Teaching the Article
Politics of Race
Since well before the formation of the United States, race has been a part of American life. With the creation of the Constitution and the start of contested elections for the highest office in the land, race has been a part of presidential politics as well. Most obviously, issues of race and slavery permeated the antebellum years, yet race also has a much subtler and longer history in presidential campaigns.
An early manifestation came in the 1804 campaign when opponents of Thomas Jefferson used charges first published in 1802 by the political journalist James T. Callender that Jefferson had fathered a child by his slave Sally Hemings. Callender was a former supporter of Jefferson who had turned bitter when not appointed to office. He emphasized, not that Jefferson was having an affair, but that Jefferson was in a relationship with a black woman and slave.
Over the years blatant appeals to white prejudices gave way to subtler renderings that may or may not have played the “race card” with white voters. In 1988 the “Willie Horton” television advertisement put out by the conservative National Security Political Action Committee offered voters a highly charged attack on the Democratic nominee for president, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis. Defenders of the ad said it was about crime; those who objected called into question how it played on racial fears.
Often race has been invoked to damage an opponent, although as this article suggests, the use of race became increasingly complex as the numbers of black voters rose. The 1960 campaign stands as part of the growing interest in the black vote after World War II, an interest predicated on tight election contests and the recognition that black voters provided critical support—when they were allowed to vote. Harry S. Truman worked hard to secure backing by black Americans in the months leading up to the 1948 election, a contest he was expected to lose. Whether or not black voters provided the critical difference in that election, they now were seen as potentially critical votes.
In a rather remarkable recasting of the issue of race in presidential politics, during the election of 2008 Barack Obama was accused of playing the race card to his advantage—making the 2008 election the first in which a candidate was accused of using being “black” to advantage. After Obama told an audience that Republicans would try to scare voters by questioning his patriotism, his “funny name,” and his not “look[ing] like all those other presidents on those dollar bills,” John McCain’s campaign manager responded that “Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played from the bottom of the deck. It’s divisive, shameful, negative, and wrong.”
Yet while this response sought to recast the user of the “race card,” there were those who sought to use crude racial stereotypes against Obama, as seen in the “Obama Bucks” image that was distributed by the Chaffey Community Republican Women of Upland, California, in their October newsletter. Further, just weeks before the election, polling indicated that while 6 percent of white voters responded that they would be “more likely to vote for Barack Obama because he would be the first black president of the United States, 10 percent of white voters said it would make them ‘less likely’ to vote for him.”
As the election neared, questions arose again about the subtlety of coded language and race: Why was Obama so “unknowable” after nearly two years in the glare of the campaign trail while vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin was not? How would the country have responded if Obama had an unwed pregnant teenage daughter? And yet, the nation unequivocally chose Senator Obama as its president. So just how, if at all, does race continue to play a role as the nation chooses, and follows, its leaders?
- James T. Callender, “The President, Again,”
Richmond Recorder, 1803. From Early American Newspapers, an Archive of Americana Collection, published by Readex (Readex.com), a division of NewsBank Inc.
- Willie Horton Advertisement,
1988. Museum of the Moving Image, The Living Room Candidate, http://www.livingroomcandidate.org/commercials/1988.
- Obama Bucks,
Tim Kastelein, Please Go No, http://www.pleasegodno.com.
- “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: ‘A More Perfect Union,’”
- “York Voters Untangle Rhetoric on Race,”