My New Year’s wish this year is an election campaign shorn of bigotry. But it may be too late for that already.
Last year, Mitt Romney’s campaign said Sen. Barack Obama was calling for jihadists to rally in Iraq. Actually, that was Osama bin Laden. What a difference a consonant makes. The Romney campaign fobbed it off as a simple, inadvertent gaffe.
But some gaffes are harder to explain away.
A new report by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley shows the prevalence of racial appeals. The report is entitled “Race-Bait ‘08: Lessons Learned from the Political Dirty Dozen — 12 Cases Playing the Race Card 1983 -2007.”
One classic example is the TV ad in 2006 against Harold Ford, an African-American member of the House of Representatives who was running for the Senate in Tennessee against white Republican Bob Corker. The ad, by the Republican National Committee, had a blonde woman saying, “I met Harold at the Playboy party,” and ended with her saying, “Harold, call me.”
Then there was the infamous Willie Horton ad, which was used against Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis in 1988. The ad showed a mug shot of this convicted murderer, who committed another murder while on furlough. Horton was black.
And if you live in North Carolina, it’s hard to forget the 1990 ad that Republican Sen. Jesse Helms ran against his African-American challenger, Harvey Gantt. The ad, which was against racial quotas in hiring, showed someone’s white hands crumpling a letter denying the person a job.
Playing the race card is not limited to white candidates against people of color.
In 2006, Ray Nagin, the African-American mayor of New Orleans running in a post-Katrina election, seized on race to revive his campaign. At least twice in public he referred to New Orleans as “Chocolate City” and added that one day it would be “chocolate again.” Nagin won by taking 80 percent of the African-American vote; in his 2002 election, he had won only 40 percent.
Sometimes, the intrusion of race doesn’t appear to be so calculated.
For instance, in 1984 the Rev. Jesse Jackson had called Jews “Hymies” and New York “Hymietown.” He later apologized for it in a synagogue.
In 2006, then-Sen. George Allen, R-Va., destroyed his own campaign by calling an Indian American “Macaca.”
And last year, Sen. Joe Biden’s candidacy sputtered after he said about Obama: “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”
Biden’s and Jackson’s comments may have revealed bigoted thoughts that aren’t usually aired in mixed company or on the record.
The amazing thing to me in 21st century America is that many people running for public office can’t resist the bigoted stumble.
I almost prefer the blatant racism of Jesse Helms than having the truth come out in an excited or bumbling utterance that is excused as a gaffe.
I expected it from Jesse Helms. But I didn’t expect it from Jesse Jackson or George Allen or Joe Biden.
I had hoped we were beyond that.
And I still hope that the candidates this time around can rise above racist appeals, whether intentional or inadvertent.
We’ve seen enough of these already.
Akilah Monifa is a lesbian of African descent and a freelance writer based in Oakland, California, where she lives with her partner and their two children. She writes about how race and sexual orientation intersect with politics, entertainment, and pop culture. She can be reached at email@example.com.