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Black and white in American politics.

DESPITE gains made since the passage of the Civil Rights Act, America still remains racially polarized. Successful manipulation of the race division has for the most part accounted for the recent Republican control of the White House. The Democrats are perceived as representing the 'special interests'--a code word for blacks--and championing 'big government' and costly special programmes (for blacks) seen as constituting a drag on the national debt. In the 1992 presidential campaign, voters were more preoccupied with the economy and jobs. As a result, a Democrat was elected president for only the second time in 24 years. Yet, the pivotal role played by race in this election cannot be minimized. This article will focus on the black-white relation.

In the months leading to the presidential campaign, both parties plotted racial maps, reinforced racial stereotypes, reviewed past race-baiting advertisements and modified racial positions. Subtle but sophisticated racial manoeuvering helped to determine the conduct and eventual outcome of the election.

Race is nothing new in presidential politics. In 1968, George Wallace exploited it to gain votes among disgruntled Southern whites put off by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the 1988 presidential election, George Bush successfully exploited white fears of black crimes. Two years later, Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina handed the President another recially loaded issue when he defeated his black opponent by portraying him as a supporter of 'quotas' which hurt white qualified job seekers. The success of Senator Helms led President Bush to denounce a Civil Rights legislation as a 'quota' bill even though it was similar to the one he had proposed.

The debate on 'quotas' was designed to drive a wedge between supporters of the Bill (mainly Democrats) and white voters who by and large resent measures that give blacks preferential treatment in education and hiring. Judge Thomas's nomination to the Supreme Court was another cynical albeit skilful move to weaken and divide the opposition which ordinarily enjoys strong support in the black community. For their part, the Democrats also manoeuvred for winning race issues as they documented race-based grievances against the Republican administration. But they knew they were on weaker ground because in presidential races, votes are lost not gained by seeming to work with, or for, the 'special interests'--blacks.

These factors produced a racial climate that culminated in the David Duke phenomenon. Although disavowed by the Republican party establishment, the ex-KKK Grand Wizard did enjoy silent support of many white voters who were drawn to his politics of race if not his past. It is remarkable that about 50 per cent of whites, including those making $75,000 and more, voted for him in the Louisiana state race. Had he played the classic race card--pitching whites against blacks--instead of attacking the Jews and their history, the outcome of his crusade might have been different.

Duke did highlight the simmering resentment whites feel towards blacks whom they perceive as receiving undue preferential treatment often at their expense, and the pathological fear associated with the ghetto and threat of violence. His rhetoric however obscured the deep hurt and alienation felt by many blacks who feel that the white establishment is insensitive and cares very little about their helplessness and worsening social and economic situation.

In the year preceding the presidential election, mutual anger and distrust were getting to a boiling point as instances of racial conflicts became pervasive in big cities and college campuses. The tension played itself out eventually in the Los Angeles riot of April, 1992; a crisis that embarrassingly exposed the American dilemma hitherto swept under the rug or exploited for political gains. Despite the LA riot and polls indicating that both blacks and whites expected race to be an important election issue, the campaign, otherwise intensely issue-driven, came and went without any serious debate on race and its corollaries.

Black frustration springs from the now all but too familiar stunning and devastating 'black statistics': 63 per cent of black children are born to single mothers; of that 40 per cent of black males drop out of high schools and cannot find jobs. These 'statistics' clearly indicate that chances are better for children born in Bangladesh--one of the world's poorest nations--to live up to 55 years than American blacks in inner cities. A growing poverty, a sense of hopelessness, and the perceived injustice of the criminal justice system are an extension of these 'statistics.'

The logical question is why a problem so severe was not a major part of the presidential election discourse. On the surface, it was not part of the discourse because the economy preoccupied most voters. But in fact, it was strategically kept out of the picture because poll takers saw no political advantage in making it an issue. It was considered too 'explosive,' and thus capable of derailing a campaign! When veiled allusions to the problems were made, the aim was not to generate a dialogue or debate, but to drive a wedge between the races in order to garner the resultant votes.

When Govenor Wilder entered the race, he was expected to force race issues into the campaign. But his race (black) and image (self-styled moderate) created insurmountable roadblocks: some (whites) considered him too black and others (blacks) thought he was not black enough. Consequently, he could not step into the shoes of Jesse Jackson and articulate black concerns. But Jesse Jackson, already dubbed a 'spoiler,' was at odds with party regulars because his 'black agenda' politics is said to 'put off' white voters. Bill Clinton, who fully understands all the ramifications and nuances of the race problem, skilfully steered away from black issues apparently because he could not afford to alienate the white middle class without whom no Democrat can win an open presidential race, let alone unseat a Republican incumbent.

If a distinction can thus be made between discussing and exploiting, I would say that Bill Clinton was expected to discuss the race issues in the campaign (not just those like welfare reform that appeal to the middle class). Like Robert Kennedy in the 1960s, Bill Clinton has unquestioned credibility in the black community because of his politics of inclusion as governor. But paradoxically (unlike Kennedy), his good standing in the black community was precisely the reason he chose to distance himself from both their leaders and their causes. That was his strategy.

Bill Clinton's low key response to the Los Angeles riot was a part of that strategy. He did not want to appear as a candidate of 'special interests' and big city mayors, a majority of whom are black. On more than one occasion, he in fact publicly disagreed with Jesse Jackson. When he spoke to Jackson's Rainbow Coalition, he attacked the singer Sister Souljah who appeared to endorse black violence on whites. While Jackson was reeling from this embarrassment, Clinton managed to inform him that he (Jackson) would not be his running mate and, after sensing a possible Jackson reluctance to support the ticket, publicly advised him to make up his mind whom he wanted to vote for. This publicized disagreement with Jesse Jackson--the consummate symbol of 'black agenda'--was designed to convince suburban white voters (who are no fans of Jackson) that Clinton is independent and cannot be pushed around by 'special interests' and their causes.

In the election, this tactic of keeping veteran black leaders at an arm's length and keeping quiet on race issues was successful because it inoculated Clinton against charges of pandering to the 'special interests.' He thus was not linked with blacks and their social programmes, nor with the dreaded 'quota' issue or even the Affirmative Action. At the same time, Clinton was fully aware that he could not win without a sizeable black vote.

For his part, Bush had all but conceded black votes to Clinton. But adhering to a key canon in racial politics--playing the race cards without appearing to endorse racism--Bush tried to reinforce and at the same time exploit racial division by constantly invoking code words like 'law and order,' 'family values' (allusion to teenage pregnancy and single motherhood pervasive among blacks), 'welfare reform' (reference to welfare dependency), big government (allusion to black/minority-based programmes), school choice (a reference to the low-performing predominantly black inner city schools) in order to get white middle class votes.

Ross Perot, the independent candidate, was not part of the race gambit. But because of or despite this innocence, he exhibited a racial insensitivity that strategically hurt his campaign. In a speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) awkward paternalistic anecdotes of favours his father did for blacks and repeated references to blacks as 'you--people' angered many blacks.

Although Bill Clinton did not vigorously pursue black issues, his approach however appears very understandable given the difficult task of defeating an incumbent, and his party's unfavourable image in the eyes of voters. The Democratic leadership had concluded that in order to break the Republican control of the White House, the focus of the campaign would not include black concerns or racial issues.

The logic is simple. The American people--a euphemism for nonblack Americans--want blacks to 'make it' on their own. The compassion-loaded platitudes like 'safety nets' and 'programmes for the disadvantaged' now irritate them. For a Democratic candidate to be considered electable, he should not be perceived as championing the cause of the underclass (blacks). It is no coincidence that the word 'poverty' was hardly uttered in the campaign. After all, as George Will, the Conservative commentator, often says, America is 'un-poor' and 'un-black'. Indeed, record black votes did not help Carter in 1980, Mondale in 1984, or Dukakis in 1988.

But 1992 was a different year. Clinton received 82 per cent of black votes cast. However, the win would have had a more instant positive racial impact if Clinton's theme of personal responsibility had been extended to the issue of teenage pregnancy and related problems, whatever its political fall-out. Probably because he did not embrace and 'champion' specific black concerns, he chose to avoid certain controversial issues.

The Democrat's strategy of distance and reticence played into the hands of Bush's Right Wing challenger Pat Buchanan who seized the initiative to legitimize some of David Duke's views on race. While Buchanan may not be a racist, his 'America First' theme struck a fearful note in the minds of the disadvantaged blacks who, at certain levels of discourse, see themselves not belonging in the definition of 'American people.' His gleeful analogy about Zulus and Anglo-Saxons and their relative rate and degree of assimilation, was not only racist in tone, but perhaps an inadvertent reinforcement of George Will's theory that America is 'un-black' and 'un-poor.' The Bush administration's decision to repatriate Haitian refugees fleeing from persecution may have been in response to Buchanan's 'America First' campaign. But it also appeared to be an endorsement of Buchanan's 'Zulu' rhetoric and acquiescence in George Will's proposition that America is 'un-black.' Clinton has now 'temporarily' continued Bush's policy on Haitian refugees.

The Duke camp and to a larger extent. Buchanan's constituency, may have forced President Bush to embrace the idea of welfare reform early in the campaign. In fact, the issue was the cornerstone of David Duke's racialist appeal. Like law and order, a reformed welfare system is undoubtedly good for the country. But the debate was cast on a veiled racist platform that subtly suggests that welfare dependency was draining the nation's economy and was probably responsible for the nation's economic troubles. The rhetoric obscured the fact that the majority of welfare recipients are not blacks, but whites about five million of whom are unwed white mothers who stay in the programme for about two years; and the fact that poor whites now account for 46 per cent of food stamp recipients, and 47 per cent of medicaid recipients. On the other hand, blacks account for 32 per cent who receive welfare, 33 per cent who receive food stamps, and 31 per cent who receive medicaid. Although Clinton also stressed the need for welfare reform, the matter was neither debated nor put in perspective. Thus, its potency as a race-based election issue was kept intact.

'Crime' is another winning issue, but only if it has a racial overtone. It helped Nixon in the 60s and 70s, and Bush in the 80s. However, in 1992, the issue did not help George Bush because the challenger also appeared to be tough on crime. Unfortunately, discussions on law and order are usually blurred by the myth that because many black males are arrested for violent crimes, blacks in general are more prone to crime than whites. The fact that crime is as much a concern to blacks as it is to whites or that a majority of violent crimes (including rapes) are not committed by blacks, is hardly alluded to, nor is the fact that most cases of homicide are committed by blacks on blacks or by children on children and that the vast majority of black crime victims are themselves blacks. Surveys have shown that black Americans are nearly as likely as whites to ask for more, not less, police protection. These facts remain irrelevent so long as politicians are willing to exploit race for votes.

The sad thing about the politics of race is that it distorts, camouflages, and sometimes clouds the full dimensions of a problem. But the racial issues facing the United States in the nineties defy the political 'we' versus 'them' approach. In a country where minority groups will comprise 30 per cent of the population by the turn of the century, race relations should be regarded as an urgent national priority. Creative responses to the old problem must be explored instead of deepening the racial divides for political ends.

The tenor of the dialogue could be improved if political leaders articulate goals and chart new courses which do not have to be politically risky. Beyond skin colour, new albeit hardly perceptible phenomena seem to be emerging. In the last presidential election, about 18 per cent of black voters did not vote for Bill Clinton. During last year's Louisiana election, about 4 per cent of blacks voted for David Duke. Support for or opposition to Judge Thomas during his confirmation hearing did not follow racial lines. Other common grounds are also discernable. For example, surveys have shown that both races virtually agree on the need for good schools for their children, law and order, personal responsibility, discipline and self-help, and the value of hard work. Even in the thorny issue of 'Affirmative Action', opinions are almost evenly split among the races on whether past discrimination should entitle blacks to preferential treatment, and a plurality of whites are not entirely opposed to some form of Affirmative Action. Regarding public assistance, a vast number of blacks say they would rather not be on welfare. More significantly, blacks and whites virtually agree on what is responsible for the rising black poverty.

These signs could elevate the race debate to a new level of discourse. Instead of the usual racial politics, the new if nascent phenomena could be exploited (in a new holistic approach) to involve the country in a soul searching debate on the racial challenges of our time. Any talk of education reform, improving industrial competitiveness, welfare reform, or improving race relations, smacks of equivocation if it ignores the very critical problem of teenage pregnancy which seems to exacerbate other related problems--school drop-outs, drug culture, crime, welfare dependency, poverty, and the growing underclass syndrome.

An integrated approach that de-emphasizes race dichotomy and focuses instead on the national security need of rescuing some 30 per cent of the population from a potential web of helplessness and permanent underclass will make political sense and should be oriented towards the goal of arresting the drift to poverty, expanding the work force, broadening the tax base, and eventually shrinking the burgeoning welfare budget. Such an approach will perhaps create a healthy political environment for a sound public policy debate. We missed the opportunity during the Los Angeles riot and subsequent presidential campaign. We should not miss it again.

Dr. Godwin Okebaram Uwah is Associate Professor of French and Francophone African Literature at the University of Charleston, South Carolina.
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Author:Uwah, Godwin Okebaram
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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