Purging Atwaterism

In an op-ed in Tuesday’s New York Times entitled “Can the G.O.P. Ever Attract Black Voters?”, Jelani Cobb, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut, offers a possible explanation for why, despite efforts at the national, state and local levels, most African Americans refuse to consider the Republican Party.

Her thesis is that blacks are fully aware that the Republican Party was an early promoter of racial equality, and that the party of Lincoln was willing to risk a civil war in an effort to eliminate slavery. However, that history is irrelevant because of the efforts of Lee Atwater and others to use racism to grow the Republican base.

The late Lee Atwater was a political consultant in the 1980s. He served as the campaign manager for George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign, and later became chairman of the Republican National Committee. The Bush campaign was famous for a third-party attack ad featuring Willie Horton, a black convict, about which Atwater said, “By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’ running mate.” Atwater is also known for his thoughts on the GOP’s Southern Strategy, which was an effort by the Republican Party to appeal to the racial fears of southern whites.

In her op-ed, Cobb argues,

[B]lack voters recognize a point that is consistently lost on the G.O.P.: It is one thing to tell the children in one’s own community that racism is no excuse for failure, and quite another for a party invested in the electoral yields of racism to make the same claim.

In his first speech as R.N.C. chairman, Lee Atwater announced an initiative to attract black voters. But critics suspected, with good reason, that the real audience for his words were white people who felt uneasy about the party’s racist political appeals. That element of Atwaterism, the leavening of insult with invitation, has survived to the present.

The party that hopes to attract black students is the party whose congressional leadership filed a baseless lawsuit against the first African-American president. It is the party whose representatives allied with birthers who demanded that the president prove his citizenship. It is the party that has endorsed the evisceration of the Voting Rights Act and made it more difficult for the very people it is courting to actually cast a ballot for its candidates.

As the op-ed notes, the GOP is trying to engage young African-Americans, especially on college campuses. Here in Georgia, the College Republican chapter at Morehouse College was rechartered last fall. At Georgia State, the CR chapter this year will be led by a native of India who hopes to become an American citizen. Its leadership and members reflect the diversity of the campus population.

Last weekend, Leo Smith, the Georgia GOP’s Minority Engagement Director, made a presentation at a Republican breakfast about the party’s efforts to involve more African Americans. He talked about how there are 44,000 black Republicans in Georgia. He described how he was trying to create ‘safe places’ where blacks could go to learn more about the GOP and what it stood for. He handed out a new pushcard designed to appeal to blacks by putting faith first.

Yet, all his efforts could be for naught if those to whom he is trying to appeal think that the Republicans are still the party of Lee Atwater.

Some of the party’s candidates aren’t helping to shake that image. The State School Superintendent candidate talks about videotapes of The Color Purple. A Senate candidate tells his audience that, “It’s time to take our country back.” Tea Party members use the phrase “states rights” to call for less federal government involvement in what they think should be local issues. Social media isn’t helping either. My Facebook feed yesterday morning included a post questioning President Obama’s birth certificate. I regularly see ad hominem attacks on the President from well-meaning Republicans.

None of it will help persuade African Americans to consider the Republican Party.

The op-ed’s author concludes by noting that the Democratic Party during the days of F.D.R. was no friend of African Americans, yet that party was able to attract the support of blacks by proposing and enacting the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts. In the most recent polling of Georgians, 50% of African Americans surveyed indicated creating jobs was the most important issue facing the country today. African Americans were the biggest supporters of Georgia’s 2012 Charter Schools Amendment.

Working towards these reforms and getting them implemented as law or policy is a start. Governor Deal is already doing that with prison reform. But, Republicans also must pay attention to the messaging they use to promote their ideas and candidates.

Doing those things would be a start towards removing the sad stain of Atwaterism from our politics.


  1. John Konop says:

    Times have changed, racial politics is going away as the population ages and with the increase of interracial marriages. Racial politics is tough when it is your kids, relatives, neighbors…..This should be a wake up call for the GOP.

    ………Interracial marriage rate doubles in 30 years: how US attitudes have changed……..

    ……….The Pew report draws on the center’s own polling, as well as on Census records relating to marriage. In Pew’s polling during the past three years, 63 percent of Americans say it “would be fine” with them if a member of their own family were to marry someone outside their own racial or ethnic group.

    In 1986, the public was divided about this, with 28 percent saying interracial marriage was not acceptable for anyone, and an additional 37 percent saying it may be acceptable for others, but not for themselves. Only one-third of the public viewed interracial marriage as acceptable for everyone.

    Today, 35 percent of Americans say they have an immediate family member or close relative who is currently married to someone of a different race……..


    • saltycracker says:

      I would advise anyone getting into a long term relationship and crossing boundaries – cultural, religious, racial, ethnic, educational, economic, lifestyle – to fully understand what they are doing, the pros/cons of the effects on their lives. Too many today make emotional decisions and find the realities of life tough going. Everyone should go through some counseling – one couple I know that counsels for their church has been surprised at the numbers needing work on financial compatibility. Interracial marriages would be on the counseling list to assist in knowing they have their act together for a happy life.

      • George Chidi says:

        You’re suggesting that interracial couples need special counseling, because they might be making an “emotional decision” that doesn’t take into account the “realities of life.”


        The President of the United States is biracial. Perhaps I might suggest counseling for people who think interracial couples require special counseling in 2014.

        • John Konop says:


          In fairness I am Jewish and my wife is Christian when we got married. Salty is right it did open up issues we never thought about culturally……Trust my Jewish family is way more expressive and loud than a WASP family from what I have seen. It would of help us had we got counseling….I do think it opens up separate issues beyond just the issue of being married….BTW 25 years latter it is still going….. 🙂

          • Lea Thrace says:

            There is a difference between interfaith and interracial. Salty specifically mention interracial as needing specific counseling. Which is incredibly offensive.

        • saltycracker says:

          If my remarks were offensive to anyone, I apologize and did not intend it as you interpreted it.

  2. xdog says:

    More the party of Calhoun than the party of Lincoln.

    To add to the examples in Jon’s post, gopers could quit kicking off campaigns in Philadelphia, MS, or show some outrage when an unarmed black kid is shot, or stop using whisper campaigns about miscegenation in SC, or quit accusing others of racism when they complain about white privilege.

    In one respect gopers are marching confidently to the future, no longer singling out blacks for their racism but expanding their efforts to include gays, Muslims, and latinos.

  3. NancyJasper1 says:

    Seems to me that if you know someone was wrong, and they are no longer responsible for the policy or progress of anything, you drop the dead baggage and work to change the system. It seems that this explanation for continued boycotting of a system that could benefit from good leaders just to preserve racism, class warfare and misconceptions about good people trying to do better for the right reasons is just another excuse NOT to try to change anything for the better but Wallow in self pity and poor me. Quit making excuses for wrongs and change them. Dr. King did that and died trying. Christ did that and died trying. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you! Get over yourselves.

    • chartercandidate says:

      I have got to disagree with that. I know too many conservatives whose opinions of the left are influenced by the actions of Democrats during the Vietnam war. If the goal is to let the past be the past then the GOP should stop talking about Bill Clinton and the left should stop talking about GW Bush. Somehow I don’t think either side will do that in the run up to 2016.

  4. bdougsiyeh1 says:

    Great article on this sensitive subject. How would you comment on The GOP’s interest in Voter ID laws and other things like Welfare drug testing, both of which alienating minorities? Are there limits to how much the GOP wants to include minorities into the political process?

    -Bileh Dougsiyeh

    • Jon Richards says:

      I think there you are getting into policy differences as opposed to the verbal racial insensitivity I was trying to call out in the original post. That’s actually a separate argument.

      Cobb brings up a similar point when she cites the lawsuit against the President by Speaker Boehner. All three can be looked at as being offensive to minorities, and blacks in particular.

      But in all three cases, there are legitimate policy arguments that can be made in favor of the measures. Those promoting them have to explain the benefits for the public–both white and minorities–when making a case for carrying them out. It’s the same type of discussion that’s gone on over the years over affirmative action, Section V of the Voting Rights Act, etc.

  5. saltycracker says:

    Kindergarten advice: Be yourself.
    For Republicans it should be for individuals to pursue life, liberty and happiness in a free nation.
    Republicans get into trouble when they over restrict citizens that are not infringing on other individuals. The Democrats do it too in other ways, but offer to pay for it.

  6. FranInAtlanta says:

    First, I am old and one reason I became a Republican was because I supported Civil Rights. There were a few times, centered around the 1970s, when I voted for the Democrat because the Republican attempted to attract the racist element, but I haven’t seen that happen (at least in my area) in a number of years.
    Obama could be any color and I would not support him because of his policies. I am also disturbed because he attempts to promote his voters’ dislike of those who don’t support him (efficient but not good for the country) – as outlined in the quotes from the editorial.

  7. Dr. Monica Henson says:

    I have a longstanding and deep-seated loathing for Atwater’s behavior when he was a campaign strategist. He exemplified the worst of what modern politics has become. I remember reading years ago that near the end of his life, he expressed remorse for his actions.

  8. George Chidi says:

    I’ve said this before. I’ll probably say it again. I look forward to the day when Republicans can compete realistically for black voters. We’re too easily ignored by both parties today. Republicans think we’re out of reach while Democrats believe we can be safely ignored. The result is political stagnation and weak local civic participation.

    Republicans need more than a black face for their policies. They need policies that reflect the actual, expressed interests of the black community. Republicans need to respect those interests. Every time I hear the Republican line about how Democrats are “buying” black votes with welfare or food stamps or what not, I cringe. Not only is it a fundamentally racist statement, but it also says nothing about the actual interests of the black community, as though we embrace poverty.

    I’d like to hear a Republican stand up to fight racial discrimination in hiring and business loans and contracting and law enforcement and criminal sentencing as an affirmation of the party’s view of America as a meritocracy. Charter schools and urban entrepreneurship and religious conservatism could make inroads in the black community.

    But none of it works if Republicans insist that racism is dead in front of an audience that experiences it regularly. It starts there. A simple statement. Racism is real, blacks suffer disproportionately from its effects, and we’ll fight it. We’re listening to you.

    Somehow, I sense Republicans aren’t ready as a group to embrace that view yet. Expect 85 percent of black voters to remain Democrats until they do.

    • Three Jack says:


      What are the ‘actual expressed interests of the black community’? Is there a black platform where all blacks got together and agreed on a collective ‘expressed interest’?

      It’s interesting that you pigeon hole blacks into a monolithic group seeking a collective interest as if that is reality. Then you go on to disparage GOPers for saying dems are buying black votes right after writing that the GOP should attempt to essentially buy black votes by setting policies that ‘reflect the actual expressed interests of the black community’. Seems like a racist position on your part as you attempt to divide people simply by the color of their skin.

      I doubt very seriously that black families living in my NW Cobb neighborhood have the same interests as black folks living in downtown housing projects (same goes for whites, color really doesn’t matter). For you to categorize blacks in such a stereotypical fashion really exposes your own racism.

      • George Chidi says:

        I think you’re misreading me. I hope not deliberately so. I’m not suggesting that there’s some monolithic hivemind of black voters to tap. Far, far from it.

        What I am suggesting is that Republicans need to actually be in the places where black voters can be found and listen to them. All of them. They’ll hear different things from different people. “Expressed interest,” here, means going to black people and hearing them express their interests, then acting on them.

        I’ve written about this before — there are many, many political subsegments within the black community, and different ways to appeal to all of them. Older, civil rights-era African Americans will have a different perspective on policy than younger college-educated urban professionals, who will have a different perspective than the urban poor, who will have a different perspective from the rural poor, who will have a different perspective from first- and second-generation black immigrants. You’ll find broad views. Some might surprise folks.

        There is a common thread tying them together, though. None of them will hear a Republican argument that doesn’t acknowledge the stain of racism in society. Even your neighbors in Cobb will tell you that.

        Sadly, you’re giving me the same defensive reaction Republicans always seem to come back to. “No, you’re the racist!” Which, when one has been the victim of actual institutional racism, will be immediately dismissed for the tu quoque absurdity that it is.

        • Three Jack says:

          You mean like this where Rand Paul spoke to a half empty room at the Urban League convention (he was put on the speaker list for an 8:30am slot) – http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2014/07/25/rand-paul-national-urban-league-blacks/13159069/ – then was criticized by the Baltimore mayor for being there – http://www.cincinnati.com/story/opinion/contributors/2014/07/25/rand-paul-at-odds-with-black-community/13131979/.

          According to the mayor, dems have the plan: “It’s called raising the minimum wage and ensuring equal pay for women. It’s about properly funding nutrition assistance programs and defending the Affordable Care Act and its protections for those with preexisting conditions and the previously uninsured.” Since Paul (rightly) opposed all of these big federal government programs, he should not be taken seriously by the ‘black community’ according to black female Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

          Also, my reaction was based on your words, not any preconceived notion of your position on race. You are the one calling for politicians to reach out to various groups simply based on race which by definition is racism. I on the other hand believe strongly that politicians of all persuasions should put forth their proposed agenda based on America becoming more prosperous for all no matter color, gender, sexual preferences etc. Then go on the road and present it to folks from all walks of life. Rand Paul seems to be attempting this, I hope he receives a better reception at future places where blacks represent the majority of a gathering.

          • George Chidi says:

            Apparently finding black people and listening to them is racism. Duly noted.

            Paul is … a curiosity. I actually believe the man has room to grow and I think his view of economic empowerment zones and restoring voting rights for felons is exactly what Republicans should be talking about. But his comments on the Civil Rights Act, saying that it should be legally permissible for businesses to discriminate on the basis of race, creates a huge uphill battle for him to be heard. If he repudiates his previously-held position entirely, he’s going to lose the hardest-core libertarians — his base. If he doesn’t, he’s going to find winning black converts difficult.

            I tell you what. I’ll reserve judgment here. Paul is always weird enough to be worth watching.

  9. Noway says:

    George, are you saying the fact that a man who committed a murder while on a weekend pass from jail should not have been an issue and an example of Dukakis’ liberal policies?

      • Noway says:

        Good point, John, and to be even more fair, it was Gore who initially brought up the weekend furlough issue, although he didn’t mention Horton or race

    • tribeca says:

      No one is saying the furlough program was not a legitimate campaign issue. Dukakis’ support for the program (a program started by Republicans) is a great starting point for a debate on what the appropriate purpose of the prison system should be (i.e., rehabilitation, sending a social message, etc.).

      The problem with the Horton ad was that it didn’t attempt to make a legitimate point. The ad effectively said: “Hey, white guy, look at this big, scary-looking black man. Do you want him to murder you or rape all your white women? No? Well you should probably vote for Bush, because Dukakis wants to let a bunch of big, scary black people out of prison so they can rape and murder you and your family.”

      I think the point is… Lee Atwater was a racist scumbag and continuing to follow the electoral playbook he perfected is not a way to get minorities to jump on the GOP bandwagon because they’re smart enough to recognize a dog whistle when a candidate blows it.

  10. George Chidi says:

    Lee Atwater, on the use of race in political advertising.

    “[It’s a matter of] how abstract you handle the race thing. In other words, you start out … Now y’all aren’t quoting me on this … you start out in 1954 by saying, “Ni**er, ni**er, ni**er.” By 1968 you can’t say “ni**er”—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 “Ni**er, ni**er.”

    Crime was a fair point of discussion in 1992 — in retrospect, we were at a 100-year zenith for street crime that year. But Atwater saw a black criminal and figured that he could tie him to Dukakis. The fact that Willie Horton raped and murdered people, for Atwater’s purposes, was far less useful than the fact that he inflamed white fears about black crime, reducing Dukakis’ appeal to white swing voters.

    Was he attacking “liberalism?” Maybe. But he was simultaneously being a racist about it. You’re arguing that the racism of it shouldn’t matter if the attack on “liberalism” is valid. And that’s my point. It does matter, if Republicans ever hope to attract black votes. Find another way to make the point.

    • tribeca says:

      George, I’ve been fascinated by that quote since I first read it in Charles Bullock’s Southern Politics course at UGA.

    • Jon Richards says:

      With that statement, the GOP made its bed, and must now lie in it. A legitimate discussion of public policy — say testing the effectiveness of different types of welfare programs to see which work the best, or proposing ways to reduce spending on entitlements — now carry racial overtones, even when not intended.

  11. Noway says:

    So, if an incident of criminal behavior is used in a 2014 campaign, the person who did it had better not be of any ethnic minority or be prepared for the racist charge.

    • George Chidi says:

      If an incident of criminal behavior is used in a 2014 campaign — which may end as the year with the lowest crime rate in modern history — then whoever uses it had better have a really good reason to do so in general.

      But, yeah. If nonwhite votes matter, then whoever decides to use it had better be ready to explain why they just had to find the person with the dark skin for the ad. After a century of disproportionate media portrayals of black men as criminals, a political ad with a black criminal in it acts in a culturally racist context. If you ignore that, you’re perpetuating racism for political gain.

      • Noway says:

        Actually, George, my main thought when initially reading the post was of the campaign that uses the issue if crimes comitted by illegals against American citizens, for instance, murders committed by cartel gangs, emphasizing the need for a more secure border.

        • George Chidi says:

          Again: crime is lower today than at any time in modern history. Even as immigration ramped up mid-’00s, crime was steadily falling almost everywhere. There’s no valid correlation between immigration rates — documented and undocumented — and the crime rate.

          Circumstances matter. I don’t live in Nogales or El Paso. But, notably, crime has not been rising significantly on our side of the border, despite the cartel war in Mexico.

          Yes. A campaign that decided to highlight some singularly heinous crime perpetrated by an illegal immigrant against an American citizen would be both misleading and would be preying on the stereotypical racist fears of white voters.

          • Noway says:

            We’ll agree to disagree on the illegal immigrant crimes done against Americans. The illegal who committed it had no right to be here to be able to have done it. To paraphraae Frank Perdue, “Parts are parts.” “Facts are facts.” The crimes and economic burdens created by illegals are fair game. Nothing racist about it.

  12. tribeca says:

    To quote the Truckers (since the Truckers are awesome, and always on point about these issues):

    “Only simple men can see the logic in whatever
    smarter men can whittle down till you can fit it on a sticker
    Get it stuck like mud and bugs to names that set the standard,
    They’ll live it like it’s gospel and they’ll quote it like it’s scripture.”

  13. greencracker says:

    Why does the article mention prison reform apropos of nothing?

    Hey, stats show black voters like charter schools and put a high priority on job creation. Those are things us GOPers want to do, great! And we’re already on that road with Deal’s prison reform.


  14. Dave Bearse says:

    It was the federal government that compelled black’s voting rights and the end of Jim Crow, so the GOP’s support for states rights and anti-federal government vehemence, may also be a deterrent to black people.

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