By JONATHAN TILOVE
October 20, 2004
c. Newhouse News Service
WASHINGTON _ Not since the end of the Second World War has there been a presidential election so devoid of debate about issues of race. And yet, beneath the quiet lie intriguing new twists in the politics of race, and consequences as great as ever.
George W. Bush, who was elected president with a smaller proportion of the black vote than any Republican in history, has named African-Americans _ Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice _ to positions of greater authority within his administration than any previous president of either party.
Bush, a Texan, has also exhibited an ease with Latinos that early on led Mexican-American essayist Richard Rodriguez to describe him as the “first Hispanic president.”
Meanwhile, John F. Kerry, more than any Democratic nominee since John F. Kennedy, lacks a strong profile on issues of race and tight connections with black and Hispanic communities.
Still, despite all these anomalous circumstances and role reversals, a traditional political divide remains. Democrats remain the party of minority empowerment and of government intervention on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged, who remain black and brown way beyond their proportion of the population.
So Kerry wants to invest more in health and education, worries about the disparate racial impact of mandatory minimum sentences and the death penalty, and can be counted on to appoint Supreme Court justices (likely three vacancies in four years) who would preserve affirmative action.
Yet most of these and other racially tinged issues get little attention.
“Almost no one is talking about race; it’s not on the national agenda,” said Jeremy Mayer, a George Mason University political scientist who wrote the book “Running on Race: Racial Politics in Presidential Campaigns, 1960-2000.”
“No one uses the word `urban,’ no one uses the word `cities,’ no one really discusses these issues,” said Marc Morial, the former mayor of New Orleans, who now heads the Urban League.
This is new.
Ever since Strom Thurmond’s 1948 run as a Dixiecrat, questions of race have played a crucial role in presidential politics. Sometimes it has been explicit, about voting rights, open housing, integration, busing, riots, police brutality and affirmative action. At other times, race lurks beneath issues like welfare and crime.
What happened this year? In part, the quiet is a consequence of Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq, which have pre-empted the nation’s attention and treasure.
But both Bill Clinton and now Bush also played roles.
Clinton was determined to reduce the Democrats’ vulnerability on race. When he signed welfare reform, a nagging source of white backlash was gone. As crime dropped, so did white fears, though as prisons filled, so did black and Hispanic dismay at the terrible cost to their community of so many of their men behind bars.
Bush also sought to change his party’s racial profile. He presented himself as a “compassionate conservative.”
“It’s an empty phrase,” said Glenn Loury, the iconoclastic black Boston University economist, an act of political “jujitsu” to deflect accusations of racism, even as he believes the Bush administration pursues policies perpetuating stark racial inequality.
But, real or illusory, something had changed.
Consider that in 1980, Ronald Reagan, at the urging of Rep. Trent Lott, opened his post-convention campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., declaring his allegiance to “states’ rights” in the same community where 16 years earlier three civil rights workers had been murdered and buried in an earthen dam.
But, two years ago, when Lott, then Senate majority leader, made some casual comments at a birthday party for Strom Thurmond that suggested nostalgia for segregation, Bush, before a mostly black audience, repudiated the remarks. Lott was forced to step down as Republican leader.
Even more significant was Bush’s appointment of Powell and Rice.
“It was not like Clarence Thomas, where you could say that he was only there because of his race,” said Angela Dillard, a scholar of race and politics at New York University. “Powell and Rice cannot be passed off as tokens.”
Powell and Rice have also not suffered the fate of Thomas, who is reviled for his arch-conservatism by many blacks. But the foreign policy they helped craft is overwhelmingly unpopular in black America.
Even Bush’s landmark effort to close the racial achievement gap through his No Child Left Behind legislation has won him little credit.
“He has made the most intensive effort of any Republican president of modern times to reach out to the black electorate,” said Peter Kirsanow, a Bush appointee on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and past chair of the Center for New Black Leadership. And yet, said Kirsanow, a labor lawyer, “I live in inner-city Cleveland and I may be the only Republican in my precinct.”
On affirmative action, the Bush administration infuriated the civil rights community by opposing the University of Michigan’s admissions policies when they came before the Supreme Court. But when the court affirmed the university’s more subtle law school plan while striking down its more inflexible undergraduate policy, the president seemed satisfied, and it is the true crusaders against preferences who have found themselves increasingly frustrated by Bush and the Republicans.
In the campaign, Kerry’s rhetorical defense of affirmative action has been passionate. But, like Bush, he pronounced himself pleased with the court’s holdings in its split decision.
Kerry’s own trajectory on the issue has been telling.
In a 1992 address at Yale, Kerry critiqued affirmative action, contending that while it had “opened doors” and helped build the black middle class, it was also an “inherently limited and divisive program” that “has kept American thinking in racial terms.” The speech was not well received in black political circles.
“He waffled on affirmative action,” said Mel King, a former Massachusetts state representative, who said that Kerry has never distinguished himself on matters of race. “He’s a non-person on this issue,” said King, whose 1983 mayoral candidacy still stands as the high water mark of black politics in Boston.
Kerry lacked the credibility with blacks to weather the criticism, and what was meant to be a brave foray into race policy came across as a stumble.
Simply put, he is no Bill Clinton, though in an interview in March on the American Urban Radio Network, Kerry noted if Clinton was “often known as the first black president, I wouldn’t be upset if I could earn the right to be the second.” The comment was widely mocked.
In an interview in April with five black columnists, Kerry was asked what African-Americans had his ear. He mentioned a handful of names, including Cornel West, the Princeton University professor.
West, who has characterized Kerry as “milquetoast and mediocre,” in February told NPR’s Tavis Smiley that he considered Kerry’s relationship with black America “ambivalent” and “I don’t know anybody at all who’s close to John Kerry.”
Nonetheless, Kerry handily won the black vote in the primaries, and he appears to have developed a strong relationship with the Congressional Black Caucus in recent months.
At a packed forum at the CBC’s annual legislative conference this month,Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, D-Calif., an early Kerry backer, assured the friendly audience of Kerry’s bona fides.
“Before he was in the Senate,” she said, “John Kerry was in the South during the ’60s, marching for civil rights.”
Only he wasn’t. As The Boston Globe biography of Kerry reported, he sometimes left that impression, but “Kerry’s role in the struggle to register black voters was confined to the Yale campus.”
In his April interview with the black columnists, Kerry said he regretted not doing more to get to Mississippi Freedom Summer. “I think I missed something,” he said.
For Kerry, the rap is that he lacks the passion about race that he had for the other great issue of his generation _ Vietnam.
Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala., said nothing in the person or record of John Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson before they became president suggested they would perform so well in the 1960s.
Kerry also is naturally reserved and was sheltered in Massachusetts with its relatively small black and Latino population.
But Kerry is great one-on-one, said Ralph Cooper, a longtime black friend and supporter. Still, Cooper, who runs a Boston veterans center, said he’s had to work with Kerry on emoting. “We’re feelers, we’re call-and-response people. If you’re going to say it, you’ve got to mean it and you’ve got to put a little feeling in it.”
Bush is different _ a natural extrovert. And Texas is infused with a Hispanicity that, in the view of Rodriguez, Bush revels in. “I really do think that he has a kind of physical ease of a sort that Clinton had with black audiences,” Rodriguez said in a 2002 interview with the online magazine Salon. “It doesn’t seem to me to be fake; it seems to me a true joy that he has.”
But Columbia University political scientist Rodolfo de la Garza, the vice president of research at the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, finds Rodriguez’s rhapsody largely irrelevant to Hispanic political behavior. On the whole, he said of the Hispanic take on Bush, “They like him, but they don’t vote for him.”
Rather, said de le Garza, the great majority of Hispanics, with the exception of Cubans in Florida and some Texas Mexicans,
look to their class interests and vote Democratic.