Racism and Presidential Elections Since 1964: A Short History
(The brief overview below is largely drawn from two books, The Great Wells of Democracy, by Manning Marable, and Nixon’s Piano: Presidents and Racial Politics from Washington to Clinton, by Kenneth O’Reilly. This is a modified version of a presentation I made at a January 31st meeting in Atlanta, Ga. which developed plans for a 2004 Racism Watch.)
Racism within U.S. institutions, law and culture is deeply imbedded in the history and reality of the United States going back to the 17th century, but in the 20th century, the deliberate and overt use of racially-coded language and positions in Presidential campaigns was begun in 1968 by the Richard Nixon campaign. Even Barry Goldwater, conservative Republican that he was, made an agreement in 1964 with Lyndon Johnson to keep race out of the Presidential contest between them.
“‘If we attacked each other,’ Goldwater explained, ‘the country would be divided into different camps and we could witness bloodshed.’ Sensitive to the charge hurled ‘again and again. . . that I was a racist,’ he stuck to his word even in the campaign’s last desperate days when fringe advisor F. Clifton White produced a documentary film intended to exacerbate white fears of black urban violence. Goldwater condemned the film and ordered it suppressed.” (O’ Reilly, p. 251)
But by 1968, with the dramatic spread of the black freedom movement all over the country and uprisings in the cities, and with the emergence of George Wallace running a racist third party American Independent Party campaign, the Nixon crowd made a very conscious decision to completely abandon the Republican Party’s anti-slavery roots. (Abraham Lincoln won the Presidency in 1860 in a three way race as the candidate of the newly-formed, somewhat-anti-slavery Republican Party.) In the words of Manning Marable, “(Dwight D.) Eisenhower had received the support of 39 percent of the African-American electorate in his 1956 successful reelection campaign, and at the time the Republican Party had a strong liberal wing that was pressuring the White House to take bolder steps on racial policy.” (p. 118) Twelve years later, that historical legacy was deliberately jettisoned and, instead, “law and order,” getting “welfare bums” off welfare and opposition to busing became the major issues for Nixon, Vice-Presidential candidate Spiro Agnew and their ilk. “‘You can forget about the Vietnam war as an issue,’ an NBC pollster told a White House aide [to Lyndon Johnson]. ‘Race is the dominant issue without any question. ‘” (O’Reilly, p. 274)
Nixon barely squeaked through with 43.4% of the popular vote in 1968, but by 1972 the “remarkable racial realignment within the national Democratic Party [via the influx of African American voters] unfortunately created the context for the ideological and organizational transformation of the Republican Party as well. The stage for the triumph of racial conservatism in the Republican Party was set by Nixon, who successfully put together a center-right coalition, the so-called ‘Silent Majority,’ winning a little more than 60% of the popular vote against liberal Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern in 1972. The Watergate scandal slowed, but did not stop, the acceleration of the Republicans to the Far Right, especially on issues of race. The former Dixiecrats [of the Democratic Party] and supporters of George Wallace gravitated to the Republican Party and within a decade began to assume leadership positions in Congress.” (Marable, p. 72)
The 1972 landslide victory of Nixon affected the Democrats. In 1976, Jimmy Carter, southern evangelical Christian, won the Presidential race over Gerald Ford. While more liberal than Ford, “Carter also sent mixed messages during the 1976 push for the White House. The most controversial were his remarks about busing and use of the phrase ‘ethnic purity’ to describe white-ethnic enclaves and neighborhood schools. . . Follow-up questions . . . led to additional warnings from the candidate about ‘alien groups’ and ‘black intrusion.’ ‘Interjecting into [a community] a member of another race’ or ‘a diametrically opposite kind of family’ or a ‘different kind of person’ threatened what Carter called the admirable value of ‘ethnic purity.” (O’Reilly, p. 339)
The Reagan/Bush Era
Carter’s statements, however, were easily overtaken by the Nixon-like approach used by Ronald Reagan in 1980. Reagan officially kicked off his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in Neshoba County, at a fairgrounds used as a meeting place by the KKK and other racist groups. This was also the part of the state where, in 1964, civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney were killed, about which Reagan said nothing.
As Marable explains, “Reagan never used blatantly racist language, because he didn’t have to. As sociologist Howard Winant astutely observed, the New Right’s approach to the public discourse of race was characterized by an ‘authoritarian version of color-blindness,’ an opposition to any government policies designed to redress blacks’ grievances or to compensate them for either the historical or contemporary effects of discrimination, and the subtle manipulation of white’s racial fears. The New Right discourse strove to protect white privilege and power by pretending that racial inequality no longer existed.” (p. 73)
All through the 80’s, with the dominance of the Reaganites and the emergence of the center-right Democratic Leadership Council within the Democratic Party, the powers-that-be within both parties followed similar scripts during Presidential campaigns. Michael Dukakis, the Democratic standard-bearer in 1988, followed Reagan’s example and went to Neshoba County, Ms. in early August, soon after the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. Like Reagan, he did not mention Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney. He did this despite the strength of Jesse Jackson’s Presidential primary campaign and the existence of the National Rainbow Coalition.
But it was George Bush’s campaign manager in 1988, Lee Atwater, who came up with probably the most infamous, modern use of racism during a Presidential campaign, the outrageous linkage of Dukakis to Willie Horton.
The Willie Horton Outrage
Ironically, it was DLC Democrat Al Gore, in April during Democratic Party primary debate, who first mentioned the Horton case. William J. Horton, Jr. was an African American man in prison for murder who, while on his ninth furlough from prison in Massachusetts, jumped furlough. He was eventually arrested in Maryland and charged with assault, kidnap and rape of two Maryland citizens.
“Atwater called him ‘Willie’ (a name Horton never went by), hoping to get more racial mileage. . . Atwater made sure that Dukakis, as governor of Massachusetts, got the blame for Horton’s latest crimes. . . ‘Every woman in this country,’ a Bush strategist boasted to Elizabeth Drew, ‘will know what Willie Horton looks like before this election is over.’ Atwater repeated that boast over and over. . . ‘Willie Horton,’ he told a Republican Unity meeting, ‘will [soon] be a household name.’ A month later, on July 9, he alerted Republican leaders in Atlanta to a Jesse Jackson sighting ‘in the driveway of his [Dukakis’s] home’ and then offered this speculation: ‘Maybe he will put this Willie Horton on the ticket after all is said and done.’ That same day Atwater told the press about ‘a fellow named Willie Horton who for all I know may end up being Dukakis’ running mate.’ At the time, Bush was down eighteen points to the Massachusetts governor in the polls. . .
“By the time the regular Bush campaign ran [a] television spot featuring black and white cons heading to prison through a turnstile gate and then heading back toward middle-America’s living room, Willie Horton was already firmly established in the public mind. The official ad did not mention Horton. It merely emphasized ‘revolving door’ justice and implied (falsely) that Dukakis had sent 268 first-degree murderers out on ‘weekend passes’ to rape, kidnap and kill.
“Dukakis remained oddly silent through most of this. He responded occasionally by citing dry statistics; more often not at all. . . Dukakis remained silent for the three months it took Lee Atwater to make Willie Horton his running mate for a variety of reasons. . . ‘Whites might be put off. . . if we ‘whine’ about racism’ [some advisers counseled]. In all probability, however, Dukakis remained silent because he wanted to disassociate his candidacy from his party’s [liberal] reputation. He remained silent for the same reason that he failed to mention Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman on August 4 when speaking at the Neshoba County Fair-a silence that Marian Wright Edelman called the campaign’s most disgraceful moment.” (O’Reilly, p. 381-388)
Bill Clinton and the DLC
When DLC’er Bill Clinton became the Democratic Party nominee against Bush in 1992 he soon demonstrated that he was a very different type of candidate than Michael Dukakis.
“By late May 1992 Bill Clinton had all but sown up his party’s presidential nomination, but in national polls he was running a poor third in the projected general election that was only months away, behind the incumbent president, George Bush, and independent candidate H. Ross Perot. What Clinton needed was an event to distinguish himself as a ‘different kind of Democrat.’ Following Reagan’s model, he decided to manipulate the politics of race. . . Clinton had been scheduled to speak before the national convention of the Rainbow Coalition and, without informing Jackson in advance, decided to distance himself from the black community. Although the speech was designed to focus on issues such as urban enterprise zones and the earned-income tax credit, Clinton unexpectedly attacked the Rainbow Coalition’s invitation to rap artist Sister Souljah to speak the previous evening. ‘You had a rap singer here last night named Sister Souljah,’ Clinton stated. ‘Her comments before and after [the] Los Angeles [civil disturbances following the not guilty Rodney King verdicts] were filled with a kind of hatred that you do not honor today and tonight’. . . Clinton’s rhetorical maneuver paralleled Ronald Reagan’s attack against ‘welfare queens’ and George Bush’s ‘Willie Horton’ advertisements. It was a strategically planned stunt, and it worked. Clinton followed it up with national interviews, explaining that ‘if you want to be president, you’ve got to stand up for what you think is right.'” (Marable, pps. 79-80)
But this wasn’t the only instance of racial pandering. In January Clinton left New Hampshire prior to the primary vote to return to Arkansas to preside over the execution of Rickey Ray Rector, a black man who had killed a police officer 11 years earlier but who had shot himself in the head afterwards, leaving him with the mental capacity of a child. In March he posed with fellow DLC-er and Georgia Senator Sam Nunn for pictures in front of forty mostly black prisoners in their prison uniforms. “Jesse Jackson called it a moderately more civilized ‘version of the Willie Horton situation.’ Two weeks later, on the day after the Illinois and Michigan primaries, Clinton again showed he was a different type of Democrat by golfing nine holes, accompanied by a television camera crew, at a segregated Little Rock country club.” (O’Reilly, p. 410)
“Bill Clinton calculated that he could not win in 1992 unless he used Sister Souljah to bait Jesse Jackson, put a black chain gang in a crime control ad, golfed at a segregated club with a TV camera crew in tow, and allowed that search for a serviceable vein in Rickey Ray Rector’s arm.” (O’Reilly, p. 420)
Clinton had a much easier opponent in 1996, Bob Dole, but he wasn’t going to take any chances, so he “decided to use the issue of welfare as the vehicle to shore up his support among white male voters. Only days before the 1996 Democratic National Convention, Clinton signed the ‘Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act,’ with the stated goal of ‘ending welfare as we know it.’ . . . Clinton repeatedly criticized the lack of ‘personal responsibility’ of those on public assistance.” (Marable, p. 82)
Gush and Bore
2000 brought us Bush and Gore, or as some called it, Gush and Bore. The most memorable thing about their three Presidential debates and their campaigns in general was how similar they were on the issues, how little Democrat Gore tried to draw out major areas of disagreement with Republican Bush. “The greatest tragedy of the 2000 presidential race, from the vantage point of the African-American electorate, was that the black vote would have been substantially larger if the criminal-justice policies put in place by the Clinton-Gore administration had been different. . . more than 4.2 million Americans were prohibited from voting in the 2000 presidential election because they were in prison or had in the past been convicted of a felony. . . In effect, it was the repressive policies of the Clinton-Gore administration that helped to give the White House to the Republicans.” (Marable, pps. 88-89)
Of course, the U.S. Supreme Court had much to do with the Bush victory, building upon the deliberate removal from the voter roles of literally tens of thousands of eligible black voters by Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris in Florida. And, over three years later, the Democratic Party has done virtually nothing to challenge that disenfranchisement or even to make it an issue during this 2004 election year.
“Neither the Republican nor the Democratic Party, as a political organization, is interested in transforming the public discourse on race, though for different reasons. The Republicans deliberately use racial fears and white opposition to civil rights-related issues like affirmative action to mobilize their conservative base. The national Democratic Party mobilizes its black voter base, in order to win elections, but in a way that limits the emergence of progressive and Left leadership and independent actions by grassroots constituencies. . .
“What we need is to revive the vision of what the Rainbow Coalition campaigns of 1984 and 1988 could have become. A multiracial, multiclass political movement with strong participation and leadership from racial minorities, labor, women’s organization and other left-of-center groups could effectively articulate important interests and concerns of the most marginalized and oppressed sectors of society. It would certainly push the boundaries of political discourse to the left. . .” (Marable, pps. 89-91)
2004 Racism Watch is being established for the explicit purpose of helping broad sectors of the progressive movement get organized and prepared to speak up and take action in opposition to the use of racism during the Presidential and other electoral campaigns this year, and to make issues of racial justice a part of this year’s political debate. We hope that 2004 can be the year that we make visible an explicitly multi-cultural network of activists who understand the obligation to confront racism whenever and wherever we find it. We can put those who use racism for divisive and destructive ends on the defensive and help to get better candidates elected, while building for the future.
For more information contact George Friday or Ted Glick at 973-338-5398, firstname.lastname@example.org or c/o P.O. Box 1041, Bloomfield, N.J. 07003.
Ted Glick is the National Coordinator of the Independent Progressive Politics Network (www.ippn.org), although these ideas are solely his own. He can be reached at futurehopeTG@aol.com or P.O. Box 1132, Bloomfield, N.J. 07003.