The power of race as a campaign issue

Bill Bradley, challenging Al Gore, pledges to keep it on front burner.

In 1988, then-Sen. Bill Bradley was in Missouri visiting an elderly aunt, who was like a second mother to him. Out of the blue she told him she was glad he didn't run for president and win that year. He asked her why, and this, he says, was her response:

"Because you would have probably chosen somebody like Jesse Jackson as your vice president and then the blacks (she used another word) would have killed you [so Jackson could become president]."

Recounting this frank tale of racism within his own family, now-presidential hopeful Bill Bradley pledged to bring to the forefront of the 2000 campaign one of America's most painful and divisive social issues - one that throughout history has both marred and distinguished presidential politics.

From Abraham Lincoln's compelling campaign speech about the moral wrongs of slavery in 1860 to the Republican's controversial use of Willie Horton - a black repeat rapist - in the 1988 campaign, race has remained one of the country's most explosive and intransigent problems.

But some experts believe a variety of factors now could help ensure its place on the 2000 political agenda in a way that will move forward the country's struggle for racial healing.

Wake-up calls

The most compelling are the reminders of the depth of racial hatred still evident in the country. They range from the dragging death of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas, to widespread allegations of police brutality and racial profiling, to the targeting of a minority student in the school shootings in Littleton, Colo.

"I don't know if race has gotten easier to talk about, but it may be that there's now more willingness to do what's difficult," says Christopher Edley, a leading authority on race and adviser to the Clinton administration.

The emphasis on race makes sense politically for Bradley, who is competing in the Democratic primary for a key base of minority voters. But if Bradley keeps his pledge to push race to the forefront of the campaign, that could also force both major parties to confront the issue more directly than they have since 1964, the last time a president (Lyndon Johnson) gave a televised prime-time speech on race in America.

Vice President Al Gore, who already has significant support among minorities, followed on the heels of Bradley's speech with his own address on race. On the Republican side, both the Christian Coalition and moderates like presumed presidential contender Gov. George W. Bush (R) of Texas are making an effort to court minority communities.

"There's still lot of cynicism in the black community," says Phillip Thompson, a professor of political science at Columbia University in New York. "It's going to take a lot of work to rebuild the confidence of those that don't vote every election to convince them that something different is going to happen in exchange for their vote."

While huge gaps still exist in the perceptions blacks and whites and Latinos have about one another, and about the extent to which discrimination remains a problem, enormous progress has been made. Unlike only two generations ago, it's no longer acceptable to be openly racist in America, experts say. A Gallup poll done this year found that 95 percent of Americans say they would vote for a black candidate for president; that's up from 37 percent in 1958.

Risks for white politicians

Still, conventional political wisdom says it's risky, particularly for white politicians, to address race in any but the most broad and symbolic terms.

"America understands itself as a land of paradise and innocence, and when you're talking about race you're talking about evil, the legacies of white supremacy," says Cornel West, a noted scholar on race relations at Harvard.

In his speech Bradley dared white Americans to look at their own indifference and the "white-skin privileges" that accrue to them simply by virtue of their color. And he challenged black Americans to overcome their own suspicions, fears, and frustrations with the racial barriers and discrimination that still exist.

"I'm betting that the goodness that's in each of us can win out over our more base impulses and that together we can unleash our national potential," he said during the speech at Cooper Union in New York, the same forum Lincoln used in 1860.

Specific remedies?

But Bradley has also been criticized for focusing only on the broad moral imperative, instead of proposing specific remedies - which experts say is a continuing problem in American presidential politics.

"We like to flatter ourselves that we're all progressive on race, but when it comes to actually living together, working on the specifics, we don't like to talk about that," says Leonard Steinhorn, author of "By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race."

Mr. Steinhorn contends that during the last 30 years, race has been played on a dual track in American presidential politics. One is the optimistic, symbolic stance that almost all major party politicians have tried to project - like Ronald Reagan kicking off his campaign in 1980 in Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were killed in 1964.

On the other track, Steinhorn says, politicians used racial code words and images to tap underlying fears and prejudice in the white community. "Particularly the Republicans used code words involving fear, welfare, poverty, and crime, and sent a strong message that they won't be kowtowing to black Americans - but even Clinton did it in 1992," he says.

The use of such code words also allowed politicians to avoid taking responsibility for exploiting race as a wedge issue. Keith Reeves, author of "Voting Hopes or Fears: White Voters, Black Candidates and Racial Politics in America," says the most flagrant example of that was the Bush campaign's use of the Willie Horton ad in 1988.

"When they were accused of race baiting, they were able to say, 'We weren't talking about race, we were talking about crime,' " says Professor Reeves. "But most of the media, academics, and the political pundits said, 'Look, you've gone over the line, here.' "

Both Reeves and Steinhorn believe the fear factor, particularly in white America, has diminished, which makes it much less likely that such divisive tactics will be used in 2000.

But they and other experts say that damaging racial stereotypes remain in white America, and one challenge of how far forward the country has moved on the race question will be whether candidates attempt to debunk those myths instead of exploiting them.

Many in the country's heartland still believe that blacks are less motivated, more inclined toward violence, and have different values and aspirations than whites, says Arthur Miller, the director of the Iowa Social Sciences Institute.

"It's also perceived that there isn't any real true white privilege,... and if anything it's the minorities that are taking advantage of affirmative-action laws," he says.

Stereotypes breaking down

But some of those stereotypes are beginning to change, he says, in part because of the success of welfare reform. The media are now full of images of single women, mostly minority, successfully transitioning to work and independence.

Many African-American political scientists are still skeptical that the more difficult issues of housing segregation, economic inequality, and the racial imbalance in the criminal-justice system will be dealt with directly because of concerns that specific proposals could inflame white fear.

Others are optimistic, though, that the country as a whole is moving forward.

"If Bradley and Gore engage on race it will be a great thing for the nation," says Professor Edley. "It will be an opportunity to get us beyond the black-white paradigm because certainly it's a much more complicated issue today than it was a generation ago."

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