The 1984 Lopsided Race

During its first term, the Reagan administration promoted the myth that with the legal end of the American “apartheid system” there was now “racial equality.” Hence, there was no need for the federal government to continue pursuing policies that were intended to compensate for centuries of racial discrimination against blacks. Moreover, the Reagan regime played a pivotal role in perpetuating the insidious notion that federal government policies on race were placing whites at a disadvantage. Thus, for white racists, President Reagan was deified as the “protector of the white race.” On the other hand, William Wright argues, “For Black people, Ronald Reagan became the great symbol of the subtle white racist and subtle white racism” (Wright 1998: 111).

Against this background, the 1984 presidential election that pitted President Reagan against former Vice President Walter Mondale was conditioned by an increasing wave of racial polarization. Reagan’s campaign decided to take full advantage of his well-established popularity among white racists. Accordingly, political ads portrayed affirmative action programs as manifestations of “reverse discrimination” against whites. Other ads launched a frontal assault on the manufactured issue of “racial quotas.” In both cases, the ads were designed to convey to white voters that they were “victims of racial discrimination.” Reagan was the only candidate with a record committed to ending affirmative action programs and their “discrimination against whites.” In the end, Reagan won a landslide victory: 58.8 percent of the popular vote and 523 electoral votes, to 40.6 percent and 13 for Mondale. While it can be inferred that the racist ads might have had an impact on white voting behavior, it is difficult to determine the specifics.

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