Sunday, October 26, 2008

Race-Baiting, Campaign Style

Even when black candidates run campaigns in which they try to deemphasize race (See our post from three weeks ago), race often rears its ugly head in American political campaigns. While elections of yesteryear featured very explicit, virulent forms of racism, the most effective race-baiting of today is not an explicitly racist ad. Rather, candidates or surrogates will use coded language to implicitly prime voters’ subconscious racial fears.

In 2001 political scientist Tali Mendelberg published the book The Race Card, in which she outlines the practice of implicit priming. Because it is no longer socially acceptable to use explicitly racist language to rally voters (As we have seen with John McCain very openly challenging voters who proclaim that Barack Obama is perjoratively Arab), campaigns and surrogates opt for more subtle means to convey their point. They will use racial code words. More important, they use imagery to convey what words cannot express.

A classic example of implicit priming is the 1988 “Willie Horton” ad that aired in support of George H.W. Bush. The ad featured a menacing picture of a black convicted murderer, who under a Massachusetts’ furlough program during Michael Dukakis’ administration escaped prison and robbed and raped a white couple. The ad never once mentioned race, but the picture spoke a thousand words: If Michael Dukakis were to become president, black men would break out of jail and rape white women.

There are more recent examples of implicit priming as well. In 2006, the RNC ran an ad in support of Bob Corker, who was running against Harold Ford Jr.’ for the U.S. Senate seat in Tennessee. The most dominant and striking feature of the ad is a young, scantily clad blonde woman who talked about meeting Ford at a Playboy party and planning to meet up with him again. This implicit priming tried to paint Ford as a threat to white women and being sexually deviant.

The reason why implicit priming works is that it seeps into voters’ psyches unawares. Because the ads are not overtly racist, voters internalize the messages more readily than if the ads had been more forthright and said “Elect Dukakis, and white women will be raped!” or “Don’t elect Ford! He dates white women!” People would readily dismiss such statements as being racist and not factor those positions into their voting decision. However, they don’t readily dismiss a more subtly racist depiction unless someone points it out as racist.

The problem in both 1988 and 2006 was that the affected candidates or their surrogates took too long to condemn the ads as racist. As a result, voters had a chance to digest the ads as their producers had intended. Bush solidified his lead after the Horton ad aired, and Corker prevailed in a narrow victory against Ford.

This election season, Barack Obama has been the victim of explicit and subtle racial attacks. Both Democratic and Republican opponents tried to paint Barack Obama’s image as a foreigner, inexperienced, radical and a Muslim. Pictures of him dressed in foreign garb with a headpiece appeared on millions of television screens and newspaper covers. Surrogates reiterate his middle name, Hussein. By highlighting Obama’s connection of Obama to Pastor Jeremiah Wright or Minister Louis Farrakhan, they tried to frame the candidate as a racist, militant black extremist.

Obama seems to have learned the lessons of his forebears though. Instead of politely refusing to dignify such attacks, he has attacked racist rumors head on. From the March speech on race to his public defense of his wife, who has been called “Mrs. Grievance” and his “baby mama,” the Obama campaign has rightly defended itself. In doing so, it played good racial defense.

For Further Reading:

Mendelberg, Tali. 2001. The Race Card. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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