Sunday, March 23, 2008

A Brief History of Race in Post-Civil Rights Politics

An interesting article in today's Sunday Times provides an overview of major trends in how presidential candidates have dealt with race, occasioned, of course, by Obama's remarkable Philadelphia speech. Like many, the author identifies LBJ's Civil Rights Act of 1964 as the final wedge between national Democrats and white Southerners, though this was certainly a long drift by the party that started in the working-class struggle rhetoric of FDR, Truman's desegregating the army, and the anti-segregationist 1948 campaign of Henry Wallace. On the Republican side, the infamous "Southern Strategy" -- culminating in Reagan's launching his campaign in Philadelphia, MS, where three civil rights workers were killed in 1964 -- widened the racial divide to galvanize white voters. But the article is most interesting in its consideration of how candidates have used code to describe race:
Race did not disappear entirely from presidential campaigns; it went under cover. It lay buried in code phrases like “crime in the streets,” “states’ rights,” and “welfare mothers.” Michael Klarman, a professor at the University of Virginia Law School who specializes in the constitutional history of race, said, “Nixon talks about ‘law and order,’ which is a code term for the urban race riots and rising crime rates. He talks about appointing strict conservatives to the Supreme Court, which is a code term for justices who won’t insist on mandatory busing. And he talks explicitly about how we ought to have ‘local control of schools.’ Without explicitly using the language of race, he is saying whites shouldn’t have to go to school with blacks.”

No comments: