Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Race and Politics: A New Year's Challenge

Keith Pavlischek


January 1, 2001

President-elect Bush has accepted the challenge to strengthen American race relations, one of the New Year's most urgent demands. The good news is that Bush's efforts did not begin only last month with his choice of three African-Americans and other minorities for his leadership team. As Jonathan Cohn observes in a cover story for the decidedly liberal, pro-Gore magazine The New Republic (Nov. 13), for the first time in recent memory the Republican presidential campaign abandoned the "race card."

Even if you take the most cynical view possible of Bush's "compassionate conservatism," even if you dismiss as mere rhetoric and imagery the way in which he surrounded himself at the GOP convention with every black Republican his campaign could muster, the fact that Bush steered clear of racially coded appeals was a positive development.

Cohn argues that from Barry Goldwater to President Bush, the GOP appealed to middle-of-the-road white voters by often linking white middle-class hostility toward government with racial resentment. "The fact that Republicans now court them by embracing diversity is a sure sign that the old tactics don't work anymore." A small advance, perhaps, but for those genuinely concerned about racial reconciliation, that's good news.

The New Year's challenge now, however, does not confront Bush and the Republicans alone. According to Andrew Sullivan, also writing in The New Republic (Dec. 18), the Democrats, realizing that they would have to mobilize African-Americans to win the election, played the race card with reckless abandon. The tone was set early in the campaign by Gore's campaign manager, Donna Brazile, who told The Washington Post that she would never let the "white boys" win. Pro-Gore leaflets distributed in New Jersey showed Bush's face superimposed on a Confederate flag. In the final week of the campaign, Gore told African-American religious leaders at a prayer breakfast that the election was a choice between "good" and "evil." In what Sullivan calls a "shameless bid for votes," Joe Lieberman was even dispatched to make overtures to Louis Farrakhan.

The strategy reached its lowest point in a now-infamous and "despicable" (Sullivan's term) political TV ad produced by the NAACP, which all but accused Governor Bush of being party to the lynching of James Byrd Jr., a man dragged from the back of a truck by white racists until his body was severed in two. Sullivan sums up the way in which the issue of race has become narrowly political and partisan to Democrats, "Better to practice racial division and win than practice racial healing and lose."

Even now, Jesse Jackson has announced plans for a major protest of the inauguration, stating that "We want Bush to understand that while he may occupy the White House, he will be there illegitimately." According to William Rasberry, Jackson hopes to drive home the point that it was the black vote in particular that was tossed out in Florida—a vote he hoped to rally—and that there is, therefore, a "racial disenfranchisement" (The Washington Post, Dec. 22).

While Bush and the Republicans certainly have much work to do to demonstrate that their concern for racial harmony is sincere and not mere rhetoric and image, it is equally urgent that Democratic leaders and responsible black leaders also publicly distance themselves from such race-baiting politics. These racial tactics have become so obscene and their effect on genuine racial reconciliation so poisonous, that to remain silent and fail to criticize such a strategy is to endorse it. As a New Year's resolution, perhaps the Democrats and Republicans can agree to agree on at least that much.

—Keith Pavlischek, Fellow
   Center for Public Justice


“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”