Folding the Race Card

Yet racial thinking can remain perversely comforting: It can seem to make instant sense of suffering when actual causes are more complicated. It can simulate “community” and social purpose for “people of color” and for others whose formative political commitments were shaped by race. Playing the race card still works sometimes for ideologues and opportunists–black as well as white, left as well as right–who would turn racial victimization (white against black or vice versa) into a weapon and suspicions into self-fulfilling prophecies of racial Armageddon. We need not only better social conditions but also statesmanship wise enough to advance self-fulfilling prophecies that are positive, not destructive.

Two new books by young political scientists hold out hope for such leadership by cutting through the racial pieties and opportunism that have framed too many election campaigns. Matthew Streb’s The New Electoral Politics of Race and Jeremy Mayer’s Running on Race don’t revive leftist hopes that blacks will lead some revolutionary or even just progressive or multicultural politics; nor do they vindicate conservative hopes that “the black vote” is up for grabs or, failing that, irrelevant to the Right. Rather, these two dry-eyed but sharp analyses of how racial issues have played in seven states’ pivotal gubernatorial elections (Streb) and in the presidential contests since 1960 (Mayer) raise the possibility that race as an open, divisive political issue is dying, if not dead.

Streb’s close-grained but accessible account of gubernatorial contests in Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, and Virginia in the South, and in Ohio, Iowa, and Massachusetts in the North, poses “the racial puzzle” that even where voting remains racially polarized, race is now “the missing issue” in campaigns. It has always been politically dangerous for a candidate to side openly with African Americans on whatever divides them from whites, but Streb shows that it can be just as risky to side explicitly against them, which can boost black turnout against a candidate and alienate white middle-class voters who dislike the tension, if not the injustice, in race-based appeals. What matters is the proportionate size of a state’s black and its white poor and working-class populations, the latter potentially aroused by portraits of black peril. Electorates have changed immensely, Streb notes: After 1954, the Brown decision made some Southern campaigns even more race-baiting than before; but as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 brought blacks to the polls, white politicians’ racial rhetoric subsided and white voters’ views began to change.

But how irreversibly? Streb studies exit polls, newspaper coverage, and campaign participants’ comments to him to test hypotheses such as this: The more black a state is (above 25 percent of the whole, as in Alabama), and the more of its whites who are working class or poor (more than 12.1 percent, as also in Alabama), the more likely a Republican will gain by raising racial issues such as affirmative action. He or she does risk increasing black opposition but may capture politically volatile, hard-pressed whites who might have responded to a Democrat’s more class-based appeals.

I can imagine some campaign consultant saying “Duh” to some of Streb’s discoveries, finding them commonsensical. But Streb shows how a party can use its “ownership” of an issue to sway part of a constituency it usually doesn’t win: In Alabama, Arkansas, and Georgia he shows Democrats muting support of affirmative action and touting initiatives in education and childcare which whites, too, support. Republicans competing for those same whites might wave the Confederate flag, but if they fear alienating blacks and moderate whites, they might emphasize religion instead, vowing to keep prayer and the Ten Commandments in schools and other public places. The choice is inflected by a candidate’s record, values, and style; racial messages can be coded subtly into seemingly race-neutral appeals.

“It is not that race is now unimportant, it’s just that the way we talk about the subject has changed,” Streb cautions. But, finding blacks frustrated at being taken for granted by Democrats, he sees possibilities for black bipartisanship–and, with it, more constructively competitive, class-sensitive politics–if more Republicans like Arkansas’ Mike Huckabee and Virginia’s James Gilmore build strong bridges to black constituencies. Although he studied only statewide contests, Streb might also have noted race’s declining significance in the 1996 congressional elections and their sequels, in which hundreds of thousands of Southern white voters rebutted widespread presumptions of racially polarized voting by re-electing black incumbents who wound up in majority-white districts after the Supreme Court invalidated ambitious racial districting.

The more agonistic and opportunistic side of racial politicking dominates Jeremy Mayer’s account of racial follies in presidential campaigns. Although since 1988 there has been a healthy softening of racial appeals, they haven’t disappeared. After Truman’s bold embrace of a civil rights plank (and Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat revolt) in 1948, most presidential contenders before 1992 (except for Lyndon Johnson in 1964) worsened the American Dilemma either by pandering to racial animosities on the campaign trail or by ducking them. More recently, whatever their racial views, candidates have bowed to an ethos of tolerance and diversity, sometimes signaling discomfort with it, but also ducking its comparatively more benign problems.

Mayer revivifies some well-known episodes but also confounds some complacent memories that congealed over time. Throughout 1959 and the 1960 campaign, Martin Luther King, Jr. quietly but clearly backed Richard Nixon, a card-carrying NAACP member and a more ardent supporter of civil rights than John F. Kennedy. As Kennedy courted the South for the Democratic nomination, he voted to undermine both the 1957 Civil Rights Act and, later, his own party’s 1960 civil rights platform. He was often not only a canny strategist but so consummate a hypocrite that even the historian and Kennedy adviser Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. was quoted in 1960 admitting that Kennedy was “slightly soft” on civil rights–a reckoning whose own softness foreshadowed David Gergen’s later acknowledgment, also noted by Mayer, that Ronald Reagan was “not a crusader” for civil rights. Kennedy double-dealt his way around racial controversies until his stagey telephone call to Coretta Scott King during her husband’s imprisonment launched him on what became as believable a pilgrimage as Jimmy Carter’s against injustices both men had abetted for most of their lives.

Mayer shows that callow politicos can grow into statesmen when civic leaders such as King force real issues. Johnson, picked by Kennedy to keep the “Solid [segregationist] South” Democratic in the 1960 election, risked his political skin to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act and drag Democrats through a wrenching break with legal segregation. Nixon sinuously widened that fissure by promoting affirmative action, but Johnson’s real polar opposite in racial campaigning was George H.W. Bush, whose 1988 Willie Horton tactics will remain in the history books and whose eight different, evasive, finger-pointing pronouncements on the Los Angeles riots of 1992 made him seem both inept and hypocritical.

It is often forgotten that Bush’s 1992 opponent took a break from campaigning to kill Ricky Ray Rector, a retarded black man; Bill Clinton was playing hardball after having watched Michael Dukakis fold in 1988. Not to be upstaged by Bush’s commendable dissing of Pat Buchanan’s racist demagoguery, Clinton also refused to be upstaged, as Walter Mondale had been, by what New Democrats viewed as another kind of racial demagoguery at the hands of Jesse Jackson: He chose Jackson’s Rainbow convention for an attack not on white racism like Buchanan’s but on the racial pyrotechnics of Sister Souljah.

Mayer carries his racial epic through George W. Bush’s visit to Bob Jones University and his Disney-like deployments of black faces during the 2000 Republican national convention, and through Al Gore’s tub-thumping, slightly surreal civil-rights oration at the Ebeneezer Baptist Church. He sketches a racial learning curve over the years as candidates studied their predecessors’ follies and the electorate became racially more complex. Surely the most encouraging irony of the whole procession is the two latest chief executives’ ease with non-whites: Clinton’s comfort zone with African-Americans is legendary, and it’s hard to imagine blacks escaping at least a sneaking pride in George W. Bush’s close reliance on Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell in the war on terrorism. The ease that Bush and his brother Jeb show with Latinos is well known–perhaps especially because Jeb’s marriage is one of those interracial unions that are blurring the old racial lines.

At times, Mayer’s own presumptions get the best of him; his reprises of controversies over affirmative action and his prognostications about black bipartisanship would be richer had he noted that not just Ward Connerly but 25 percent of black voters opposed affirmative action in California’s Proposition 209 referendum. But his optimism that “Changes in the American conception of race’ will eventually make their way into presidential campaigns” is sustained and persuasive through most of these accounts.

Both of these books seriously reckon with race’s problematic presence in politics, which we can hope is lurching toward resolution. The question, of course, is whether that resolution really will leave race mostly behind, or whether it will bring more of the current official race-labeling, which creates new divisions by parceling out the commonweal along lines of a bureaucratically color-coded “diversity.” Neither book reinforces predictions of a “racism forever” mindset dominating either the Left or the Right. But rather, both see signs that race is declining in significance in campaigns–at least in what is said and done openly. Whether Stanley Crouch was right to insist that “Race is over” depends not just on the economy but on leadership that responds to voters who look past both racial animosities and pieties.

Jim Sleeper

Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale. He is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York and Liberal Racism.