Racism is widely--and rightly--thought to have been a major factor in Jesse Helms's victory over Harvey Gantt in the North Carolina Senate race. But the way in which racism was important is rather different than commonly understood.
Many white voters were encouraged to come to the polls by the racially tinged Helms campaign. But few people voted against Gantt just because he is an African American. Most of the voters in North Carolina who are influenced by racial considerations would probably not vote for any liberal democrat, black or white. Indeed, exit polls show that Gantt won 35% of the white vote. This is only a few percentage points less than white candidates such as Jim Hunt received in his 1984 race against Helms or Bob Jordan attained in his unsuccessful race against Governor Jim Martin in 1989.
The real damage that racism did in this election is both more subtle and, from a liberal democratic perspective, more insidious. For racism is the most powerful factor strengthening economic conservatism among working people. To understand how racism hurt Harvey Gantt in this election is to grasp the dilemma of liberalism not just in the South, but in every corner of America.
Consider this powerful campaign advertisement from the Helms camp: A white man, dressed in working clothes and wearing a wedding ring, crumples a piece of paper. An announcer tells us that a racial quota is to blame for his not getting the job he hoped for. The ad appeals to real concern of workers in America: economic uncertainty, declining real wages and joblessness. But the explanation it offers for this distress is ludicrous. It does not condemn an economic system that fails to provide many Americans with a job paying more than poverty level wages. Nor does it point to the economic policies of the Reagan and Bush years, which have taken social welfare benefits from the poor and given tax breaks to the rich. Instead, the ad asks voters to believe that racial quotas are to blame. Yet there is little evidence to suggest that affirmative action policies have eliminated employment discrimination against blacks let alone lead to massive discrimination against whites.
How then could anyone conclude that such policies lead to unemployment among whites? Why do people accept this? In part, because the plausible liberal explanations of economic distress can be abstract and difficult to grasp, especially in a political culture where conservative orthodoxy is so rarely challenged. But also because placing the onus on racial quotas has a powerful emotional appeal to those who are inclined to racism. Many white workers whose own place in our economy is so uncertain take their anxiety out on blacks who no longer "know their place."
Consider, too, the constant attack by Helms and his ilk on "tax and spend liberals." In almost all polls, a overwhelming majority of the population calls for great government spending on education and the environment. And, as chintzy as our welfare state is, policies passed by liberals do redistribute substantial sums from those in the top 40% of incomes to those in the bottom 40%. Why, then, are so many of the beneficiaries of government spending programs in North Carolina and the United States Jessecrats or the local equivalent?
In part because of the scandals and inefficiencies that will always plague large organizations, both in business and government. In part, too, because in a conservative political climate, liberals are afraid to defend the contribution government makes to the well being of us all. But also because many voters believe that a considerable portion of the federal budget is spent on programs directed toward aiding the poor. (The correct figure is no more than seven percent.) And these same voters are under the misapprehension that most of the poor are black. (The correct figure is about a third.) Many of these people resent whatever progress African Americans make when their economic situation is so precarious. Thus they are ripe for demagogic appeals which tell them that their own economic position will improve if taxes are cut and government spending is reduced.
The use of racist demagoguery to divide white from black working people is an old Southern tradition. This device was nationalized by conservatives who campaigned with code words like "law and order" or advertisements such as the infamous one featuring Willie Horton. The use of implicitly racist appeals to support economic conservatism is only another version of this same tactic. Jesse Helms is the master of it today. But it is in the arsenal of conservatives in every part of the country.
What can liberals do to counteract it? Though he lost, Harvey Gantt's superb campaign contained part of what is needed. Gantt campaigned as an unabashed liberal. He called for a common effort to protect the environment and improve education. And he made inroads into support for Helms by doing so.
This approach, however, has to be combined with a more populist appeal to working Americans. They need to be shown how liberal economic policies will aid them. And they need to be assured that the burden of taxation will fall most heavily on the rich.
Finally, liberals must be careful when taking symbolic actions which can be seen as particularly favoring blacks and other minorities. This is the hardest advice to give. Symbolic appeals to different ethnic groups has always been an important part of our politics. In the past, it could be seen in the distribution of patronage jobs--the forerunner of affirmative action programs--and in efforts to balance tickets. The sense of belonging these symbols create is as important to African Americans as they have always been to Irish American, Italian Americans, Jewish Americans and other ethnic groups. Given our past, what group is more deserving than blacks of being embraced by our politicians?
The sad truth, however, is that liberals have to balance this kind of symbolic appeal, which can help eliminate racism in the future, with a recognition of the electoral costs of racism today. That balance was not always struck in this election. However justified the Civil Rights Bill of 1990 was, to press for passage in the face of a certain presidential veto was only a symbolic action, one which did Harvey Gantt and many other liberal Democratic candidates no favor.
My argument is not a brief against Democrats nominating African American candidates. Indeed, I am inclined to precisely the opposite view. Douglas Wilder's victory in Virginia last year and Harvey Gantt's close race show that African American candidates can have a broad appeal. They did so well, however, because their campaigns were inclusive and, in a sense, racially neutral. They ran as Democrats who happen to be black rather than as black Democrats. At the same time, their presence on the ticket inspired and energized black voters.
Though we long for the day when racism is not a factor in American elections, liberals cannot afford to ignore it. Reflection on why Harvey Gantt did so well and yet still lost to Jesse Helms will point us toward the steps we need to take in 1992 and beyond.