What Politicians Say When They Talk About Race





Americans and their political leaders have been tongue-tied on the subject of race. We were reminded of that last week when Senator Barack Obama, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, took the almost unimaginable step of going before a national audience at a precarious juncture in a close campaign and speaking explicitly about what race means to blacks and whites. He spoke of black anger and white resentment and the significance of race in American history; his purpose was political but he spoke with seriousness and gravity and at length. Whether the speech helped or hurt him remains to be seen. But the moment was unlike virtually any in the more than 40 years since the triumphs of the civil rights struggle tore up party alignments of the past and tamped down explicit discussion of race by presidents and major-party candidates addressing the American people.

The dynamic had been different once — when African-Americans had begun to vote Democratic as well as Republican and presidential candidates of both parties competed for their votes; in 1948, Harry Truman, courting swing voters in a close election, became the first presidential candidate from a major party to campaign in Harlem (and ordered an end to segregation in the armed services right after he won the Democratic nomination). In the early 1960s, opinion polls found that a majority of Americans saw civil rights as the dominant issue facing the country. And President Lyndon B. Johnson, in one of several memorable 1965 speeches on race, said, speaking before a joint session of Congress after the “Bloody Sunday” voting-rights march from Selma, Ala.: “Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”

Yet it was President Johnson, too, who foresaw the end of what Glenda Gilmore, a Yale historian and author of “Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950,” described last week as a 20-year “national conversation on race” in the 1950s and 1960s. After signing the Civil Rights Act in July 1964, the president is said to have observed that he had just handed over the South to the Republicans for at least a generation. The Republicans seized the opportunity to peel off Democratic states. They studied the campaigns of George Wallace, the Alabama governor who ran as an independent presidential candidate in 1968, to see how he appealed to whites. They developed the “Southern strategy” that helped Richard Nixon and later Ronald Reagan. With blacks voting overwhelmingly Democratic by now, and their party struggling to hold onto white working-class ethnic voters in the North, there was little incentive for presidential candidates of either party to bring up race in a serious way....


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