How Campaign Politics Uses Race To Unite or Divide Voters

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THEY are the racial key words: welfare, responsibility, crime, quotas, big government, the middle class, and even taxes. Each represents a legitimate public concern that also - whether incidentally or cynically - taps racial stereotypes.

The charges are made by critics in both parties: that Republicans use these concerns to tap powerful racial fears and resentments, that Democrats shout racism and never confront the legitimate concerns.

This is the turf occupied uncertainly, almost invisibly, by race in the modern campaign, where direct appeals to racism are no longer acceptable to vast majorities.

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So far, the news on the race front this election season is mostly good. If neither blacks nor whites find much to inspire them, neither have they found much to divide them. The campaign messages with the most narrow appeal by race have fizzled.

At least one candidate, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, has shown some ability to unify black voters with Southern and working-class whites - the very voters who have been fleeing the Democratic Party fastest as black power has grown there.

But it is far too soon to heave any sighs of relief. The general election is coming, and political analysts of many different biases agree that the values and issues used by campaigns to separate Republican nominees from Democratic nominees are almost inextricably entangled with race. Race-related messages

How race and racism plays in the coming campaign turns largely on choices the candidates make.

Will Mr. Clinton, as the likely nominee, render himself vulnerable to attack as a liberal Democrat? If so, the label carries racial baggage for many voters that the Bush-Quayle campaign can exploit.

"The more Clinton has campaigned in the North, the more he has positioned himself as a liberal Democrat," says Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta and a leading specialist in Southern politics. And liberal Democrats are linked to policies with racial overtones such as busing and affirmative action.

Will Mr. Bush lead an offensive to reclaim the Republican heritage as the party of Lincoln, a heritage of racial inclusion? Or will he use issues, even legitimate ones, in ways that are racially divisive?

It may take a Republican to lead the country out of its racial impasse.

Bush's argument against the civil-rights bill he vetoed, that it was a quota bill, was calculated to appeal to whites only, says Terry Eastland, a conservative scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center here. Mr. Eastland opposes quotas too, but says the Republican Party should show an activist commitment to civil rights and equal opportunity on conservative principles.

Likewise, Alan Wolfe, a sociologist and political scientist at the New School for Social Research in New York City, says: "I believe we're going to make great racial progress in this country when a Republican president comes to represent the civil-rights agenda." Like Nixon opening relations with China, a Republican may have more political capital on issues that the GOP has traditionally not led on.

The degree to which white voters link social problems with African-Americans has been stunning to the Democratic Party as it confronted the evidence through the late 1980s.

The wake-up call came in 1985, when Democratic pollster and analyst Stanley Greenberg was commissioned by Michigan Democrats to study the racial views of white Democrats who were voting Republican in Macomb County near Detroit.

Dr. Greenberg wrote of his white subjects: "Blacks constitute the explanation for [white] vulnerability and for most everything that has gone wrong in their lives; not being black is what constitutes being middle class; not living with blacks is what makes a neighborhood a decent place to live.... Virtually all progressive symbols and themes have been redefined in racial and pejorative terms." Further, he wrote: "There is no historical memory of racism and no tolerance for present efforts to offset it."

The term "fairness," for example, was seen by Macomb County voters as a play for black votes. The fairness was not for middle- and working-class whites. Crime, welfare: racially loaded issues

Many terms that are essentially neutral have taken on a racial cut.

Even though most welfare recipients are white, most people think first of single black mothers. Crime does not conjure images of inside traders like Ivan Boesky but of the violence of young urban black men. The middle class is primarily white - and tax-paying - in the public mind. Although the black middle class now rivals in number the black poor, whites often perceive blacks as tax recipients, not payers.

"When whites talk about welfare, they're talking about blacks," says David Wellman, a sociologist at the University of California (UC), Santa Cruz and Berkeley. These perceptions have changed over time, possibly as cities have become more closely associated with a core population of blacks stuck in poverty and social breakdown.

"For most of my lifetime, to talk about crime was not to talk about race," says Dr. Wolfe. "Now it is."

Both Clinton and Bush have talked about welfare reform this campaign, and few would deny that they should talk about it. The two leading Democrats, Clinton and former California Gov. Jerry Brown, have discussed racial quotas in a way that Dr. Wellman finds nonracist - by opposing quotas for either blacks or whites. Baiting vs. discussion

So how can voters separate race-baiting appeals from legitimate discussion of controversial issues?

Eastland asks whether the issue is presented in a way that attempts to unify and appeal to all races, or in a way that divides and appeals only to certain races.

The conservative movement headed by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp, for example, seeks a complete overhaul of the welfare system along conservative, free-market principles. Mr. Kemp makes his pitch largely to racial minorities themselves in a spirit of inclusion.

Although he cannot show large-scale conversions by blacks to his brand of Republicanism, his efforts are largely welcomed in good faith in the black community.

Pat Buchanan is another story. His concerns about "Who speaks for the Euro-Americans?" and about white Americans becoming a minority by the middle of the next century bespeak a candidate who attaches importance to racial identities.

"The threat he poses is in terms of this definition of what it means to be an American," says Eastland. This is an emotional conservatism of shared tradition and shared blood, he says, not an inclusive view of America as an idea based on principles.

Wellman asks a different question of campaign appeals. Are they consistently applied or loaded against a racial group?

The Willie Horton commercials on behalf of the Bush campaign in 1988, for example, singled out violent crime for concern, which is disproportionately committed by poor blacks, instead of white-collar crimes, some of immense magnitude, committed largely by affluent whites.

In focus-group discussions with white students at UC Berkeley, Wellman found that they opposed racial preferences for black and Hispanic students because they undermine meritocracy in admissions.

But when asked if Asian students should be allowed to take all the openings they qualify for by testing and grades, the white students balked and shifted their criteria slightly. The Asian students are not well-rounded, they argued, according to Wellman. And this is the kind of self-serving inconsistency he sees in many campaign appeals using racial cues.

So far, says Wolfe, "I think this election is remarkably unracist."

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