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By Vetoing Civil Rights Bill, Bush Signals Return of Intolerance : Race: The President abandoned 25 years of enlightened federal leadership on civil rights and exploited increased economic frustration.

October 28, 1990|David Dante Troutt | David Dante Troutt, a writer who grew up in Harlem, is a student at Harvard Law School

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — President George Bush's vetoing of the Civil Rights Act of 1990 in the middle of a protracted budget impasse is no coincidence. It was an economic act, seeking to restore legal rules prohibiting employment discrimination against blacks, women, immigrants and religious groups that were eviscerated by the Supreme Court in six recent cases.

But the veto reveals the GOP's political efforts to exploit race as an answer to economic frustration, offering popular new meanings to old words and pushing the country to a point of racial division unimaginable just 20 years ago. By focusing on blacks in vitriolic sound bites that obscured the bill's scope and meaning, the Bush Administration's strategy signaled the return not of enlightened leadership in a time of pain, but the return of ugly.

On one level, Bush's veto appears to follow his party's Southern Strategy--an appeal to lower-middle- and working-class white voters, supporting their biases against public policies that favor blacks. With national elections near and faced with the damaging reversal of his pledge of "no new taxes," Bush needed to secure the loyalties of the social conservatives and business groups responsible for his--and Ronald Reagan's--presidencies. A firm stand against "quotas"--despite explicit language in the bill prohibiting them--may work like an electoral charm.

But on a deeper level, the veto represents a 10-year march backward in which Republican candidates have pounded the theme that blacks are largely responsible for the country's economic downfall. Democrats were soft on race, spending lavishly on preferential policies that created the budget deficit, increased the payroll for public employees, brought crime to cities and subsidized the lazy. In historical terms, this is "backlash."

In economic terms, these are hard times. Even before the savings-and-loan crisis and the current recession, U.S. voters have seen companies move overseas, the near destruction of unionism and the displacement of manufacturing workers ill-equipped for high-tech efficiency. Amid the rising costs of education, college campuses have battled over the inclusion of ethnic curricula, the eruption of overt racism and the withdrawal of funding for black-studies programs. Amid the cutbacks in federal aid to cities, homelessness and white flight have left them dangerous and penniless. The nation's fiscal indebtedness is owed to efficient Japanese and West German competitors, whose homogeneity inspires envy. Voters everywhere talk about tossing out the incumbent bums. There is fear and anger in the land of plenty.

Hard times deserve harsh words, and Republicans have given old ones new meaning with great success at the polls. You don't even have to say "black" anymore. Voters understand. "Redistribution," once a policy term for investing equally in the disadvantaged, now represents "welfare." "Welfare" means the "underclass." "Underclass" now means undeserving black people. "Rehabilitation," once a strategy for reforming criminals, now represents the evil of protecting the inhuman--presumably black. Call someone a "liberal" and prepare to fight. Call something "right wing" and you'd best be speaking of white folks. "Affirmative action" is "reverse discrimination," pure and simple.

Translated into black, "racism" means "white supremacy." Hating blacks is becoming politically fashionable again.

Enter David Duke. The appearance on the national stage of the Louisiana senatorial candidate and former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan should not have surprised the GOP--though its repudiation of his candidacy suggested this. Duke speaks the language and understands the themes that reward white politicians in our time. He rallied voters against the "black welfare underclass" and sought "equal rights for the majority." He attacked tax increases, affirmative action and lax criminal penalties. After running a grass-roots campaign, garnering$2 million in largely private donations, Duke lost with fully 44% of the vote--60% of all whites. Because of Duke's ability to lure middle-class voters, as well as lower-income whites, "populists" similar to Duke might emerge in any of the political markets GOP strategists target in national contests.

Few of those markets include big cities, focus of much racism as official policy. Cities are associated with black residents, black leadership, black crime (mostly against other blacks) and Democratic strength. As whites have retreated to suburban enclaves, protected by zoning, politicians on the local and national level have attacked the urban drain on state and federal funds. After decades of black powerlessness at the hands of white political machines, and unable to penetrate suburbia, blacks are inheriting the spoils. Through massive cuts in social services and housing funds, first Reagan, and now Bush would have them pay dearly for the privilege.

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