In 1982, Republican operative Lee Atwater gave an interview to Alexander Lamis, a political scientist at Case Western Reserve University, in which he explained how the so-called “Southern Strategy” of focusing on race had become much more subtle by the 1980s.
Atwater, who apologized to Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis for the “naked cruelty” of his tactics before his early death in 1991, put it like this:
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.”
Some conservatives questioned whether the controversial words credited to Atwater were ever truly spoken by the man who helped George H.W. Bush win the presidency using tactics like the so-called “Willie Horton” ad. After the racially charged 2012 campaign — in which the Romney campaign used racial dogwhistles including insinuating that the president was trying to “take the work out of welfare” — James Carter IV, the son of the former president and the researcher who unearthed the “47 Percent” tape, convinced Lamis’ widow to release the audio above.
Atwater was in his own way echoing what President Lyndon B. Johnson once told his press secretary, Bill Moyers.
”I’ll tell you what’s at the bottom of it,” the president said. “If you can convince the lowest white man that he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll even empty his pockets for you.”
In this summer of the George Zimmerman trial, Detroit going bankrupt and Republicans demanding huge cuts to food stamps, it’s clear that these old narratives are still embedded in our politics. And in the post-birther era, race is no longer, as Atwater said in 1982, “on the back burner.”
While the right wants to focus on black culture and “black-on-black” crime, they refuse to acknowledge that “white-on-white” crime is statistically nearly as common and happens much more often, as white people, who are the vast majority of the population, commit the vast majority of violent crimes in this country.
Negative aspersions on so-called “food stamps,” like Ronald Reagan’s old “welfare queens,” often carry a racial connotation. But government assistance in this country is actually used by ethnic groups pretty much in proportion to their share of the population:
African-Americans, who make up 22 percent of the poor, receive 14 percent of government benefits, close to their 12 percent population share.
White non-Hispanics, who make up 42 percent of the poor, receive 69 percent of government benefits – again, much closer to their 64 percent population share.
But these statistics fade into the background as Trayvon Martin instantly becomes a thug when he puts up his hood in the rain.
Lee Atwater jams with George H.W. Bush.