. There’s a hashtag on Twitter I’m pushing: #negrospotting. And that’s what I’m using kind of to keep tabs on some of my sightseeing.

AMY LITTLEFIELD: And what are you hoping to accomplish with this running tally? What awareness are you hoping to bring to people?

BARATUNDE THURSTON: I am, A, just hoping to know how many black people there are. I just—it’s a personal satisfaction. I always have a good time watching the video coverage of Republican-leaning or just Republican-heavy events, because they seem to focus on the browner-skinned people in the room, but then when you pan out, that’s a very isolated section. And so, I wanted to see how widely distributed people of color are here, on a personal note.

There’s also, I think, with a lot of the recent actions of the Republican Party, especially around voting, especially around voter ID, which clearly disenfranchises African-American people, the minorities, the elderly, there is a—there’s just a little bit of fun and satire ribbing at them for having some level of inclusion in their celebration, but not necessarily at the ballot box, where it really counts.

AMY LITTLEFIELD: Herman Cain, last night at a tea party rally at the River Church, was making fun of the poll recently that said there was zero percent support for Romney among African Americans.

HERMAN CAIN: Now, here is the poll result that’s been all over the news, and they even asked me about it in some of my interviews. And that is a poll that showed that amongst my black people, there were zero black people who would vote for Mitt Romney. My response was, I’m not a zero, and my black conservative friends are not zero. You’re not a zero. You’re not a zero. You’re not a zero. I see a—look at all these zeros in here. Will all of the zeros please stand up? Zero—give me a break.

AMY LITTLEFIELD: What’s your take on Herman Cain and on that moment?

BARATUNDE THURSTON: So, Herman Cain is the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza. So that’s my take on Herman Cain. He’s the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza. We’re good there. I have nothing else to say about the former pizza CEO.

In terms of the zero percent, it says something—obviously, look, the black vote is heavily captured by the Democratic Party and almost minimally captured by the Republican Party. It would be a more interesting world if there were more competition for that. So, I can make fun of the Republicans for not having a lot of black support. I’d honestly be more interested as a citizen if there were more substantive reasons that I saw for black people to support the party. I think, in the era of Occupy Wall Street and the massive financial crisis, to put forth essentially Gordon Gekko as the face of your party, with Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, who looks like kind of a Mitt Junior, there’s a signal being sent, you know, to the nation and to the world, like this is what our priorities are, when you couple that with the voter ID shenanigans going on. Anyone trying to restrict or make it harder for people to vote, even if you’re actually concerned about fraud, you don’t ever go backwards in terms of easing people’s access to the ballot box. That’s just—that’s anti-freedom, actually. And this is a party that really does love to talk a lot about freedom. But again, when it comes to the execution in the most basic form that we promote all over the world, there’s not the follow-through there that you’d expect to see, so…

AMY LITTLEFIELD: What do you think needs to be done in the pushback against those voter ID laws?

BARATUNDE THURSTON: In terms of pushing back against the voter ID laws, we would ideally be served by a time machine to go back and undo a lot of the state-level activities that have happened. So many of these decisions are coming in weeks or months before the polls. And that’s—things are always so confusing. We get our cars registered, we get our guns registered pretty easily. And the voting process is still rife with excess confusion for something that doesn’t actually threaten people’s lives. It usually has the opportunity to make it better. So, I would want a more blanket view taken. We should stop what’s happening now as much as possible. And at that point, I think most of it’s in the hands of courts, so you can kind of only hope that they make the right decision. There’s not much political action, I think, can be done. But to lay the groundwork for the next election and the one after that, to make sure we’re not fighting this weird 1960s-style battle in 2010s, would make me less ashamed. I can’t say I’d be proud, because this is the bare minimum for actually operating a democracy, but it would be less embarrassing, to other nations in the world, to us around the world, if we could just get our voting act together. And everybody, regardless of party affiliation, should feel pretty cool agreeing to that.

SAM ALCOFF: Romney has played that weird cat-and-mouse game with the birther phenomenon, and Donald Trump is rumored to be speaking at the Republican National Convention. What is your response to this kind of birther rhetoric and flirting with that by Romney and by Trump?

BARATUNDE THURSTON: So, back during the 2008 campaign, John McCain faced a question from a woman in a red sweater, and she said some really awful things about then-candidate Obama: “And he’s a Muslim. And he’s” — not that that’s awful, but she said it awfully. She said, “He’s a Muslim. He’s not from here.” And McCain was like, “No, ma’am. No, ma’am. He’s—that’s not true.” And that level—like, I disagree with John McCain on so many issues, but he stood up, often—not all the time, because a lot of the whole Sarah Palin thing he foisted upon us with his selection of her—but he drew a line in the sand, which was like, you’re going to disagree with this president, with this candidate, for a number of reasons; not being a U.S. citizen isn’t one of them.

And so, when Donald Trump went off and acted the fool so long ago, and should have been—resulted in him ostracizing himself from civilized company, he still can have meetings. He still has a TV show. People still come to his events, and they say they’re proud to have his endorsement. And Mitt Romney, for a while, toed that line. He was like, “I don’t agree with everything all of my supporters say. You don’t agree with everything all the people who agree with your party say.” That’s a reasonable response. I don’t agree with it in this case, because I happen to hate Donald Trump, but I got what he was saying.

Then he goes birther himself and says, “Well, everybody here knows where I was born. You know where my wife was born. No one’s ever asked to see our birth certificate.” And it was—it was disappointing. It was disappointing because he is clearly a smart dude. He clearly can actually use his brain, like he’s not a part of the yahoo camp of the Republican Party that just says crazy stuff they’ve heard somewhere else before. Multiple degrees, ran a business, good at making money—that’s not an evil thing. But he went and did this very dark, very unhealthy, very ugly thing for our national politics, which is to embrace an argument which just only serves to destroy. It doesn’t amplify him. It minimizes all of us to go back to that gutter. There are so many reasons you could disagree with President Obama, some of which I might even agree with you on. And you go and do that, and it’s just—we’re done. We’re done. We should be so beyond that, and we’re not, because he keeps bringing us back. And that, I think—for the guy who was among the most reasonable of the candidates in the Republican primary, who was the least crazy-sounding, to then, after all that, after basically getting the nomination, still feel the need to do that, says a lot about the pressure he must be facing. I think it says a lot about the man he actually is. And it’s disappointing.

AMY LITTLEFIELD: And what’s your assessment of Barack Obama’s presidency? Are you planning to go to the DNC next week?

BARATUNDE THURSTON: Yeah, I’m going to all the conventions. I love conventions. I’m basically a convention whore. I like when people get together and eat terrible foods and drink deep into the night. So, I support all that activity. I’ll be in Charlotte, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Baratunde Thurston, author of How to Be Black and co-founder of the black political blog “Jack & Jill Politics.” He was interviewed by Democracy Now!'s Amy Littlefield and Sam Alcoff. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, workers at a plant in Illinois that are being laid off as their plant goes to China. It's owned by Bain. Stay with us.

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