This article originally appeared in RaceWire,
a service of ColorLines magazine.
Earlier this year a number of organizations joined together to form the 2004 Racism
Watch project to draw attention to racism in this year's Presidential elections.
The organizations, representing a wide range of constituencies and interests,
vow to expose candidates that resort to racist imagery and policies to get
elected, a practice with a long history in American politics.
Racism within U.S. institutions, law and culture is deeply imbedded in the
history and reality of the United States going back to the 17th century. And
we still have a long way to go. We can see that by what is being said and not
being said during the current Democratic and Republican Presidential campaigns.
President George W. Bush, of course, acts as if everything is just
fine, and we all love each other in this wonderful land of hope
against the evil terrorists. Democratic Presidential hopeful John Kerry, on
the other hand, does talk about affirmative action, black voter disenfranchisement,
the idea of "two Americas" and possibly other racial justice issues,
but from the reports I've heard, only before black audiences.
But race and racism may become a more public part of the debate before
Election Day. There are reports that the Bush campaign is preparing a TV
using statements of Rev. Al Sharpton as a foil to undercut Kerry. And Kerry,
under pressure from black Democrats, may see the need to take stronger public
positions on racial justice.
There is a sordid history going back
to 1968 of the two major parties consciously using racism during
Presidential campaigns. It was in 1968, with the dramatic spread
of the black freedom movement all over the country and uprisings
in the cities, and with the emergence of George Wallace running
an overtly racist American Independent Party campaign, that the
Richard Nixon campaign made a conscious decision to completely
abandon the Republican Party's anti-slavery roots.
As recently as 1956 Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower had received
the support of 39% of the African American electorate, and,
in the words of scholar Manning
Marable, "at the time there was a strong liberal wing pressuring the White
House to take bolder steps on racial policy." But 12 years later the major
issues for Nixon were "law and order," getting "welfare bums" off
the dole, and opposition to school desegregation through busing.
The Democrats were "better," but far from good. Clearly responding
to Nixon's landslide re-election victory in 1972 against liberal George McGovern,
the Democrats nominated Georgia governor Jimmy Carter in 1976. Among the controversial
statements made by Carter during his campaign was his use of the phrase "ethnic
purity" to describe white enclaves and neighborhood schools. He also used
the phrases "alien groups," "black intrusion" and "interjecting
into a community a member of another race." The Democrats learned to
use racism in order to compete for white votes at the polls.
Ever since, a pattern has been followed regardless who the two parties
put forward as candidates. The Republicans are out front with their racial
to the extent necessary for them to win, as in the use of the infamous 'Willie
Horton' ad in 1988. The Democrats are weak in their responses or, in
some cases, outright copycats. Bill Clinton, for example, in the words of author
Kenneth O'Reilly, "calculated that he could not win in 1992 unless he
[publicly criticized] Sister Souljah to bait Jesse Jackson [at a Rainbow
Coalition conference], put a black chain gang in a crime control ad, golfed
at a segregated
club with a TV camera crew in tow, and allowed that search for a serviceable
vein in [retarded, African American, death row inmate] Rickey Ray Rector's
This history is what brought the 2004 Racism Watch project together. The coalition
of groups are committed to draw attention to the expected use of race baiting
in the election this year, while working to mobilize a strong progressive vote
in communities of color and to defend the right to vote against expected attacks.
Out of this work has emerged
a Call to Action signed by a dozen national and southern regional
such as the Institute for Southern Studies, the National Youth & Student
Peace Coalition, the Independent Progressive Politics Network
and the Black Radical Congress for a "Vote for Racial Justice
Week" October 18-24. The Call explains, "once again,
just like other elections, we're hearing almost nothing about
[racial justice] issues from the major Presidential candidates
and many other candidates seeking office, so we need to make
our presence felt!"
The Call lists a range of issues: racial/class bias in the legal
system, unequal resources for public schools, unemployment,
the racist "war on drugs," the
death penalty, electoral reform, the Patriot Act, immigrant rights, affirmative
action and reparations, environmental justice, Native American sovereignty
and treaty rights and a new foreign policy. It goes on to urge local groups
to raise these issues through marches and rallies, workshops, trainings,
candidates' forums, educational leafleting and widespread outreach.
George Friday, a co-coordinator of the 2004 Racism Watch, commented, "Vote
for Racial Justice Week is taking place two weeks before the national elections,
an important time for citizens to understand and spread awareness about
the positions of candidates running for office on important issues."
Organizers are assembling a packet of materials to help local organizers who
want to participate in the week. One already produced resource is a leaflet
summarizing the positions of all the presidential candidates on key race
issues. The results are compiled from the candidates' answers to a survey developed
by the organization. When a candidate did not respond to the survey, their
positions were summarized from their published statements and policy proposals.
Objectives of the week include the public "coming out" of
a national, multi-cultural, anti-racist network, the mobilization of
communities of color
and progressive whites to cast an informed vote on November 2, and helping
to build an on-going, pro-justice movement that understands these issues
and supports people of color leadership.
"There's a lot of excitement among our members about this project," said
Adrienne Maree Brown of the League of Pissed Off Voters. Kate Zaidan, a leader
of the Student Environmental Action Coalition, explained, "We expect that
there will be scores of college campuses where local student groups will organize
educational or outreach events during the week of action." Many
other community-based and issue organizations and local unions are getting
to advocate and fight for the needs of communities of color in the elections.
The history of racism in elections and the sense in many communities of
color that their votes were not counted in the 2000 Presidential Elections
lead many grassroots people of color to lose hope that voting might make
in their lives. "Vote for Racial Justice Week" may be one way
that they can regain that hope.
2004 Racism Watch is also committed to helping communities of color
prepare for whatever the results are on November 2. In the words of
George Friday, "To
many of the groups involved it is crystal clear that whether Bush or Kerry
wins, there will be much work yet to be done for racial justice."
Ted Glick is the National Coordinator
of the Independent Progressive Politics Network,
although these ideas are solely his own. More information on "Vote
for Racial Justice Week" can be found at www.racismwatch.org.