Toure: The waning power of Lee Atwater’s racial code

Updated
By Touré
Lee Atwater, Pres. George Bush's campaign manager, is seen, Oct. 1988.
Lee Atwater, Pres. George Bush's campaign manager, is seen, Oct. 1988.
AP Photo

In the GOP’s current civil war, there’s much talk of how to improve outreach to Latinos and how immigration policy should change–but little discussion of the roots of the problem, like an alcoholic who vows to avoid bars but never confronts the reasons for his addiction. The GOP’s 2012 campaign message was relentlessly hostile toward Latinos and African-Americans and at President Obama himself, which people of color couldn’t help reading as directed at them, too.

This is part of the modern version of the Southern Strategy. GOP appeals to white racial anxiety in the wake of Democratic support for the Civil Rights movement sent many southern Democrats into the Republican Party and turned the region red to this day. This has remained embedded in the soul of the party via Nixon’s War on Drugs and Reagan’s talk of welfare queens and the George H. W. Bush’s Willie Horton ad , culminating in Mitt Romney’s comments about self-deportation and the 47% of Americans who felt entitled to food. They’re all just ways of telling working-class whites, “We’re here to protect you from the lazy or greedy or criminal people of color.” The game is transparent but was further decoded by an infamous 1981 interview with the legendary GOP campaign consultant Lee Atwater. It was reported without his name until years after his death, but its veracity was still doubted until James Carter the 4th, who unearthed the 47% tape, went to the widow of the political scientist who’d interviewed Atwater and got her to release the original sound. We can now hear the brilliant Atwater explaining to how to turn racial anxiety into votes. He says that the overtly racist appeals of the 50s will backfire by 1968, so in the 70s and 80s they had to be subtle.

Atwater would recognize the modern GOP use of loaded language, whether states rights and busing or redistribution and self-deportation. The words are dog whistles for white racial anxiety. This has never been a secret within the GOP. In 1970 Richard Nixon’s campaign manager told The New York Times that whites who are “negrophobes” are where the votes are. In 2004 George W. Bush’s campaign manager Ken Mehlman went to African-American leaders and said Republican candidates had prospered by exploiting racial tension and benefiting from polarization–and that it was wrong. As the GOP moves forward in a world where white America can no longer choose the president all by itself, where the southern strategy is no longer viable, the big question is if they will stop trying to lure voters by playing on racial anxiety. The party will be better for it and America will be better, too.

Toure: The waning power of Lee Atwater's racial code

Updated