Politicians find ways to play on racial fears

July 2, 2008 2:48:44 PM PDT
A Republican congressional candidate in a majority-white Mississippi district runs ads trying to tie his Democratic rival with Barack Obama's former pastor, seen by some as an anti-white firebrand. Democrats distribute fliers accusing the Republican of wanting a statue to honor the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. In the first year a major party is poised to choose a black nominee for president, American politicians are still appealing to voters' racial fears, with varying degrees of success.

"Racial fears and racial conflict are certainly not segregated to the South," said Michael Dawson, a University of Chicago political scientist who has studied race in politics. "Certainly, I think we see it in most parts of the country."

Republicans have a long -- and often successful -- history of trying to label local Democrats as national Democrats, even when the local candidate disagrees with the national party on some issues.

That happened a few weeks ago in special elections for open congressional seats in Mississippi and Louisiana, where the Democrats both ran as anti-abortion and pro-gun candidates -- positions that put them at odds with their national party.

After both Democrats won, Republican campaign leaders immediately said they would re-evaluate their strategy because the tactic appeared to backfire by increasing black voter turnout for the Democrats.

Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political scientist, said candidates in the U.S. have long played to people's fears and biases, but they're now using more subtle methods than politicians did in the days of the Dixiecrats, the Southern segregationists who split from the Democratic Party in the mid-1960s.

"You cannot be blatantly racist anymore," Gillespie said.


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