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September 1991 Issue [Readings]

No more Race Politics, Mr. President


From a speech delivered by New Jersey senator Bill Bradley on the Senate floor on July 10.

In 1988, Mr. President, you used the Willie Horton ad to appeal to fear and divide white and black voters. Judging from your recent remarks about the 1991 civil rights bill, you have begun to do the same thing again. But I implore you—don’t go back down that path. Racial tension is too dangerous to exploit. Continued progress in race relations won’t be helped by the use of code words and a grasping for an early advantage in the 1992 election; it requires moral leadership and a clear-sighted understanding of our national self-interest. And that must start with our president.

Mr. President, you say you’re against discrimination. At West Point you said you “will strike at discrimination wherever it exists.” If you truly want to heal the division between the races, why don’t you back up your statement with actions? Why don’t you spend some of the political capital represented by your 70 percent approval rating and try to move our glacial collective humanity one inch forward ?

You might begin by telling us how you have worked through the issue of race in your own life. I don’t mean speechwriter abstractions about equality or liberty but your own life experiences. When did you first realize that there was a difference between the lives of black people and the lives of white people in America? Where did you ever experience or see discrimination? How did you feel? What did you do?

If our concerns are unfounded, please dispel them. Please address the following sources of our doubt:

Doubt One: Your record. Back in 1964, when you were running for the Senate, you opposed the Civil Rights Act. Why?

I remember that summer. I was a student intern in Washington, D.C., between my junior and senior years in college, and I was in this Senate chamber that hot summer night when the bill passed. I remember the roll call. I remember thinking, “America is a better place because of this bill. All Americans—white and black—are better off.” I remember the presidential election that summer too, when Senator Goldwater made his opposition to the C ivil Rights Act an important part of his campaign. I came to Washington that sum­mer as a Republican. I left a Democrat.

Why did you oppose that bill? Why did you say that the 1964 Civil Rights Act “violates the constitutional rights of all people”? Do you remember the way that many parts of our country functioned before it passed? Separate rest rooms and drinking fountains for blacks and whites, blacks turned away from hotels, restaurants, movies. Did you believe that black Americans should eat at the kitchen steps of restaurants, not in the dining room? Whose constitutional rights were being violated there?

Did you oppose the Civil Rights Act just for political purposes? Were you using race to get votes? Did you ever change your mind and regret your opposition to the Civil Rights Act?

If so, when? Did you ever express your regret publicly? What regrets do you have?

Doubt Two: Economic reality. Mr. President, during the last eleven years of Republican rule the poor and the middle class in America have not fared well. The average middle- income family earned $31,000 in 1977 (in current dol­lars ) and $31,000 in 1990—no improvement. During the same time period, the richest 1 percent of American families went from earning $280,000 to $549,000. How could that have happened? How could the majority of voters have supported administrations whose primary achievement was to make the rich richer? The answer lies in the strategy and tactics of recent political campaigns.

To make sure that middle-class Ameri­cans wouldn’t clearly see their economic interests, Republicans interjected race into campaigns; they set out to play on new fears and old prejudices, to drive a wedge through the middle class, to pry off a portion large enough to win.

Most Americans recognize that in economic policy Republicans have traditionally sought to reward the rich; Democrats have not. I accept that as part of the lore and debate and rhythm of American politics. What I can’t accept, because it eats at the core of our society, is inflaming racial tension to perpetuate power and then using that power to reward the rich and ignore the poor. It is a reasonable argument about means to say that giving the wealthy more is the price we pay to “lift all boats.” It is cynical manipulation to send messages to white working people that they have more in common with the wealthy than with the black workers next to them on the line, people taking the same physical risks, earning the same pay, struggling to ‘make ends meet. I detest anyone who uses that tactic—whether it is a Democrat like George Wallace or a Republican like David Duke.

The irony is that most of the people who, because of race, voted for George Wallace or David Duke or George Bush haven’t benefited economically in the last decade. Many of them are worse off. Many have lost jobs, health insurance, pension benefits. Many more can’t buy a house or pay property taxes or hope to send their child to college. Put bluntly, Mr. President, why shouldn’t we doubt your commitment to racial justice and fair play when we see who has benefited most from the power that has been acquired through sowing the seeds of racial division?

Doubt Three: Your inconsistent words. Most Americans who have absorbed our history know the wisdom of Zora Neale Hurston’s words: “Race is an explosive on the tongues of men.” Race is most especially an explosive on the President’s tongue—or on the tongues of his men. We need to be led, not manipulated. Yet you have tried to turn the Willie Horton code of 1988 into the quota code of 1992. You have told us that’s not what you’re doing, but, as you yourself said at West Point, “You can’t put a sign on a pig and say it’s a horse.” Why do you say one thing with your statement against discrimination and do something else with your opposition to American businesses that are working with civil rights groups to pass a civil rights bill most Americans could be proud of? Are you sending mixed signals or are you giving a big wink to a segment of the electorate?

We measure our leader by what he says and by what he does. If both what he says and what he does destroy racial harmony, we must conclude that he wants to destroy racial harmony. If what he says and what he does are different, then what he does is more important. If at different times he says different things that are contradictory, then we must conclude he’s trying to pull the wool over our eyes.

Doubt Four: Your leadership. By the year 2000, only 57 percent of people entering the U.S. work force will be native-born whites. White Americans have to understand that their children’s standard of living is inextricably bound up with the future of the millions of nonwhite children who will pour into the work force in the upcoming decades. Guiding them toward achievement will make America a richer, more successful society. Allowing them to self-destruct will make America a second-rate power. Black Americans have to believe that the acquisition of skills will give them entry into society not because they have achieved a veneer of whiteness but because they are able.

Both races have to learn to speak candidly with each other. To do that we must trust each other. There is much to say to each other about inequity and poverty, the call for color blindness amounts to little more than denial and arrogance. Mr. President, you first have to create a context in which a color-blind society can evolve.

Mr. President, as you and your men dabble in race politics, consider these facts: We will never win the global economic race if we have to carry the burden of a growing unskilled pop­ulation. We will never lead the world by the example of our values if we can’t eradicate the “reservation” mentality many whites hold about our cities. We will never come to grips with the problems of our cities—the factories closing, the housing filled with rats, the hospi­tals losing doctors, the schools pockmarked with bullet holes, the middle class in flight—until a white person can talk about the epi­demic of minority illegitimacy, drug addiction, and homicides without being called a racist. We will never solve the problem of our cities until we intervene massively and directly to change the physical conditions of poverty and deprivation. But you can still win elections by playing on the insecurities chat people feel about their jobs, their homes, their children, and their future. And so our greatest doubt about you is this: Is winning elections more important to you than unifying the country so that together we can address the problems  of race and poverty chat beset us?

Mr. President,  I’m asking you to take the issue of race out of partisan politics and put it on a moral plane where healing can take place. For this to happen, you need to tell us what  you plan to do about  the issues  of race and poverty in this country. Tell us why your legitimate doubts about your convictions are wrong. Tell us how you propose to make us the example of a pluralist democracy whose economy and spirit takes everyone to a higher ground.

Tell each of us what we can do. Tell us why you think we can do it. Tell us why we must do it. Tell us, Mr. President. Lead us. Put yourself on the line. Now. Now.

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