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Racism enters the races

The ads may not be overt, but across the country campaigns are trying to tap into a vein of fear and bigotry.

October 29, 2006

IT'S THAT TIME of year. A nip is in the air, the football season is nearly halfway over, the holidays are almost upon us and right on schedule -- just before the Nov. 7 elections -- the airwaves are full of racially tinged politicking. Republicans and Democrats, Northerners and Southerners alike, are attempting to tap a vein of voter fear and bigotry.

Commercials clearly pandering to prejudice, such as the infamous 1988 Willie Horton spot that painted Gov. Michael S. Dukakis as soft on crime and Sen. Jesse Helms' 1990 ad blaming affirmative action for taking jobs from white men, are yesterday's style. Today's is all about suggestion.

In Massachusetts, white Republican Kerry Healey, in a contest for governor with black Democrat Patrick Deval, is running a commercial that shows a nervous white woman being stalked. It ends with: "Deval Patrick, he should be ashamed -- not governor," alluding to Deval's support for a rapist he believed was not guilty until a DNA test proved him wrong.

The spot is filmed from the perspective of the would-be attacker, and viewers are divided on what they see. Is the camera a stand-in for Deval? For black men in general? For attackers regardless of race?

Then there is the appalling flier recently put out by Democrats attacking Georgia Gov. George Ervin "Sonny" Perdue. It shows a photograph of a civil rights marcher being beaten to the ground by a white officer with the caption: "Remember this? Their last attempt to stop us from voting." Beneath is a photo of Perdue, the state's white governor, signing a voter identification bill into law, and the words: "Their current attempt to stop us from voting. Don't let the Bush/Perdue Republican Mafia take away our vote!"

Requiring an ID to vote is hardly the equivalent of racial disenfranchisement, but the ad taps into the anguish of the civil rights period and smears it all over the Republican leadership -- without, of course, actually calling them baton-wielding racists.

The most masterful of the genre is the television spot in Tennessee targeting Harold Ford Jr. Ford is a black Democrat running for the Senate against Republican Bob Corker, and the commercial ends with a bare-shouldered blond urging Ford, a bachelor, to call her.

Ford admitted that he attended a Super Bowl party sponsored by Playboy, and social conservatives in Tennessee might be offended by this regardless of anyone's race. So isn't the issue fair game? Probably. And would it be better or worse for the ad's sponsors to insinuate that Ford's flirting must be with a black Playboy hostess instead?

Context provides the moral thicket. Consider that when South Carolina finally repealed its Constitution's ban on interracial marriage in 1998 -- 31 years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down such laws -- almost half of white voters voted to keep it in place. These ads and commercials themselves may not be overtly racist, they just hope you are.

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