What's Black and White And Divided All Over?

A MAJOR reason for the overwhelming Republican landslide - but one that few people discuss or acknowledge - was the GOP's use of subliminal appeals to racism.

This was nothing new. Republicans won the presidency in 1968 with a message of ``law and order,'' which preyed upon people's fears of blacks rioting in inner cities; in 1980 with Ronald Reagan's ``welfare queen'' (who everyone knew was African American); and in 1988 with Willie Horton, whose menacing black face was broadcast into living rooms across America. This year saw nothing that blatant, because the GOP mastered new rhetoric that taps into racism so subtly that it was almost never noticed by the news media: the Republicans' antigovernment, antiwelfare, and anti-immigrant message.

Many readers will say, how could this possibly be racist? Surely antipathy to government, taxes, and crime at the very least is as American as apple pie.

True enough. But one must also read between the lines. Under the guidance of GOP pollsters and media gurus, messages were carefully nuanced to create the threatening images in voters' minds that inevitably had a color that was not white.

For example, when Republicans talked about cutting taxes and making government smaller, they weren't talking about slashing defense spending or subsidies for big business. They even claimed they were against reducing big middle-class entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. No, what the GOP really meant was cutting government programs that assist the poor - primarily welfare. In many voters' minds that conjures up images of single, African American teenage mothers, despite the fact that most welfare recipients are white.

Fear of crime has always been racially tinged because many white voters picture the typical criminal as black or Latino, even though a majority of the perpetrators of crime are white. Rhetoric about building more prisons creates the image of violent inner-city youths being rounded up and sent to jail.

The most obvious race-based issue was the all-out attack on immigration, especially in California. No one warned about hordes of Europeans coming over - instead, it's hordes of Mexicans and Asians. Even Republicans William Bennett and Jack Kemp were courageous enough to note this in attacking California's Proposition 187 as ``likely to encourage discrimination against ethnic minorities.''

I would also suggest that it was no accident that Charles Murray's and Richard Herrnstein's book, ``The Bell Curve,'' was published during the campaign. Arguing that African Americans and other minorities have genetically based lower IQs and, therefore, that money spent trying to improve their lot in society is a waste.

I am not insinuating that whites who voted for Republicans are racists. People pulled the GOP lever for many reasons. Even for those motivated by welfare and crime, picturing welfare recipients and criminals as African Americans or Latinos is not in and of itself racist. It is simply the end result of constant exposure to the news media, popular entertainment, and negative campaign advertising.

I am also not charging that every victorious Republican candidate used racially charged appeals. A few GOP contenders actively courted African-American and Latino voters. And in an increasing number of districts, Republicans nominated minority candidates, some of whom, such as Rep.-elect J.C. Watts (R) of Oklahoma, won.

But messages that perpetuate damaging stereotypes of minority voters are a tried and true GOP formula for scaring white voters. In campaign after campaign, the game is the same - only the names have changed.

My union represents hundreds of thousands of African Americans and Latinos who don't view the demagoguery of white candidates on crime, welfare, immigration, and even taxes as anything other than virulent. From talking extensively with them, I understand why black turnout was low, causing many Republicans to win close races. To woo angry voters, some Democratic candidates used ``me too'' rhetoric. Many African Americans stayed home rather then choose between two candidates both using subliminal racial appeals.

Whenever the middle class sees its interests more threatened by the wealthy and powerful than by the poor, Democrats win. When it sees its well-being more jeopardized by the poor than the rich, Republicans win. What makes the latter scenario possible and politically potent is the painting of the ``poor'' enemy in black, brown, and yellow colors, tapping into centuries of racial stereotypes and discrimination. It's time to expose this malignant phenomenon and remove it before it causes even more damage to our democracy. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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