In the world of campaign commercials, race seems to be invoked in an increasingly and worryingly explicit way.
Let’s take a look at some old commercials and compare them to contemporary ones.
Here, for instance, is the famous “Willie Horton” commercial, which doomed Governor Mike Dukakis’s campaign for president:
This commercial is often the first thing people think about when talking about “racist” political ads. The story goes that the “death penalty” constituted a code word for race-baiting, and that the use of Willie Horton – a black man – was intended to arouse racial fears of black violence.
Let’s compare this old ad with a more modern one.
Here is a 2010 ad on undocumented immigrants:
This ad was shown by Republican Senator David Vitter in his 2010 re-election campaign. Mr. Vitter won an easy re-election, campaigning in a conservative state (Louisiana) in a conservative year.
With Mr. Bush’s ad, one has to look pretty hard to see the supposed racism. Only two pictures of a black man are used, and each image is fairly race-neutral by itself.
Mr. Vitter’s ad, on the other hand, is much more explicit. The ad shows endless hordes of brown people breaking through fences, while an announcer spits out “illegals” like a curse word. It’s pretty clear that all the “illegals” are Latino, and that all the victims are white.
On the score of which ad is more racist, Mr. Vitter’s ad – the more modern one – wins hands down.
This is true for other ads as well. Here is an ad on welfare by President Richard Nixon:
Mr. Nixon was accused of running an undercover “racist” campaign, using code words like “welfare” and “law-and-order” to appeal to racial resentments.
Yet out of all four ads, this one is probably the least racist by far. One has to really stretch to “find” racism in this ad (e.g. the construction worker is in the inner-city, which is full of minorities, and so the ad could theoretically be pointing out that inner-city minorities will benefit from welfare).
Now compare this to another contemporary ad:
This ad was run by Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln against her primary opponent, Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter. Ms. Lincoln went on to barely win the primary, only to lose by a landslide in the general election.
Once again, the more modern ad is much more obvious than Mr. Nixon’s ad in the use of race. Indian foreigners speaking accented English thank Mr. Halter for outsourcing jobs, while “Indian” music plays and stereotypic images of India play in the background.
The political equivalent in 1972 would have been to show black people in the ghetto thanking Democrats for welfare in “ghetto” English.
In 1972 politicians did not dare do this. Yet in 2010 they are more than willing to show Indians and Latinos in quite racist ads.
All in all, Americans – or, more accurately, humans in general – like to think that things are always getting better. Technology is always improving, people are always living longer, and freedom and democracy are always on the rise.
This applies with race relations as well. The dominant narrative is that America’s treatment of its minorities is in a continuous progression upwards, from the low beginnings of slavery to the first black president and onwards. America’s minorities have never been treated as well as they are now, in this view.
Everything that is said above is mostly true – indeed the world is healthier, freer, and more technologically advanced than ever before. And America’s minorities do have more opportunities than ever before.
Nevertheless, in at least one aspect of race relations, America portrays minorities worse than it did two generations ago.