In a move that didn't surprise many, John Kerry selected Senator John Edwards to be his running mate. Kerry announced his choice after returning from a bus tour of the Midwest which he labeled the "Spirit of America" tour. And just what kind of people embody the "Spirit of America," according to Kerry? Well, white people, of course! The photos of the trip indicate as much. Analysts are predicting the addition of Edwards will increase the ticket's appeal to rural, middle class, Midwestern, and Southern voters (white voters, in other words). The recruitment of Edwards is simply the next major step in the Democratic Party's epic struggle for the hearts and minds of white America.
At first, Kerry seemed to be interested in the plight of African Americans. He even said he wanted to be America's second "black President." A former (black) Clinton official responded by saying, "That ain't gonna happen. He's not going to out-Clinton Clinton, and if he tried, he would look phony." Kerry seems to agree, and has all but abandoned his black constituency. In a speech to the National Conference of Black Mayors in April, Kerry spent his time talking about how to secure U.S. chemical plants rather than the concerns of the audience. He has virtually excluded black people from prominent positions in his campaign, angering many black activists.
This isn't the first time Kerry has had trouble with black folks. His Senate campaign in 1996 raised similar doubts about his appeal. According to a Boston Globe story from that year, "Black voters, a traditional bastion of support for Democratic candidates, appear to be keeping their options open in the race between Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry and Republican Gov. William F. Weld. In sharp contrast to the fervent loyalty Sen. Edward M. Kennedy inspires in the black community, interviews with black leaders and analysts revealed a decided coolness toward Kerry's candidacy." The reasons will be obvious in a moment, but for now let's examine how the Kerry/Edwards campaign will reach out to white America.
One of the most touted themes that John Edwards brings to the ticket is the theme of bridging the gap between the "two Americas"--one for the rich and one for the poor. Edwards played on this theme of class divisions many times during the primaries. However, the concept of there being "two Americas" originally referred to America's racial divide. The 1968 Kerner Report famously stated, "our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white--separate and unequal." The Kerner Commission prepared the report in response to a series of ghetto uprisings ("riots") that spread throughout the country during the 1960s. It laid the blame for the violence squarely on white racism. "White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II," it said.
It will probably be a cold day in hell before John Edwards speaks about America's racial divide in such candid terms. Instead, he opts for the class-based and more white-friendly "two Americas." Kerry has hummed a similar tune over the years. In 2000 he signed a manifesto saying we should "shift the emphasis of affirmative action strategies from group preferences to economic empowerment of all disadvantaged citizens." Such an approach ignores the uniquely disadvantaged position of people of color in America, who face obstacles over and above ordinary class exclusion. For example, whites with only $13,000 in annual income are still more likely to own their own home than blacks with income of $48,000. White males with a high school diploma are as likely to have a job and earn as much as black males with college degrees. Black unemployment is consistently twice as high as white unemployment. These are divides that Kerry and Edwards don't seem as willing to address.
The solutions favored by the Kerner Report involved reforms designed to improve the situation of African Americans in almost every facet of American life , including aggressively increasing affirmative action programs. While both Kerry and Edwards claim to support affirmative action, both have made statements which suggest their support is rather thin. Kerry has been especially vocal in his distaste, referring to it as "reverse discrimination" in a 1992 speech at Yale University. He sympathized with white people who "feel alienated or abandoned by their government" and end up supporting "generations of welfare families." Both Kerry and Edwards like to brag about having eviscerated what little was left of the American welfare state under the leadership of Bill Clinton.
The recommendations of the Kerner Report were never followed, due in some part to Richard Nixon being elected President in 1968. Using his infamous "Southern Strategy," he rode the white backlash against the civil rights movement to power. The aforementioned inner-city riots were very frightening to white America, who felt that their country was falling apart. Nixon played upon the white majority's racial fears and made "law and order" one of his primary campaign themes. With the impending collapse of the Jim Crow system, the "law and order" approach would be the new means by which blacks were relegated to second-class status in America. Slavery was followed by Jim Crow, and Jim Crow was followed by the mass incarceration and criminalization of people of color, particularly young, black males (otherwise known as the "prison industrial complex"). Between 1972 and 2000 the U.S. prison population rose from 330,000 to almost 2 million. The ratio between white and non-white prisoners was also reversed during this time, with non-white prisoners now making up a large majority.
Racism exists at every level in the criminal justice system: arrest, arraignment, indictment, trial, conviction, and sentencing. Despite being 14% of illegal drug users, blacks are 35% of those arrested for possession. There is a massive sentencing disparity between crack cocaine (a "black" drug) and power cocaine (a "white" drug). In a New Jersey poll, 26% of judges said prosecutors were more likely to insist on more serious charges against minority defendants than whites and 20% said sentences for minorities were more severe. Even at equal "brutality," murderers are 4 times more likely to get the death penalty if the victim is white. For black males, a criminal record makes it nearly impossible to get a job, as if it wasn't hard enough already. One recent study showed that whites with a criminal record were more likely to be called back by employers than blacks with no criminal history. Blacks with a criminal record were only called back 5% of the time.
Kerry's crime agenda is taken straight from the playbook of Richard Nixon. He has suggested "law and order" should take precedent over economic development and education with regards to urban communities. In his Yale speech he described black neighborhoods as having a "violent, drug-ridden, rat-infested reality ... ruled not simply by poverty, but by savagery." He apparently realized the racist nature of these comments and attempted to cover his ass by saying, "we cannot equate fear of crime with racism," but many studies have documented the fact that white perceptions of black males and crime in general are way out of touch with reality. During the Clinton years, Kerry and Edwards voted for a $22 billion crime bill which included provisions to build more prisons and hire 100,000 more cops despite the fact that crime rates were falling to historic lows.
Then again, there's no easier way to score political points than to make white people think you are protecting them from the young, black "savages" on the other side of town. This is probably why Kerry constantly reminds people that he put people in jail for life while working as a prosecutor (and they say Edwards is the lawyer with the questionable past). Criminalizing black youths has always been good politics and prisons have become good business in places where military bases are closing and corporations are offshoring their operations. Of course, Kerry has a plan to stop that as well: more tax breaks for the rich, white owners of America's corporations.
In this campaign, Kerry has advocated for continuing the Clinton-era crime programs. He also voted for a bill allowing U.S. attorneys to prosecute 14-year-olds as adults. Racism is rampant in the juvenile justice system as well, with black offenders six times more likely to end up in prison than white offenders. Ironically, this "tough on crime" approach may have cost the Democrats the election in 2000, and it may cost it for them again. Due to felony disenfranchisement laws, 13% of the black male population doesn't have the right to vote. This may have been enough to keep Gore from winning Florida, despite all the non-felon "felons" that were struck from the voter rolls.
John Edwards is a strong supporter of the racist death penalty. When confronted by Al Sharpton about the death penalty's racial disparities Edwards said, "States can evaluate whether their own system is working." As a resident of Texas, I seriously doubt that my state will be doing any soul-searching in the near future with regards to its death penalty policies. Kerry is regarded as taking a strong liberal position against the death penalty. He has rightly pointed out that the government has executed scores of innocent people and there are likely more to come, but he has backtracked a bit in the campaign, saying he thinks people who commit the worst crimes deserve the death penalty. His record indicates that he isn't as anti-death penalty as many think. He has voted for several bills that increase the number of federal crimes for which a death sentence can be applied.
All that being said, it would be difficult for any Democratic ticket to rival the white supremacist credentials of Bush/Cheney. In fact, they probably have the white racist vote pretty much wrapped up, so perhaps it would be better strategy if Kerry stopped pandering to the Bubbas and Heathers of the nation. The experience of the 2000 election in Florida made it utterly clear that the Democratic Party needs the black vote. It's time for Kerry/Edwards to start acting like they understand that.
Justin Felux is a writer and activist based in San Antonio, Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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