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COLUMN LEFT : Don't Confuse Message With the Messenger : The big turnout for David Duke was a vote of frustration by embattled working people.

October 14, 1990|JESSE JACKSON | The Rev. Jesse Jackson is a syndicated columnist in Washington

David Duke--former Ku Klux Klan leader, anti-Semite, smut peddler, fabulist--does cosmetic surgery on his face and his past and gets 60% of the white vote in Louisiana in a U.S. Senate race. Louisiana is sending a message but you have to listen hard to get it right.

Don't confuse the message with the messenger. Racial scars still run deep in this society. Racial fears are easy to fan when times are hard and people are scared. Yet surely many voted for Duke to send a message, not to embrace the messenger.

Working people in Louisiana--like working people everywhere--are struggling to get by, worried about their jobs, about educating their children, about caring for their parents. White and black, they voted their frustration at the conditions that face them. Whites cast ballots for Duke; blacks stayed home, with turnout 15% less than whites, despite the threat that Duke posed.

Times are hard in Louisiana. Duke made affirmative action the threat--"they're going to take your job." One Duke voter told of a friend who could not get a scholarship to college, while an African-American got one despite a lower grade average. Both were qualified. The problem wasn't affirmative action but the shame of a society that is slashing access to scholarships and loans for qualified young people.

Blacks are not taking jobs from whites; multinational corporations are taking the jobs of both abroad, using cheap labor to displace American workers. Blacks are not taxing whites. Rich people and corporations have used their power to avoid paying their fair share of taxes, putting an ever greater burden on people of modest means. Blacks are not stealing opportunities from whites in this society. Who gets the inside track, a leg up? Surely not working people of whatever color, but the privileged, the Neil Bushes whose incredibly sweet deals come out of the pockets of working Americans.

Louisiana voters have shown they are fed up and fearful, as well they should be. But we must learn to turn to each other, not on each other, to leave racial battleground for economic common ground.

In this regard, we have come a long way from where we started. The vote for Duke is good cause for alarm, but his defeat should not go unnoticed. Forty years ago, a David Duke might have won the Senate seat, running as a Democrat. A multiracial coalition reelected Bennett Johnston, as such coalitions have elected Democrats from Gov. Douglas Wilder in Virginia and Sen. Wyche Fowler in Georgia. There is a new majority in the new South. The Republican Party has enjoyed success fanning racial resentment. Yet it may find that to be the party of white exclusion is a weakness in a society that is inescapably multiracial and multicultural.

To treat Duke as an exception is a deception. The national Republican Party has renounced him. But what distinguishes Duke from the mainstream Republican Party is his baggage, not his beliefs. Duke is manipulating the same racial symbols as the Republican Party did under Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Bush made Willie Horton the centerpiece of his campaign in 1988, opposes equal rights for women, threatens to veto the Civil Rights Act of 1990, posturing about quotas that do not exist. The Klan robes Duke wore in the past are an embarrassment, but his current views fit Republican fashion.

Many Democrats see the passion and miss the point. Some even suggest that it is time to move away from the cause of racial justice. The conservative wing of the Democratic Party--led by Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who needs black votes to win reelection and should know better--assaults affirmative action, claiming equal opportunity need not lead to equal results. But this course leads only to defeat and division. We must take Louisiana as a call for action, not sound the retreat. Real leaders must bring people together to find common ground.

David Duke did better among the young than the old, among males than females. A generation of Americans is growing up, facing a future short of hope. We need to take the ceilings off their dreams. We need affirmative action for education for all Americans, affirmative action for affordable housing and health care, affirmative action to rebuild our country.

This week in Washington, the President and Congress are bickering over budgets that offer no scope for the young, no security for the poor, no support for working people. The President no doubt will win his fight to keep the rich and the corporations from paying their fair share of taxes. But America will be the loser, and we will pay, in futures lost, in dreams crushed, in hatreds inflamed. Unless we plow a new course, we leave fallow fields in which the David Dukes flourish like weeds in the summer.

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