Racial rhetoric conveniently ignores election fact

Posted: Dec 11, 2000 12:00 AM
We are once again in the midst of a great wave of overheated racial rhetoric. Jesse Jackson, of course, is out in front. Black voters didn't double-vote, mismark ballots or run into any normal election day foul-ups. No, they were victims of "a systematic plan to disenfranchise black voters" and "a clear pattern of voter suppression." Attempting to repair his relationship with Jews, Jackson identified three targets of ballot oppression: Holocaust survivors, Haitian boat people and American descendants of slaves.

Other black leaders seemed in no doubt that something had been intentionally perpetrated upon blacks. "African-American voters were disenfranchised -- period," said Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla. Donna Brazile, Al Gore's campaign manager, was quoted as saying that "in disproportionately black areas, people faced dogs, guns, and were required to have three forms of ID." The weird reference to dogs and guns obviously linked the Bush brothers with Bull Connor, Birmingham, Selma and the hard-core racism of the past.

This theme came up during the campaign too, thanks to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP's National Voter Fund ran ads on black radio stations saying that "There are many ways intimidation was, and still is, used to keep African-Americans from voting. Mobs, guns and Jim Crow. Ropes, dogs, lies and hoses."

The NAACP was also responsible for the TV ad that re-created the horrific dragging death of James Byrd and all but accused George W. Bush of the murder. This disgraceful ad, which had some of the tone of Nazi propaganda films about Jews, played a central role in undermining Bush's appeal to black voters. In Texas, Bush got 5 percent of black vote, compared with about 25 percent in his re-election campaign for governor.

More subtle attempts to connect Republicans with slavery and hatred popped up during the campaign, for example, Gore's sly comment associating Bush's desire for a "strict constructionist" Supreme Court with the Constitution's original language counting each black slave as three-fifths of a human being. Gore sounded a similar theme when he told a black audience, "(The Republicans) don't even want to count you in the census."

In countless post-election campaign rallies, Selma and Birmingham were invoked and "We shall overcome" was sung, making the unmissable point that more than "butterfly ballots" and local voting irregularities were at stake: It was a continuation of the civil rights struggle against the same racist forces. Even Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a major hero of the civil rights struggle, felt the emotional pull of this dubious theme. He wrote an article for Newsweek linking the Florida complaints with the violence of Selma.

Journalists of the left contributed their own over-the-top rhetoric. Two Village Voice reporters wrote that if Gore loses Florida, he should chalk it up "not to badly designed ballots, but to a centuries-old national system of labor, education and politics designed to keep African-Americans from rising above the legacy of chattel slavery."

As rhetoric like this takes hold, evidence that doesn't fit the conspiracy theory tends to be dismissed. USA Today reported on Dec. 8: "Though many real problems occurred, some of the most widely reported incidents on Election Day have turned out on closer inspection to be unfounded (yet) the allegations have taken on a life of their own, repeated endlessly by politicians and the media."

The newspaper reported that one allegedly intimidating "roadblock" near Tallahassee was a routine check for faulty auto equipment that stopped a total 150 drivers and gave 18 warnings or citations, six to minorities, 12 to whites. Another "roadblock" near Tampa turned out to be a police response to a burglary near a polling place in a black neighborhood. According to USA Today, one man was stopped for questioning, then sent on his way.

The mainstream media have not come up with hard evidence to support charges of a conspiracy against black voters. Yes, there was confusion, and the poorer counties tended to have the most outmoded voting equipment and the most voter errors.

The Washington Post reported that "one reason for the high rate of invalidated votes this election was the NAACP's massive get-out-the-vote effort in Florida, which brought many inexperienced or first-time voters to the polls." If an effort was under way to suppress the black vote, it clearly failed: 900,000 blacks voted in Florida, up 65 percent over the 1996 presidential election. That unexpectedly high total clearly strained the system, put pressure on officials and voters to move along quickly, and kept phone lines clogged when voter verification calls were needed.

But where is the evidence of Jackson's "systematic plan to disenfranchise black voters"? Charges like Jackson's do their damage without ever having to be proved. They have successfully blunted the appeal of the most racially inclusive Republican presidential nominee in recent history.

If the goal is to delegitimize a Bush presidency in the eyes of blacks, that may already have been accomplished, too. A Zogby-Reuters poll said that 60 percent of blacks who voted for Gore thought a Bush victory would be a stolen one. The long-term fallout, of course, will be even more racial polarization. But then Jackson and the NAACP probably knew that all along.