Racism and the Election

Human Rights

Earlier this year a number of organizations joined together to form the 2004 Racism Watch project to draw attention to racism in this year's Presidential elections. The organizations, representing a wide range of constituencies and interests, vow to expose candidates that resort to racist imagery and policies to get elected, a practice with a long history in American politics.

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.

President George W. Bush 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. Democratic Presidential hopeful John 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.

But race and racism may become a more public part of the debate before Election Day. There are reports that the Bush campaign is preparing a TV commercial using statements of Rev. Al Sharpton as a foil to undercut Kerry. And Kerry, under pressure from black Democrats, may see the need to take stronger public positions on racial justice.

There is a sordid history going back to 1968 of the two major parties consciously using 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 American Independent Party campaign, that the Richard Nixon campaign made a 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 the words of scholar Manning Marable, "at the time there was a strong liberal wing pressuring the White House to take bolder steps on racial policy." But 12 years later the major issues for Nixon were "law and order," getting "welfare bums" off the dole, and opposition to school desegregation through busing.

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

Ever since, a pattern has been followed regardless who the two parties put forward as candidates. The Republicans are out front with their racial demagoguery to the extent necessary for them to win, as in the use of the infamous 'Willie Horton' ad in 1988. 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."

This history is what brought the 2004 Racism Watch project together. The coalition of groups are committed to draw attention to the expected use of race baiting in the election this year, while working to mobilize a strong progressive vote in communities of color and to defend the right to vote against expected attacks.

Out of this work has emerged a Call to Action signed by a dozen national and southern regional organizations such as the Institute for Southern Studies, the National Youth & Student Peace Coalition, the Independent Progressive Politics Network and the Black Radical Congress 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.

George Friday, a co-coordinator of the 2004 Racism Watch, commented, "Vote for Racial Justice Week is taking place two weeks before the national elections, an important time for citizens to understand and spread awareness about the positions of candidates running for office on important issues."

Organizers are assembling a packet of materials to help local organizers who want to participate in the week. One already produced resource is a leaflet summarizing the positions of all the presidential candidates on key race issues. The results are compiled from the candidates' answers to a survey developed by the organization. When a candidate did not respond to the survey, their positions were summarized from their published statements and policy proposals.

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.

"There's a lot of excitement among our members about this project," said Adrienne Maree Brown of the League of Pissed Off Voters. Kate Zaidan, a leader of the Student Environmental Action Coalition, explained, "We expect that there will be scores of college campuses where local student groups will organize educational or outreach events during the week of action." Many other community-based and issue organizations and local unions are getting involved to advocate and fight for the needs of communities of color in the elections.

The history of racism in elections and the sense in many communities of color that their votes were not counted in the 2000 Presidential Elections has lead many grassroots people of color to lose hope that voting might make a difference in their lives. "Vote for Racial Justice Week" may be one way that they can regain that hope.

2004 Racism Watch is also committed to helping communities of color prepare for whatever the results are on November 2. In the words of George Friday, "To many of the groups involved it is crystal clear that whether Bush or Kerry wins, there will be much work yet to be done for racial justice."

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