January 31, 2003

Bush’s Snake Dance on Race

By Andrew Reding

George W. Bush is no racist. That much is clear from his two top foreign policy appointments — Colin Powell as secretary of state and longtime confidante Condoleezza Rice as national security adviser. But his challenge to the University of Michigan’s affirmative action program shows he is not above capitalizing on racial resentments for political gain.

The president’s opposition to affirmative action coincides with a proposal to increase funding to traditionally black colleges, universities, and graduate programs. In effect, though likely not by conscious design, the president is pursuing policies that portend an informal re-segregation of higher education. That is dangerously reminiscent of the discredited “separate but equal” doctrine, which prevailed until 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated schools were “inherently unequal.”

It is also ironic that these are the president’s first policy initiatives affecting African Americans since the speech in which he sharply criticized former Senate majority leader Trent Lott for having said the country would have been better off had it elected Strom Thurmond to the presidency in 1948 on a platform of segregation.

President Bush is genuinely uncomfortable with such overt racism. But he is a political realist who understands that the Republican Party owes its present commanding position in Washington to its spectacular political success with white male voters, and nowhere more so than in the South. Well over half of Bush’s 271 electoral votes came from the former Confederate states, which he carried as a solid block.

American racism has become more genteel in the 21st century. It now takes the form of resentment against policies that try to level the educational and economic playing field between the races. Senator Lott’s unforgivable sin was not so much his playing of a race card, but his use of the wrong one. He used the one with the “S” word. These days the politically correct card is the one with the “Q” word — “quotas.”

Republicans are now playing that card brilliantly, under the clever but intellectually dishonest stratagem of labeling affirmative action as a quota system and “racism in reverse,” in an effort to conceal the underlying moral issue. But they are also not above resorting to more direct appeals to racism in the Deep South. Last fall, the Republican Party in the state of Georgia tarred and feathered Democratic governor Roy Barnes for removing the Confederate stars and bars from the state flag.

That Machiavellian move clinched the governorship for the Republicans for the first time since Reconstruction, and helped win a U.S. Senate seat as well, bringing the Senate back under secure Republican control. The campaign strategist was none other than former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed, a close ally of President Bush. Bush has been silent about the use of overtly racist strategies when they result in political benefit to him and do not become the focus of national attention.

The new governor of Georgia, Sonny Perdue, has promised a referendum on whether to restore the Confederate banner to the state flag. Will the president speak out against the restoration of such a racially divisive symbol? Highly unlikely, given that he would stand to lose a significant part of his political base. Less than three years ago, Mississippians voted to keep the Confederate stars and bars on the state flag by a 2-to-1 margin, and opinion polls suggest most Georgians are of a like mind.

On the other hand, had the president not vigorously denounced Senator Lott’s implied endorsement of racial segregation, he would have risked possible resignations from the two Cabinet-level officials in charge of his foreign policy at a very delicate stage in efforts to mobilize support for another war with Iraq.

The bottom line in this delicate snake dance is that while the president cannot afford to look like a racist, neither can he afford any policy initiatives that directly benefit African Americans, other than appointing conservative blacks to public posts and judgeships. On the contrary, as dramatized by the challenge to affirmative action, he knows from opinion polling that this is a relatively safe way to tap the substantial remaining reservoir of racial resentment in America without looking like a racist.

Reding is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York, where he directs the Project for Global Democracy and Human Rights.

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