Black and White in American Politics

By Uwah, Godwin Okebaram | Contemporary Review, March 1993 | Go to article overview

Black and White in American Politics

Uwah, Godwin Okebaram, Contemporary Review

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. …

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