Racism and Presidential Elections

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, and we still have a long way to go. We can see that by what is being said and not being said during the current Democratic and Republican Presidential campaigns. Bush, of course, acts as if everything is just fine, and we all love each other in this wonderful land of hope and opportunity united against the evil terrorists. Kerry, on the other hand, does talk about affirmative action, black voter disenfranchisement, the idea of “two Americas” and possibly other racial justice issues, but from the reports I’ve heard, only before black audiences.

These realities may change before election day. There are reports that the Bush campaign is preparing a commercial using Al Sharpton as a foil to undercut Kerry. And Kerry, under pressure from black Democrats, may see the need to take stronger public positions.

There is a sordid history going back to 1968 of how the two major parties have consciously used racism during Presidential campaigns. It was in 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 an overtly racist, third party, American Independent Party campaign, that the Richard Nixon campaign made a very conscious decision to completely abandon the Republican Party’s anti-slavery roots. As recently as 1956 Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower had received the support of 39% of the African American electorate, and, in Manning Marable’s words, “at the time there was a strong liberal wing pressuring the White House to take bolder steps on racial policy.” (1) But 12 years later the major issues for Nixon and Spiro Agnew, his VP candidate, were “law and order,” getting “welfare bums” off welfare and opposition to busing.

The Democrats were “better” but far from good. Clearly responding to Nixon’s landslide re-election victory in 1972 against George McGovern, the Democrats nominated Georgia governor Jimmy Carter in 1976. Among the controversial statements made by Carter during his campaign were his use of the phrase, “ethnic purity,” to describe white enclaves and neighborhood schools. He also used phrases like “alien groups,” “black intrusion” and “interjecting into a community a member of another race.”

Ever since, a pattern has been followed, regardless of who the two corporate parties put forward as candidates. The Republicans are out front with their racial demagoguery to the extent necessary for them to win. The Democrats are weak in their responses or, in some cases, outright copycats.
Bill Clinton, for example, in the words of author Kenneth O’Reilly, “calculated that he could not win in 1992 unless he [publicly criticized] Sister Souljah to bait Jesse Jackson [at a Rainbow Coalition conference], 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 [retarded, African American, death row inmate] Rickey Ray Rector’s arm.” (2)

This history is why, earlier this year, a number of groups joined together to form the 2004 Racism Watch project
(http://www.racismwatch.org) to draw attention to the expected reality this year and to help the progressive movement get prepared for it, while working to help mobilize a strong progressive vote out of communities of color and to defend the right to vote against expected attacks on them.

Out of this work has emerged a Call to Action signed by a dozen national and southern regional organizations for a “Vote for Racial Justice Week” October 18-24. The Call explains, “once again, just like other elections, we’re hearing almost nothing about [racial justice] issues from the major Presidential candidates and many other candidates seeking office, so we need to make our presence felt!”

The Call lists a range of issues: racial/class bias in the legal system, unequal resources for public schools, unemployment, the racist “war on drugs,” the death penalty, electoral reform, the Patriot Act, immigrant rights, affirmative action and reparations, environmental justice, Native American sovereignty and treaty rights and a new foreign policy. It goes on to urge local groups to raise these issues through marches and rallies, workshops, trainings, candidates’ forums, educational leafleting and widespread outreach.

Objectives of the week include the public “coming out” of a national, multi-cultural, anti-racist network, the mobilization of communities of color and progressive whites to cast an informed vote on November 2, and helping to build an on-going, pro-justice movement that understands these issues and supports people of color leadership.

Hopefully there will be scores of places around the country where local activists will take up this call. Independent community-based and issue organizations and local unions need to take the initiative to demonstrate to broad numbers of grassroots people that there are organized efforts underway to advocate and fight for their issues and needs.
Grassroots people need hope that their voting might make a difference. “Vote for Racial Justice Week” is one way that they can feel that hope.

It is also a way that we can get ourselves prepared for whatever the results are on November 2 because it is crystal clear that whether Bush or Kerry wins, there will be much work to be done. The forces of regression and reaction are deeply entrenched in the mass media, the corporate suites, in government and in other major institutions. Only a powerful mass movement of the kind we saw in the ’30s and the ’60s can generate the political momentum and the political will need for the types of changes desperately needed.

1) Manning Marable, “The Great Wells of Democracy”
2) Kenneth O’Reilly, “Nixon’s Piano: Presidents and
Racial Politics from Washington to Clinton