Play the Race Card At Your Own Peril

By Richard Thompson Ford
Sunday, February 17, 2008

It's conventional wisdom that American racism is an inexhaustible well that cynical politicians can always dip into if they want to sink their opponents in a campaign. That's what Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's Hispanic pollster, Sergio Bendixen, seemed to be doing when he told a reporter last month that Latino voters haven't generally "shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates."

But modern racism isn't like the water in a well. It's more like the scum in a pond: It might settle to the bottom if left alone, but it can also be whipped up into a froth. And that's what Bendixen was really doing.

Clinton went on to win a resounding 67 percent of the Hispanic vote in California on Super Tuesday. But her victory didn't prove her pollster's drastically overstated point (many black candidates -- Charles Rangel, David Dinkins and others -- have enjoyed significant Hispanic support) so much as illustrate how today's race-baiting tactics do more than just tap into preexisting racial animosity: They actually create and inflame it. And this in turn creates a problem that can last long after the election is over.

This is something for Clinton to ponder as the race moves into Texas and Ohio, where she is counting on support from large blocs of Hispanic voters. Already, the kinds of tensions and unexpected dilemmas that this subtle race baiting raises are affecting the campaign itself, with Hispanic leaders angered at the replacement of campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle, a Mexican American, in favor of African American Maggie Williams.

Clinton defended Bendixen's claim as a "historical statement" and added that "obviously what we're trying to do is bring America together." But by insisting that Hispanics are anti-black bigots and insinuating that black politicians won't serve the interests of Hispanic constituents, Bendixen may well have helped inspire the racial tensions he purported to describe. African Americans have had their worst fears of anti-black racism confirmed by a supposed expert on Latino opinion; Latinos, told that their community rejects black candidates, may well assume that this must be so for a good reason -- such as African American prejudice against them.

Historically, race baiting has mostly played on the latent bigotry or racial anxieties of white voters. But now it's becoming an equal-opportunity tactic, which makes the damage potentially farther reaching than ever before. The black-vs.-Hispanic appeal is the latest twist. But supporters of Sen. Barack Obama also tried to drum up racial outrage over Clinton's reasonable observation that President Lyndon B. Johnson's political savvy was as important to the success of the Civil Rights Act as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s inspiring leadership. And the Clinton campaign has sought to marginalize Obama as a narrow "black" candidate, while also having African American supporters emphasize Bill Clinton's honorary status as the "first black president" and denigrate the Illinois senator as "insufficiently black."

To some, the success of such racial provocations simply reflects the underlying attitudes of the general population. People know better than to announce their prejudices publicly, the argument goes, but in the privacy of the voting booth, they are free to act on their true beliefs. But political campaigns don't just take public attitudes as a given, they also shape them. And race baiting in politics is, unfortunately, as American as the electoral college.

U.S. history is full of examples of political opportunists willing to play the race card to gain an edge in a close election. Even the violent resistance to civil rights in the Jim Crow South wasn't the inevitable result of inveterate social prejudice: It was deliberately triggered by opportunistic politicians desperate to stay in office.

As legal historian Michael Klarman showed in his 2004 book "From Jim Crow to Civil Rights," Southern racism, while still widespread and often deeply held, was in rather steep decline after World War II. Segregationists were losing elections or hanging on to power by their fingernails. When the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, outlawing segregated public schools in 1954, segregationist politicians exploited the resulting resentment and anxiety to save their flagging careers, portraying the Warren Court and civil rights activists as outside agitators.

The violent reaction against civil rights was in part the result of such political tactics -- not the root of them. Segregationists didn't just pander to racist sentiment, they deliberately provoked it, nurtured it and intensified it. They made racism worse.

Later, Barry Goldwater's seemingly principled opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave birth to the undeniably cynical "Southern strategy" of the Republican Party, which relied on subtle (and occasionally blatant) racial appeals to scare white voters. By the 1980s, these appeals had helped turn the once reliably Democratic "Solid South" solidly Republican.

In the 1980 campaign, Ronald Reagan extolled the virtues of states' rights to an audience in Philadelphia, Miss., where civil rights activists had famously been killed by racist whites in 1964. To many, this combination of text and context covertly signaled Reagan's opposition to the Civil Rights Act. Reagan also made racial appeals once in office: He used an African American Cadillac-driving "welfare queen" as Exhibit A in his case against liberal social welfare programs.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company