You've no doubt heard the famous quote about race in politics spoken by the late Lee Atwater, the most skilled Republican strategist of his generation. Liberals have cited it for years, seeing in it an explanation, right from the horse's mouth, of how contemporary Republicans use "issues" like welfare to activate racial animus among white voters, particularly in the South. Race may be an eternal force in American politics, but its meaning and operation change as the years pass. It's time we took another look at Atwater's analysis and see how it is relevant to today, because it doesn't mean what it once did. Atwater may have been extraordinarily prescient, though not in the way most people think.
If a certain word unsettles you, you might want to read something else with your coffee, but it's important we have Atwater's quote, spoken in 1981 during an interview with a political scientist, in front of us:
"You start out in 1954 by saying, 'Nigger, nigger, nigger.' By 1968 you can't say 'nigger'—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states' rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… 'We want to cut this,' is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than 'Nigger, nigger.'"
As Rick Perlstein explained, the common interpretation of the quote—that Atwater was describing how the GOP shrewdly encourages and benefits from racism among voters while maintaining deniability for doing so—isn't quite correct. Heard in context, it seems clear that the point Atwater was trying to make was that the GOP was evolving beyond racism, even if some of its favored policies were still better for some races than others. Eventually, the deniability wouldn't just be plausible, it would be genuine.
At the time, this was more than a little ridiculous. Just a year before, Ronald Reagan had opened his campaign for president in Philadelphia, Mississippi, site of the murder of civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, then spent a good deal of his campaign talking about welfare queens. Four years before, Reagan had told Southern audiences about how frustrating it was to stand in line at the grocery store behind a "strapping young buck" buying T-bone steaks with food stamps. And seven years after the interview, Atwater would join with Roger Ailes to mastermind the "Willie Horton" strategy for George H.W. Bush, in which the mug shot of a menacing black convict became as ubiquitous in the campaign as flags at a Fourth of July parade.
But in 2014, Atwater's vision of a GOP evolving on race has finally come to pass, though not precisely in the way he intended. Back then, attacks on safety net programs like welfare and food stamps were used by Republicans as a means to activate barely contained racist feelings, with the knowledge that the more hostility white voters felt toward minorities, the better it would be for Republican candidates. Today, we see the reverse: Stirring up a bit of subconscious racism, or attacking the rights of minorities in much more practical ways, is a means to attack the safety net and undermine government.
Take, for example, the issue of voting. When the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, it was meant to dismantle the system under which white Southerners had kept blacks from exercising their right to vote, a system created to maintain white supremacy. And when the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the law last year, Republican states rushed to rewrite their laws to do things like require ID in order to vote. Republican states all over the country have cut back on early voting, making sure to eliminate it on the Sunday before election day, when many black churches conduct "souls to the polls" voting drives after service. In Arizona and Kansas, Republicans even passed laws requiring that you not just document who you are but provide proof you're a citizen in order to vote, laws that were just upheld by a federal judge.
Are the people who are going to be disenfranchised by a requirement for proof of citizenship going to be disproportionately minority? Of course they are. But that's not the reason Republicans are so eager to impose these requirements. The reason is that the disenfranchised voters will disproportionately be Democrats. If there were a way to just as easily keep large numbers of Democrats from the polls without harming minorities particularly, they'd be perfectly happy to adopt that method instead. That's why, for instance, in Texas the voter ID law passed by a Republican legislature and signed by Governor Rick Perry says that a gun license is a valid form of identification, but a student ID issued by a Texas university isn't. When a legislature engineers a "racial gerrymander" to pack as many black voters into as few districts as possible, the goal isn't white supremacy, it's Republican supremacy. The result may be bound up in race, but the intent is pure partisan power politics.
And when Paul Ryan starts talking about how "We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work," the racial implications may be perfectly clear (it's the "inner city," i.e. the place where black people live, that has a "culture" of laziness, as opposed to the places where there are a lot of poor white people). But Ryan's real goal isn't to get you mad at black people, it's to get you mad at the safety net. I have no trouble believing Ryan, in a way, when he says that race was not the heart of his intent. The man who once said that "the reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand" is surely motivated primarily by a Randian contempt for the "takers" who might need help with food or health insurance, whatever color their skin.
Today's GOP is a place where open expressions of racism are far less tolerated, no one talks about "strapping young bucks" anymore, and the next Willie Horton is presented with more subtlety—and deniability—than ever. How much of that is because the mainstream blowback from blatantly racial appeals is just too high (just look at all the flack Ryan got), and how much because of a sincere change in perspective? It's almost impossible to say. But if America's blacks and Hispanics woke up tomorrow and starting voting 60 percent Republican, the party's leaders would welcome them with open arms, then call an emergency session of every Republican-run state legislature to get rid of all those voter ID laws.
Of course, that won't happen any time soon, so Republicans will continue to pass laws limiting minorities' ability to vote, and offer roundabout appeals aimed, some more directly than others, at the darker places where people's less generous feelings about race lie. Were he alive today, Lee Atwater would probably say, "See? I told you so."