Race - as a question of black and white - is less prominent in 2004 than it has been in any presidential election year since 1944, when the country was at war and most black people were still disenfranchised. Is this because America's racial justice issues are all settled? Has the legacy of slavery been repaired? Have all vestiges of white supremacy been rooted out of the culture?
No way. But "race" talk has receded in importance nonetheless, and this has happened for at least three reasons: First, in 2004 there is no single, clearly defined racial issue upon which the presidential candidates are in dispute. Second, the personal backgrounds of the candidates serve to mute racial passions. And finally, demographic change has diffused, and confused, the politics of race.
No racial issues this year? But, I hear you asking, "What about affirmative action? What about No Child Left Behind'? What about election reform and voting rights?" Let's take them one at a time. Affirmative action is widely perceived as the last of the old civil rights issues, and there are differences between Republicans and Democrats on the question. But at the top of the ticket, those differences are muted.
George W. Bush makes the ritual Republican noises about "racial quotas." But when the University of Michigan case made it to the Supreme Court last year, the Bush White House felt strongly both ways, and in the end applauded the court's acceptance of the diversity rationale for affirmative action. The Michigan case demonstrated the consensus that has evolved around affirmative action and the value of diversity. The university's defense of affirmative action was supported by "friend of the court" briefs from top U.S.-based global corporations. Corporate America has learned that, in a global economy, diversity pays. They like having an African-American executive to send to Nigeria, or a Chicano to handle their Mexican accounts. It's a competitive edge, and affirmative action at the top U.S. universities keeps the talent coming. If George W. Bush has a core political instinct, it is unswerving loyalty to corporate America. So take affirmative action off the hot list.
The "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) education reforms were supposed to primarily benefit poor and minority children, and the impact of the program's combination of rigid standards and under-funding is hitting predominantly black and Latino schools especially hard. But NCLB is angering almost everyone in the education business with more than 1,000 pages of complicated regulations, unrealistic testing requirements, and lack of funding to meet the goals of the program. An analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures recently told The Washington Post that opposition to NCLB at the state level is coming equally from Republicans and Democrats. So the racial edge of this issue is likely to be blunted by the very breadth of the criticism.
That leaves voting rights as the one issue that could surface racial divisions this year. Not much has changed on this front since 2000, when the Supreme Court made its dubious call on the Florida popular vote. The main reason the Florida election was even close was because Gov. Jeb Bush's administration had carried out a computerized purge of felons from the Florida voting rolls. That sweeping purge also disenfranchised thousands of legitimate African-American voters. If your name was similar (not identical) to one of the names on a list of convicted felons from other states, the machines kicked you off the voting rolls.
American journalist Greg Palast broke the story of the Florida purge in the British newspaper The Observer. In a May 2004 follow-up report in The Nation, Palast found the damage from the Florida purge has not been undone. He predicts that a substantial undercounting of African-American votes will also mar the 2004 election. Meanwhile, the touch-screen voting machines that are supposed to replace those infamous butterfly punch cards have proven error-prone and susceptible to fraud.
If there is another too-close-to-call election in which the votes of African Americans are at issue, race-based bitterness and anger will certainly erupt. Unfortunately, by then it will, again, be too late to affect the election outcome. Instead, we will probably see a deepening of cynicism, which usually leads to disaffection from the electoral process and even lower voter turnout in future races.
ISSUES ASIDE, the personalities and backgrounds of the two presidential candidates also serve to camouflage their policy differences and push race to the margins of the campaign. Unlike many of his comrades on the Republican Right, Bush has an ear for the nuances of racial politics. Despite his Yankee lineage and education, Bush did spend many of his formative years in Texas, and he made his career in that post-integration Southern state. And that makes a difference. He has many African Americans and Latinos among his close advisers, and his religious fervor provides a link with intensely religious, and socially conservative, black and Latino voters.
Kerry's campaign, on the other hand, seems to lack a gut-level connection to America's racial struggles. He grew up in Massachusetts and went to prep school and Yale (as did Bush). But after Vietnam, Kerry made his political career in the Boston suburbs. In the Senate, he has specialized in national security and intelligence issues. One hates to raise the ghost of failed 1988 presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, but Kerry is cut from the same mold as a suburban, good government, free-trade Democrat.
The thing that makes Kerry different than a Dukakis is, of course, his Vietnam experience. And that experience, properly communicated, could strengthen his bridge to African-American voters whose brothers, cousins, fathers, and uncles were especially devastated by that war. I'm thinking both of Kerry's combat experience, which involved so many African-American brothers-in-arms, and his experience as a spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War, calling America to account for its crimes.
WHILE AFRICAN-AMERICAN voters remain central to the hopes of any Democratic presidential candidate, issues of race and ethnicity have become much more complicated in this new age of immigration. While Democrats have mostly been clinging to the old rugged cross of their civil rights era record, Republicans, for the past decade, have been exploiting new wedges in what is now a multiethnic electorate. Latinos are now the nation's largest ethnic minority, and the Republicans were the first to understand that "Hispanic" is not a monolithic concept. Puerto Ricans and many Mexican Americans are firmly committed to the Democrats. But the GOP has exploited the reflexive anti-communism of Cuban-Americans, and the deep cultural conservatism of many other Mexican Americans, to nail down the Sun Belt electoral prizes of Texas and Florida and bring splashes of color to their previously lily-white constituencies. Republicans have also found fertile ground in the entrepreneurial classes of Asian and Middle-Eastern immigrants. In 2000, for instance, Bush carried the Arab-American communities around Detroit.
Obviously the Patriot Act and the rhetoric of the anti-terrorist "crusade" has cost the Republicans that particular ethnic gain. And even before 9-11, the denial of welfare benefits to legal immigrants caused trouble for Republicans, even among the Florida Cubans. Bush's guest-worker program for Mexicans, which would temporarily legalize many undocumented residents of this country, represents an attempt to regain some of his party's lost ground among immigrant communities. And their ability to paint the Democrats as the party of abortion and gay rights will continue to serve the Republicans well in the battle for the votes of new Americans from more traditional cultures.
Meanwhile, the Republicans have continued to exploit old-fashioned black-white racial politics to intensify their hold on the South. Last year, they regained the governorship of my home state of Mississippi, in part by waving the Confederate Stars and Bars, which our Democratic governor had sought to remove from the state flag. In Mississippi, and in other Deep South states, party politics is reaching the tipping point at which it becomes intensely uncomfortable for mainstream white people to identify themselves as Democrats. On primary day last year, in their suburban Jackson precinct, my parents tell me that poll workers matter-of-factly told them they were going the wrong way as they searched for the Democratic table. There was no malice involved; it was just a natural assumption that white people were going to be Republicans.
IN THE END, forget Democrats and Republicans - the de-racializing of this election is bad news for anyone who cares about social justice in this country. Historically, the African-American struggle for equality has been the driving wheel of American social change. It has pulled other causes of the poor and disenfranchised along behind it. Women's suffrage followed abolitionism. The Great Society and the rebirth of feminism followed on the civil rights movement. You get the drift. The only progressive force with similar influence has been the union movement, which is today similarly sidelined. That leaves American politics with no effective countervailing power against the overwhelming clout of global business interests.
To its credit, the union movement has been striving mightily to retool itself for America's newest ethnic era. The AFL-CIO has dropped its longstanding opposition to undocumented immigrants and instead seeks to legalize and organize them. And the leadership of the NAACP, which is still the most important African-American political institution, has made hopeful sounds of late about becoming an organization for all America's "colored people" in the 21st century. That way lies hope for the future, but for now that hope is only a distant flicker somewhere beyond the political horizon.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.