By Graham Earnshaw
WASHINGTON, Oct 25, Reuter – Democrats charge George Bush’s campaign has sought to frighten whites away from Michael Dukakis by playing on latent fears of a rapacious black man threatening a prim white woman.
Democrats point to Bush’s repeated citing of Willie Horton, a black man convicted of murder who raped a white woman while free from from jail under a now-revised leave programme backed by Dukakis.
In a bid to prove his rival his soft on crime, Bush has invoked Horton on the stump and the leave programme has been the subject of a long-running television ad paid for by the vice president’s campaign.
Although attacking the leave programme, the ad does not name Horton or display his photograph. But other campaign literature shows his picture and critics say press coverage of the issue has helped plant the image in the minds of fearful white voters.
“It is similar to the movie ‘The Birth of a Nation’ which came out in the 1920s” and portrayed blacks in derogatory terms, said Althea Simmons, Washington Director of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, one of the country’s oldest civil rights groups.
“There is a subliminal, racist message (in the ad) and it does not serve the candidate well,” she added.
The accusation of racism first surfaced last Thursday from a Dukakis aide who has since resigned. It has been repeated by a number of prominent Democrats including black leader Jesse Jackson and vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen.
And Dukakis, in a U.S. radio interview, agreed there were “elements of racism” in the Republicans’ use of Horton.
Bentsen, asked on a U.S. television programme if there was a racist appeal in the ad, replied: “When you add it up, I think there is, and that’s unfortunate.”
Jackson, after a meeting in Boston with other black leaders and Dukakis, said: “There have been a number of rather ugly race-conscious signals sent from that (Bush) campaign.”
Bush angrily rejected the charge and countered with the suggestion that Dukakis was guilty of racism for a TV ad that prominently features a Hispanic drug dealer.
Bush spokesman Mark Goodin dismissed the Democratic charges as “a coordinated campaign of desperation.”
“I think their aim is to try to energise black voters, which is an important part of the Democratic base, but they’re going about it in the wrong way and I think in a very sick and destructive way,” Goodin said.
A Washington Post editorial called the Democratic complaint “phony.” But it lamented “the conspicuous failure of both candidates to address the particular needs and interests of American blacks.”
But the Baltimore Sun, on its editorial page, said the Bush campaign “is carrying around some of the oldest, tiredest, most biggoted baggage we’ve ween in a presidential campaign in a long time.”
David Paletz, professor of political science at Duke University in North Carolina, said he believed the Democrats were out to gain black votes from the racism charge.
“What they are trying to do now by accusing the Bush people of being racist is to send a sign to black voters — remember who is on your side,” Paletz said. “He (Dukakis) needs those votes in key industrial states and maybe in marginal southern states,” he added.
In recent years blacks have been the Democrats’ most loyal constituency, backing Walter Mondale over Ronald Reagan by better than nine to one in 1984 when they provided about 20 per cent of the Democrats’ presidential votes.
But opinion polls show limited enthusiasm for Dukakis among blacks is badly hurting his White House prospects. Only about 70 per cent of blacks say they are certain to back Dukakis this year and an unusually large number may sit out the election.
Dukakis is trailing Bush by about 10 points among all voters and political experts say he needs stronger black support in order to close the gap.
Paletz said it was too simplistic to say the Horton ad was racist, but he said that it might appeal to anti-black sentiments among some voters.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say it appeals to racism. By all accounts, racism is less of a factor now in American politics than it has ever been,” he said.
“But there’s a lot of crime in the U.S. and much of it is attributed to, or indeed committed by, blacks. Crime and fear of crime is a perennial issue in American politics.” REUTER GAE MG NNNN