Racism, Political Communication, and American Presidential Elections

George Klay Kieh, Jr.

Since the seventeenth century, racism has been an enduring and ubiquitous contour of the American capitalist political economy. The racist scourge is deeply embedded in every facet and sector of American life—institutions, law, and culture (Click 2003: 1). Given the long history of the phenomenon, Cupich (2008: 1), using a biblical metaphor, refers to it as the United States’ “own original sin.” One of the major sectors that reflects the ubiquity of race in the American body politic is the electoral arena. John Judis provides a poignant description of the strangulating hold racism has on American elections—federal, state and municipal, legislative and presidential:

The issue of race is the longest-lasting cleavage in American politics. It is also perhaps the least understood. The open exploitation of racist sentiment by vote-hungry politicians was for centuries a durable American tradition. More recently race has assumed a subtle often unspoken form during campaign season (Judis 2001: 1).

Political advertisement serves as the instrumentarium through which the images that emanate from the architecture of racism are used as the terra firma for framing messages that seek to influence voting behavior. From the repository of elections, two cases are instructive. During the 1990 North Carolina senatorial race between white incumbent Jesse Helm, and Black Democratic challenger Harvey Gantt, Helms used a notorious racist political “White Hands” ad The ad showed the arms and hands of a white man opening and crumpling up a rejection letter (Kiley 2008: 1). The voiceover says, “You needed that job, and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair?” During the 2006 Tennessee senatorial contest between Harold Ford, a Black Democratic candidate, and Bob Corker, the white Republican candidate, there were videos juxtaposing Ford with young white women (New York Times 2008: 1).

Against this background, the purpose of this chapter is twofold. First, it examines the racism-political advertisement nexus, especially its use as an instrument for priming and conditioning white voting behavior in presidential elections. In other words, how did racist political advertisement seek to shape voting preferences of white voters in past American presidential elections? Second, it assesses the impact of the election of Barack Obama as the first African American U.S. president on the use of racist political ads in future presidential elections. Has Obama’s election made racist ads anachronistic?

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