Great moments in political race-baiting

Willie Horton hears a who: Beck, Limbaugh are the latest in a long and undistinguished American tradition

Published July 31, 2009 10:01PM (EDT)

Clockwise from top left, Bill Clinton, Michael Savage, Ronald Reagan, Trent Lott.
Clockwise from top left, Bill Clinton, Michael Savage, Ronald Reagan, Trent Lott.

The arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. has managed to smoke out some of the most jaw-dropping acts of shameless race-baiting in recent memory. But while Glenn Beck's and Rush Limbaugh's charge that our biracial President hates white people might seem extreme, it's in line with this country's long and proud tradition of race-baiting in politics.

Here's a look at the greatest highlights/lowlights in recent memory:

  • Bill Clinton and the South Carolina primary (2008) -- Though novelist Toni Morrison once called former President Clinton the "first black president," Clinton found himself in the middle of a racial firestorm during the 2008 Democratic presidential primary in South Carolina. With Obama ahead in the primary polls, the former president said, "Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in '84 and '88. Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here" -- which many pundits took as a way of marginalizing Obama as a "black candidate."
  • Michael Savage (2008 & 2004)  -- Savage has a long history of making race-baiting comments. He has said that "the only people who don't seem to vote based on race are whites of European origin," that Colin Powell only supported Obama for president because both men are black, and also said that Arabs "need to be forcibly converted to Christianity" in order to "turn them into human beings."
  • The RNC and Harold Ford Jr. (2006) -- In 2006, Harold Ford Jr. faced off against Republican Bob Corker in a heated battle for one of the U.S. Senate seats from Tennessee. The campaign gained national notoriety however, after the Republican National Committee ran an ad that linked Ford to the porn industry and a party at the Playboy mansion, and seemed to play into persistent fears about black men stealing white women. (The punchline on the ad: A bubble-headed blond woman saying, "Harold, call me!")  Corker distanced himself from the ad, but critics, including the NAACP, alleged the ad was racist. The NAACP said the ad had "a powerful innuendo that plays to pre-existing prejudices about African-American men and white women."

  • Trent Lott and Strom Thurmond (2002) -- Trent Lott attracted the wrong sort of attention in 2002 when he said at a birthday celebration for former Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., and Dixiecrat presidential candidate that, "I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either." Many took Lott's comments as support for Thurmond's embrace of segregationist policies and the controversy that ensued eventually cost Lott his job as the Senate's majority leader.
  • Mystery Bush supporters (2000) -- Campaign smears often get ugly, but few have played on racial sensitivities in the South as directly as the rumors in 2000, allegedly started by George W. Bush's campaign, that Republican presidential candidate John McCain had fathered a black child. In truth, McCain and his wife had adopted a girl from an orphanage in Bangladesh.
  • Jesse Helms(1990) -- Helms was often accused of being a racist, but two incidents from his career still stand as classic examples of race-baiting. During his 1990 reelection campaign for his North Carolina U.S. Senate seat, Helms ran an ad against his black opponent (below) that played on white people's fears of losing their jobs to minorities. Helms also purportedly began to sing "Dixie," a song traditionally associated with the Confederacy, while in an elevator with Carol Moseley Braun, a former senator from Illinois who is black. Helms later said that his intention was to make Braun cry.

  • Willie Horton (1988) -- One of the most infamous examples of race-baiting occurred during the 1988 presidential campaign between Republican George H.W. Bush and Democrat Michael Dukakis. Bush allies repeatedly linked Dukakis to Horton, a black convict who raped a woman and assaulted her fiancé while on furlough from prison in Massachusetts, to make Dukakis look soft on crime (see ad below).

  • Al Sharpton and Tawana Brawley (1987) -- In 1987, Rev. Al Sharpton publicly defended a 15-year-old girl named Tawana Brawley who claimed she had been raped by two to six white men who then covered her in feces and racial slurs. Sharpton played up the racial element of the case and said that Brawley shouldn't cooperate with investigators because asking the girl to speak with prosecutors was like "asking someone who watched someone killed in the gas chamber to sit down with Mr. Hitler." Sharpton accused a prosecutor named Steven Pagones of raping Brawley. Authorities soon cleared Pagones of the charge. In 1988, a grand jury concluded that Brawley's entire story was a hoax and Sharpton eventually had to pay Pagones $65,000 in a defamation suit. However, to this day, Sharpton believes he did nothing wrong: In 2002, when asked by the AP if he wished to apologize for the incident, he answered, "Apologize for what? For believing a young lady?"
  • Ronald Reagan's states' rights speech (1980) -- In American history, the term states' rights has long been associated with segregation and racial prejudice in the South. Thus, former President Reagan's 1980 speech about states' rights, (see video below) delivered during the presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., the town where civil rights activists had been murdered in 1964, has long been viewed by many political observers as a deliberate act of race-baiting. As the New York Times' Bob Herbert wrote of the speech in 2007, "[Reagan] was tapping out the code. It was understood that when politicians started chirping about 'states’ rights' to white people in places like Neshoba County [the county in Mississippi where Reagan gave the speech] they were saying that when it comes down to you and the blacks, we’re with you."


By Vincent Rossmeier

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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