The New Politics Of Race

As distrust and resentment grow between blacks and whites, Washington strategists manipulate the tensions with clever slogans and divisive labels

On the surface, at least, the powerlunch scene in Joe and Mo's restaurant is a testament to racial integration in the political world of Washington. In the dimly lit grotto, centurions of politics--black and white--trade gossip and hatch deals. At noontime black political leaders--the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Democratic Party Chairman Ron Brown and others--work the room, laughing and joshing with the movers and shakers.

But listen closely to the table talk, and the image of racial harmony quickly dissolves. At one banquette last week, Mike Murphy, a rising young GOP consultant, calmly discussed the electoral uses of racial antagonism. Echoing his party's line, he predicted that the Democrats' civil-rights bill will drive more Southern whites into the GOP column. Voters are resentful of any "quota bill" that dictates favors for minorities. "Quotas cut," he said coolly, a surgeon hefting a new scalpel. "I've seen the polls. This issue moves numbers."

Moving the numbers. Whatever happened to moving hearts and minds? In the 1960s, the crusade to integrate politics--and through it, national life--was fueled by a moral appeal that most Americans eventually accepted. Now, like the chatter at Joe and Mo's, cynicism and resentment belie the image of success. The civil-rights movement is mired in distrust, arcane judicial rulings and harsh economics that force middle-class workers, white and black, to claw for the same jobs. Exhaustion has set in, a sense of disappointment and failure. After more than two decades of government-imposed affirmative action, many whites believe that enough has been done, that the playing field has been leveled, if not tilted, against them. Yet most blacks still feel they are the victims of discrimination. The result has been a growing sense of misunderstanding and recrimination among the races (page 28).

In this murky atmosphere, moral leadership has given way to the scheming of Washington operatives armed with clever slogans and divisive labels. This is the new politics of race, where notions of fairness and equity are lost in a scramble to "get yours." The Bible is not the reference manual for the modern political activist, as it was for Martin Luther King. Neither, very often, is the Constitution. The holy writs are "the crosstabs," the race-by-race, region-by-region breakdowns of the latest polls, and the racial equations and not-so-subtle media campaigns carefully designed to swing votes.

In a society that is becoming increasingly multicolored, there is no escaping the ancient conflicts of race. Relations among all the races--Asian and Hispanic, as well as AfricanAmerican and white--have never been easy in the United States. But the conflict between blacks and whites remains particularly thorny because of America's history of slavery and discrimination.

A NEWSWEEK Poll shows that most black and white voters expect race to be an important issue in the 1992 campaign--a likely self-fulfilling prophecy. Racial outbursts are no longer limited to extremist groups, to rednecks in white robes. With disturbing frequency, uppermiddle-class college students shout racial slurs (page 26). At home their parents too often silently concur. Polltakers say that most Americans are resigned to affirmative action; it is, after all, increasingly the norm in the workplace. But the "numbers" show deep resentment. There never has been greater disagreement about whether past discrimination entitles blacks to preference in education or hiring. An overwhelming majority of whites in NEWSWEEK'S poll say "no" to continued preference; most blacks say "yes." To them, the weight of the past is a daily burden.

Already the polities of racial manipulation have polluted the debate over the civilrights bill, due for a House vote this month. The public furor over the bill, which seeks to overturn recent Supreme Court decisions that narrowly limited the scope of affirmative action, has little to do with setting fair new rules for discrimination suits. It has everything to do with stirring racial resentments--white and black--on the eve of the 1992 elections. Both President George Bush and his Democratic foes overstate their legislative differences for political effect. Bush vows to veto the Democrats' version, as he did last year's. He calls it a "quota bill." But the fact is that his own version of the bill would accomplish much the same result: make it prudent for many companies to impose numerical goals-quotas-as a way to avoid costly litigation. Liberal Democrats denounce Bush, though their shrewdest move might be to accept the White House version--and then dare the president to veto his own bill. "Bush wants an issue, not a bill," says Democratic polltaker Celinda Lake. "The Republicans think they have their newest 'wedge' issue." But the Republicans answer that they are the new champions of colorblind fairness.

Both parties are likely to play the race card in 1992. The usual prepresidential jostling within the Democratic Party is taking on an increasingly race-conscious tone. Jesse Jackson is pressing a new array of race-based grievances. One is police brutality, underscored by the now infamous videotaped beating in Los Angeles. Another is alleged "selective prosecution" of black elected officials. Cited as fresh evidence: Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White, who, while hosting a national conference of black mayors last week, was subpoenaed by a grand jury investigating possible theft charges. Such incidents heighten black suspicions of a white "plan" to oppress them. Jackson is likely to underscore these fears in the next campaign, and blacks are still willing to listen to him. Though the NEWSWEEK POLL indicates blacks are increasingly disenchanted with Democrats, it shows that 72 percent believe he is an effective leader. Virginia's Douglas Wilder, the nation's first black elected governor-and a self-proclaimed mainstream Democrat-may also run for president. Many Democrats view Wilder primarily as a challenger to Jackson, rather than a competitor in his own right, a put-down that rightly offends both men. The "mainstream" Democratic Leadership Council refused to invite Jackson to its convention next week in Cleveland, (In Jackson fashion, he's going anyway, to star at his own "counterconvention.")

In politics, raw racial prejudice is in decline. True, pro-football star Roger Staubach received death threats when he suggested the Dallas city council's election rules should be changed to guarantee minorities a few seats. But racist David Duke seems to be fading-his gubernatorial bid in Louisiana appears headed for failure. Americans can take pride in the distance the nation has come. When the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed, there were 300 black elected officials. Now there are more than 7,000. From Gen. Colin Powell to Jackson to Wilder, blacks have won positions thought unobtainable even a few years ago. And there is a new willingness to vote for "crossover" blacks who woo white votes. In March, Emanuel Cleaver, a black councilman, was elected mayor of Kansas City, where only one in four voters is black. Cleaver won 40 percent of the white vote.

Even so, politics hasn't accomplished for African-Americans what it has for the Irish, Italians or Jews who preceded them in the Northern ghettos. It has yet to become a smooth path for black upward mobility, or even economic survival. For many American blacks, problems of poverty, illiteracy and disease are no better than in 1965. The black middle class has grown enormously, but blacks remain underrepresented in professional schools, including law schools-the traditional breeding ground for politicians. "The others had an advantage," says Washington lawyer Vernon Jordan, who summons a voice of bitterness though he sits on seven Fortune 500 company boards. "They had an absence of pigmentation in their skin."

Rather than bridge this racial divide, the political system has only widened it. Republicans are particularly adept at Balkanizing politics. Starting with Nixon's "Southern strategy" in the 1968 presidential campaign, the GOP has made a science of polarization. With two-edged "cultural" appeals, the Republicans have targeted disgruntled conservative Democrats, especially in the South and the Northern ethnic suburbs, and won every presidential election but one. They also have encouraged race-based pie-cutting. The latest GOP ploy is to buy off black Democrats by cutting up electoral districts along racial lines. In state legislatures, white Republicans are joining forces with blacks to draw redistricting maps to mutual advantage. This cross-party alliance could create perhaps a dozen new majority-black congressional districts--and twice as many lily-white ones for the GOP to target in the suburbs.

Democrats, black and white, play the race game their own way. They easily lapse into the theology of racial victimization. Some black officials cry racism when they come under investigation by prosecutors. But evidence suggests it's their job, not their skin color, that draws the scrutiny. White Democrats, meanwhile, sometimes seem to treat blacks as one more interest group, a constituency to be bought off with favors, like labor or the farm lobby.

The willingness, indeed eagerness, to indulge in racial politics does not bode well for a country in which minority groups will make up a third of the population by early in the next century. With some fresh thinking, both parties could find their way out of the morass. A starting point for Democrats would be to stop assuming that anyone who opposes the civil-rights bill is a racist. "We're not speaking to the concerns of the middle class as a whole," said Democratic polltaker Stanley Greenberg. "If all that they hear is affirmative action, they're going to keep turning off to us and think we're appealing only to special interests."

Perhaps the civil-rights laws have indeed done enough--or at least all that they can be asked to do. Some black leaders are searching for another way, stressing family self-help and discipline. Two proponents of a new agenda, Wilder and GOP Rep. Gary Franks of Connecticut, challenge liberal orthodoxies. Skeptical of big-government programs, they are backed by "New Paradigm" thinkers in both parties--Georgia's Rep. Newt Gingrich is a GOP example--who want to use market incentives to educate and employ poor blacks.

There are signs that the public could ultimately be turned off by the manipulative rhetoric of the race-baiters. Some voters have chosen to elect problem solvers, not ideologues. In Chicago, Mayor Richard M. Daley has won the votes if not the hearts of blacks and whites alike with his prosaic but effective handling of city problems. Colors pale if you have argued yourself out of power: Chicago blacks, after years of self-destructive infighting, may abandon racial solidarity to back a white liberal who can deliver what they really need--contracts and jobs in their wards.

Straight talk between blacks and whites may help carry Americans to the next level of racial harmony. "How long has it been since you had an honest conversation about race with someone of a different race?" Sen. Bill Bradley asked in a speech earlier this year. "If the answer is never, you're part of the problem." It's a reasonable suggestion. The civil-rights laws of the '60s and '70s opened doors, but the races have still to learn to live together. The Beltway crowd is not likely to be moved by such pieties--unless it decides that a campaign for honest accommodation between blacks and whites is a high road to power.

Would black Americans benefit if the following took larger leadership roles? (Percent saying yes)

                                  WHITES     BLACK

                Jesse Jackson       46%       72%

                Douglas Wilder      18%       29%

                Colin Powell        54%       42%

                Louis Farrakhan      8%       34%

Would a Democrat administration do more to help blacks get ahead, or would it not be much different from the current Republican administration? (Percent saying Democrats would do more)

                                  WHITES     BLACK

                Current             22%       40%

                1988                35%       56%

Do you believe that because of past discrimination against black people, qualified blacks should receive preference over equally college or getting jobs?

                                  WHITES    BLACK

                Should              19%      48%

                Should not          72%      42%

From the Newsweek Poll of April 23-25, 1991

'Going for the Gut': How Ads Play on Race

Make the music uplifting and patriotic. Show a flag waving in the breeze and a montage of melting-pot faces. Quote Martin Luther King Jr.'s eloquent appeal for an America where people "will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." Then cut to a door closing in the face of a white applicant while an announcer intones: "You needed that job. You were better qualified. You worked harder. You didn't have any government grants to help you. But you were turned down because of Teddy Kennedy's quota bill."

That hypothetical TV spot could be a portent of killer ads to come: GOP image-makers are ready to exploit the controversy over quotas, and the Democrats are not likely to be shy about coming up with attack ads of their own. Everyone remembers what Willie Horton did for George Bush in the 1988 presidential campaign. North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms won re-election last year with a race-baiting ad that showed a white worker's hands crumpling a job-rejection letter because "they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota." Helms's blunt appeal to racial fears could look like a Dick-and-Jane primer by the time the next generation of ads is crafted. "In a 30-second ad, you're going for the gut and not the brain," says Mark Siegel, a Democratic consultant.

The Democrats will undoubtedly play Bush as the heavy in the debate over quotas. Earlier this month the White House bullied the Business Roundtable out of its efforts to find a compromise on the civil-rights bill. Consultant Robert Squier envisions a member of the Business Roundtable declaring to the cameras, "I cannot in good conscience vote for a president who has so viciously manipulated an issue like race."

But once the '92 presidential campaign gets underway, Democrats may not be so high-minded about exploiting racial differences among themselves. If Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder is a candidate, the pressure on a white opponent to play the racial card will be overwhelming. "The first time you'll see the race issue used is in the Democratic primaries," predicts GOP consultant Mike Murphy. Here's where code words come in. Suggesting that Wilder is "a candidate of the special interests" would tip off white voters that his agenda might not be theirs. Sen. Albert Gore Jr. tapped tensions when he ran against Jesse Jackson in New York in '88, declaring, "We're electing a president, not a preacher."

Powerful TV ads can help decide a close election. The press can serve voters by flagging spots that are not only negative but untruthful. But for most politicians the temptation is too great. More often than not, their response is simply another negative ad.