What the heck do we have to lose?
Trying to wrap my brain around the audacity of Donald Trump is more than a notion; it’s the visceral reaction I had in regard to his alleged outreach for the African-American vote. To answer Trump’s question “what the heck do we have to lose” requires me to take a 50-year detour.
The passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act largely dismantled the system of Jim Crow laws that enforced legal segregation in the South. However, African-Americans were still fighting for federal protection of voting rights because it had been compromised out of the Civil Rights Act.
Dr. William Barber, a minister and President of the NAACP North Carolina chapter, recently gave a speech where he said, “the Voting Rights Act was drafted in the blood of those who came from Selma to Montgomery, the blood of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner and transcribed from blood to paper.”
After the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the white south became increasingly resentful, which lead to the development of the “Southern Strategy.”
Barry Goldwater’s campaign was the first to effectively test the concept. Even though Lyndon Johnson crushed him in the election, Goldwater’s outspoken opposition to civil rights legislation helped him carry the white vote in much of the South. Dixie became the new home of the Republican Party, which stoked white resentment over African-American advances. Goldwater also devastated the Republican Party as a competitor for the black vote.
Four years later, Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” proved successful. He was able to convince Southern white voters that he would be less aggressive in pursuing a civil rights agenda than the Johnson’s administration. Nixon ran against school busing, judicial activism and by saying the South should not be treated “as a whipping boy.”
Ronald Reagan was also successful in stoking racial discord in order to appeal to working-class whites by coining the term “Welfare Queen,” a coded reference to black people being lazy and shiftless and prone to criminality.
In 1988, Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes led George H.W. Bush’s election campaign. It was during this campaign that Atwater explained how the “Southern Strategy” worked; he said, “in 1954 it was acceptable to say the N-word in order to appeal to the hearts and minds to a segment of the white society, but by 1968 the N-word was no longer acceptable, so you had to use terms such as forced busing, state rights, or cutting taxes.”
It was Atwater and Ailes who created the “Willie Horton” ad. They knew that there would not be a more effective way to smear the democratic candidate, Michael Dukakis, than this ad that depicted a white woman being raped by a black man. Once down by 17 points, Bush ended up winning the election by eight points.
Today, Donald Trump is heir apparent to the “Southern Strategy,” or the beneficiary to the politics of white resentment. Trump is quite adept at using the same coded language that appeals to white resentment, beginning with his campaign slogan of “Make America great again,” which translates to “Make America white again.”
So my answer to Trump’s question, “what the heck do we have to lose”; we would lose the very heart of what our foreparents fought for. We would lose the moral compass to challenge the politics of greed and exploitation. We would lose the fight against systemic poverty, voter suppression, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, anti-Union forces, the criminalization of black and brown people and a broken immigration system.
We would lose the spirit of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel who said “Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”