By Raynard Jackson, Political Columnist
The Mid-South Tribune and the Black Information Highway
Recently, I had lunch with a very powerful Republican elected official who is a good friend of mine. We have extremely candid conversations, especially about race (he is white). Out of nowhere he asked me what was the reason Blacks have a historical affinity for Cadillac automobiles (named after the French explorer who founded Detroit in 1701).
I responded by saying the same reason Blacks had a historical affinity for the Republican Party. He looked very confused and said, “What does that have to do with my question?”
I then said to him, “Let me teach you a little history.”
The Republican Party was founded with the expressed purpose of ending the slavery of Blacks. Blacks remained loyal to the Republican Party until the party made the decision to adopt the “Southern strategy.”
The Southern strategy was implemented by Nixon aide, Kevin Phillips, in the 1960s. The strategy drove a wedge between the Black community and the Republican Party. The party increasingly became hostile to civil rights in order to get white, Southern Democrats to join the Republican Party. It has worked magnificently ever since, with Blacks voting Republican only 10% on average during a presidential election.
Cadillac had a similar strategy by not selling their cars to Blacks.
Most people are familiar with the name Cadillac (made by General Motors). But, most are unfamiliar with the story of how Cadillac almost went out of business during the Depression (1928-1934) because of their prejudice towards Blacks.
Likewise, the modern day Republican Party is in great danger of going down the same road as the Cadillac, but with a much different result—they will go out of business.
Republicans can no longer afford to be the all white Southern male party. They can no longer afford to totally ignore and disregard the Black community. They can no longer afford to have all whites at the decision making table. Some will say, ‘yes they can’. Let’s get back to Cadillac.
Nicolas Dreystadt singlehandedly saved Cadillac from their own ignorance. He was a German immigrant who came to the U.S.with his parents when he was a small boy. He worked as a mechanic apprentice for Mercedes-Benz before becoming the national head of Cadillac’s services department. He was responsible for the department that serviced Cadillac cars throughout the U.S. He was considered middle-management.
As he travelled across the U.S.to monitor Cadillac’s service departments, Dreystadt noticed something strange. He noticed great numbers of Blacks bringing their cars in to be serviced. “But how could this be?” he thought, knowing that Cadillac had a strict “no sale to Blacks” policy. Then it dawned on him that these Blacks had paid a white to buy the cars for them and they paid a fee for the transaction.
“But the wealthy Negro,” business critic Peter F. Drucker recalled, “wanted a Cadillac so badly that he paid a substantial premium to a white man to front for him in buying one. Dreystadt had investigated this unexpected phenomenon and found that a Cadillac was the only success symbol the affluent Black could buy; he had no access to good housing, to luxury resorts, or to any other of the outward signs of worldly success (Cadillacs cost more than $5,000 back then–over $ 60,000 in today’s money).”
The last straw for Dreystadt was when he found out that Cadillac would not allow boxing champion Joe Lewis to buy a car, but that he paid a white person to buy it for him. Lewis was revered as an icon by both whites and Blacks.
So, in 1932, Dreystadt did the unthinkable. General Motor’s Chairman Alfred P. Sloan had called a board meeting to discuss closing down the Cadillac line of cars because of low sales due to the Depression. Dreystadt just happened to be in Detroit at the same time. So, unannounced he asked the board for 10 minutes to discuss his plan for saving Cadillac.
One person described Dreystadt’s actions as akin to someone knocking on the door to theVatican asking the College of Cardinals for 10 minutes while they are in the middle of electing a Pope.
Dreystadt pointed out that Blacks paid a premium to white buyers to front for them. “Why should a bunch of white front men get several hundred dollars each when that profit could flow to General Motors? Demand like this should be exploited.” Dreystadt urged the executive committee to go after this market. The board bought his reasoning and gave him 18 months to develop the “Negro” market. By the end of 1934, Cadillac sales increased by 70%, and the division actually broke even. Dreystadt was eventually made head of the Cadillac Division. The definitive book on Dreystadt is, “The Chrome Colossus”, by Ed Cray. According to Cray, “Overwhelmed by Dreystadt’s audacity and bemused by his proposal, the committee gave him eighteen months in which to develop the Negro market. By the end of 1934, Derystadt had the Cadillac division breaking even, and by 1940 had multiplied sales tenfold…It was for business reasons that the Cadillac division of General Motors began marketing to Blacks. In the 1920s, Cadillac sold to whites only, to maintain an exclusive image. When the Depression hit, the division was on the ropes, and executive Nicholas Dreystadt realized the Black elite-singers, boxers, doctors, and lawyers had been paying white front-men to buy their Cadillacs. Dreystadt decided that selling to Black Americans was good business.”
Allow me to digress. Dreystadt did another unthinkable thing during this same time period according to Crane: Dreystadt had accepted a contract to produce delicate aircraft gyroscopes– despite mutterings on the fourteenth floor that the job was a killer and needed skilled hands unavailable. The dissent turned to outrage when Dreystadt and his personnel manager, Jim Roche, hired 2,000 average Black prostitutes from Paradise Valley–uneducated, untrained, but willing workers. Dreystadt hired the madams too, blithely explaining, “They know how to manage the women…” Within weeks the women were surpassing quotas, and the outrage turned to chagrin on West Grand Boulevard. Jokes about Cadillac’s “red-light district” angered Dreystadt. These women are my fellow workers, and yours, he insisted. They do a good job and respect their work. Whatever their past, they are entitled to the same respect as any one of our associates…Dreystadt knew he would have to replace these women at war’s end–returning veterans had job preference, and the United Auto Workers, heavily white male with a southern-states orientation, wanted the women out of the plant. “Nigger-lover” and “whore-monger” Dreystadt fought to keep some, pleading, “For the first time in their lives, these poor wretches are paid decently, work in decent conditions, and have some rights. And for the first time they have some dignity and self-respect. It’s our duty to save them from being again rejected and despised.” The union stood adamant.
When the women were laid off, a number committed suicide rather than return to the streets. Nick Dreystadt grieved, “God forgive me. I have failed these poor souls.”
So, to my Republican Party, when will you to realize that marketing to Black voters “is good business?” Just like Blacks saved Cadillac, Blacks can also save the Republican Party. But, unlike the executives of Cadillac, when the Republican “Nicholas Dreystadt” knocked on the door and wanted to discuss how to market your party to the Black community, you refused to listen. That person was the late former Congressman Jack Kemp. He, like Dreystadt, understood the value of the Black vote and preached to anyone who would listen. Cadillac was wrong for refusing to sell their product to the Black community, but at least they had sense enough to set aside their prejudice when the choice was between Blacks and nonexistence. You have no Blacks on staff at the Republican National Committee (or any of its other committees), there are no Blacks on staff of any of the presidential campaigns. Republicans like myself and former Congressman J.C. Watts have repeatedly tried to be the modern day Dreystadt, but maybe after a few more electoral loses you will awaken to the most loyal customer you have ever had.
Raynard Jackson is president & CEO of Raynard Jackson & Associates, LLC., a D.C.-public relations/government affairs firm, and a contributing political columnist for The Mid-South Tribune and the Black Information Highway,www.blackinformationhighway.com . Also, travel to the BIHMST Channel on YouTube. Welcome, Travelers!