How the Party of Lincoln Evolved to the Party of Trump (Part II: The Bushes & Clinton)
The History of Racism in Our Modern Political Parties & How the Party of Lincoln Evolved to the Party of Trump
This is the second of a three-part series on how racism has shaped American politics. You can find Part I here.
Following the Reagan era, the presidency of George H.W. Bush marked a period of mixed progress on racial justice.
During Bush Sr.’s 1988 presidential run against Democrat and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, a political action committee tied to Bush ran an ad that portrayed Dukakis as weak on crime. For evidence, they used the story of Willie Horton, a black man from Dukakis’s state who raped a white woman while on a weekend pass from prison while serving a life sentence for rape.
This utilization of a single violent crime committed at the hands of a black man to inspire fear among an entire voting bloc harkens back to the 1915 film Birth of a Nation, which was based on a book entitled The Clansman and portrayed freed black men as ignorant, dangerous criminals and rapists and (in a move that seems incredibly familiar today) characterized Lincoln-era Republicans as radical social justice warriors.
Incidentally, it also played a role in the revival of the KKK.
The Bush campaign attempted to distance itself from the ad, but his campaign’s chief advisor, Lee Atwater, saw its potential for motivating voters.
“By the time we’re finished,” he said, “They’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’ running mate.” The Bush campaign also widely distributed a Readers Digest article on Horton.
Despite his guilt in that regard (at least by association) Bush Sr. has been memorialized as a fundamentally decent and fair man who had to use such tactics to appeal to his voting base.
Rev. Jesse Jackson was quoted as saying about the president, “He was a fundamentally fair man. He didn’t block any door. He was never a demagogue on the question of race.” He said Bush expressed to him that the Horton ad was one of his biggest regrets.
Bush Sr. also appointed people of color to several notable positions, including choosing Colin Powell as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and appointing Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court to replace Thurgood Marshall, who was the Court’s first black justice.
It’s worth noting, though, that while Marshall had a liberal voting record, Thomas is currently regarded as the Court’s most conservative member, voting against affirmative action and protections in the Voting Rights Act.
In the final years of his presidency, Bush denounced KKK Grand Wizard David Duke just prior to his unsuccessful run for governor of Louisiana and expressed his sympathy for the outcome in the case of excessive force used by the LAPD in the beating of Rodney King, when all four officers involved were acquitted.
In the riots that followed, though, Bush sent an arguably mixed message, saying:
“As your president, I guarantee you this violence will end. This is not about civil rights or the great cause of quality that all Americans must hold. It is not a message of protest. It’s been the brutality of a mob, pure and simple. But beyond urgent need to restore order is the question of justice.”
That simultaneous commitment to justice on one side and “law and order” on the other is, broadly, a characterization of and comment on Bush Sr.’s stance on race during his presidency.
When Bill Clinton became president in 1993, the crime rate that had been rising for decades had finally begun to fall.
Even so, crime — and the racism implicit in discussions of it — became the defining legislative feature of his presidency, which began in an era when being “soft on crime” was a political death sentence.
Just as Reagan’s mandatory minimum sentencing disproportionately affected black Americans, Clinton’s 1994 crime bill had a lasting and devastating effect on people of color.
In her 2016 opinion piece in The Nation entitled, “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote”, Michelle Alexander said:
Clinton mastered the art of sending mixed cultural messages, appealing to African Americans by belting out “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in black churches, while at the same time signaling to poor and working-class whites that he was willing to be tougher on black communities than Republicans had been.
Clinton was praised for his no-nonsense, pragmatic approach to racial politics. He won the election and appointed a racially diverse cabinet that “looked like America.” He won re-election four years later, and the American economy rebounded. Democrats cheered. The Democratic Party had been saved. The Clintons won. Guess who lost?
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Bill Clinton presided over the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history. Clinton did not declare the War on Crime or the War on Drugs — those wars were declared before Reagan was elected and long before crack hit the streets — but he escalated it beyond what many conservatives had imagined possible.
Clinton, as it turned out, not only continued Reagan’s 100-to-1 sentencing disparity for crack versus powder cocaine, but also established the “three strikes” law for federal sentencing of certain felony crimes, expanded the death penalty, and used more than half of the $30 billion bill to provide a dramatic increase in funding for law enforcement (especially drug-related policing) and state prisons.
The reform desolated Black America. As Michelle Alexander put it:
When Clinton left office in 2001, the United States had the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Human Rights Watch reported that in seven states, African Americans constituted 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison, even though they were no more likely than whites to use or sell illegal drugs. Prison admissions for drug offenses reached a level in 2000 for African Americans more than 26 times the level in 1983. All of the presidents since 1980 have contributed to mass incarceration, but as Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson recently observed, “President Clinton’s tenure was the worst.”
While Clinton has always maintained that the mass incarceration of black people was an unfortunate and not intended side effect of his crime bill, he continued to defend its purported positive effects as recently as 2016 during Hillary’s run for president.
His administration’s track record on welfare reform, however, further exemplified the problematic racial outcomes of Clinton’s attempts to appease white voters and a Republican Congress over the course of his campaigns and presidency.
Although white people have benefited far more from often-racialized welfare programs throughout the history of the U.S. (think the G.I. Bill’s solidification of Jim Crow laws and the redlining of the New Deal’s FHA loans), the prevailing narrative during the 80’s and 90’s was that black Americans were illegitimately taking advantage of a welfare system that was paid for by the contributions of hardworking white people — a narrative Reagan’s unfortunately effective image of the “welfare queen” played no small part in creating and perpetuating.
In 1990, the percentage of of people below the poverty level who were white was 75%, while the percentage of black people was 12% and those of Hispanic origin, 8.6%.
That falls in line with the racial distribution of the general U.S. population at the time — 75% white, 12% black, 13% Hispanic.
Following the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, the federal welfare system that was established with FDR’s New Deal was replaced by federal block grants that gave states the ability to design and administer their own public assistance programs subject to federal guidelines.
As a result, the states with higher percentages of black people on welfare rolls created systems with tougher rules, while states with higher percentages of white people had more lenient rules even though the Civil Rights Act specifically prevents the government from creating different programs for black and white citizens.
Five years after the passage of the Welfare Reform Act, “63% of families in the least stringent programs were white and 11% were black, and in the most restrictive programs — that is, the ones with the toughest penalties and the most stringent requirements for eligibility — 63% were black and just 29% were white.”
— University of Minnesota sociologist Joe Soss
In addition, 40% of the black population in the U.S. lives in the Deep South, where state governments are typically much more conservative and tougher on welfare recipients as a whole — but studies have shown that case managers are consistently harder on people of color regardless of the overall political climate or the race of the case worker.
Modern critics, including Black Lives Matter activists, have frequently criticized Clinton’s administration — not for overt or personal racism, but for the systemic variety that civil rights advocates are trying to dismantle today.
In that regard, Clinton’s stance on race was quite similar to that of his predecessor — equality in the front, legal disparities in the back.
When George W. Bush became president following the dramatics of the 2000 election against Al Gore, he enjoyed the benefits of a strong economy following Clinton’s two terms and a 32.4% reduction in violent crime during the same period — a drop that most argue happened independently of his crime bill, but a substantial decrease nonetheless.
Bush, of course, would experience the defining moment of his presidency just short of eight months into it with the terrorist attacks of 9/11. That watershed event, of course, would carry with it its own specific brand of legally-perpetuated racism.
Directly following 9/11, anti-Islamic hate crimes went from the second least reported to the second highest among religious-bias incidents, “growing by more than 1,600 percent over the 2000 volume”— a marked uptick considering that increase occurred in the last quarter of the year.
The week after the attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon, President Bush visited the Islamic Center in Washington D.C. and declared that “the face of terror is not the true faith of Islam.”
Even so, the systemic effects of anti-Muslim sentiment were real. According to a 2015 study published in the Islamophobia Studies Journal:
The interactions between law enforcement and Muslim Americans during the “terror decade” have left lasting impressions on these relationships today. The Vera Institute of Justice’s 2006 study of the relationships between Arab Americans and Law Enforcement post 9/11, found that many Arab-Americans who are Muslim fear racial profiling, immigration enforcement, and “anti-terrorism” policies more than hate crimes in their communities.
The legislative and policing response to 9/11 was characterized by a disproportionate focus on international domestic terrorism threats as evidenced by a report issued in 2018 entitled “Wrong Priorities on Fighting Terrorism” from the NYU School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice.
In it, the authors pointed out that the U.S. Justice Department prioritized international-based domestic terrorism investigations (which targeted Muslims) over homegrown domestic terrorist threats (which do not) and included “aggressive monitoring and infiltration of Muslim, Arab, Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African American communities throughout the United States.”
The report continues:
In fact…the distinctions the government makes between international and domestic terrorism are often arbitrary, based on misunderstandings of terrorist motivations and behaviors, and have little to do with objective assessments of the physical threats the different groups pose to Americans. Yet the Justice Department devotes far more resources to cases it describes as “international” terrorism than “domestic” terrorism.
A year and a half after 9/11, Bush issued a federal ban on racial profiling that prevented “federal agents from using race or ethnicity in their routine investigations”, but still allowed national security agents “to use race and ethnicity in “narrow’’ circumstances to help “identify terrorist threats and stop potential catastrophic attacks.”
Despite his commitment on the campaign trail and during his early presidency to end racial profiling in America, its practice expanded as a result Bush’s “War on Terror” — some say necessarily, while others identify it as a civil rights violation.
The efficacy and tradeoff there is unclear. In a 2006 paper presented at the Oxford Colloquium on Security and Human Rights, Bernard E. Harcourt of the University of Chicago argued:
Racial profiling as a defensive counterterrorism measure necessarily implicates a rights trade-off: if effective, racial profiling limits the right of young Muslim men to be free from discrimination in order to promote the security and well-being of others.
As a theoretical matter, both sides are partly right. Racial profiling in the context of counterterrorism measures may increase the detection of terrorist attacks in the short term, but create the possibility of dangerous substitutions in the long run.
The evidence shows that some defensive counterterrorism measures do not work and others increase the likelihood of terrorist acts. As a practical matter, then, both sides are essentially wrong: racial profiling is neither “just” smart, nor “just” nuts. The truth is, we simply have no idea whether racial profiling would be an effective counterterrorism measure or would lead instead to more terrorist attacks.
There is absolutely no empirical evidence on its effectiveness, nor any solid theoretical reason why it would be effective overall. As a result, there is no good reason to make the rights trade-off implicated by a policy of racial profiling in the counterterrorism context.
Of course, a discussion on race and the Bush administration would not be complete without including Kanye West’s remark that “George Bush does not care about black people” during a 2005 concert that aired on NBC to benefit the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
West’s full off-script speech was as follows:
“I hate the way they portray us in the media. You see a black family, it says, “They’re looting.” You see a white family, it says, “They’re looking for food.” And, you know, it’s been five days [waiting for federal help] because most of the people are black. And even for me to complain about it, I would be a hypocrite because I’ve tried to turn away from the TV because it’s too hard to watch. I’ve even been shopping before even giving a donation, so now I’m calling my business manager right now to see what is the biggest amount I can give, and just to imagine if I was down there, and those are my people down there. So anybody out there that wants to do anything that we can help — with the way America is set up to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off, as slow as possible. I mean, the Red Cross is doing everything they can. We already realize a lot of people that could help are at war right now, fighting another way — and they’ve given them permission to go down and shoot us!…George Bush doesn’t care about black people!”
That assertion was not helped by George W. Bush’s mother, Barbara Bush, who famously said of the hurricane victims being housed in the Houston Astrodome, “Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this, this is working very well for them.”
Those two quotes provide an all-too-accurate summary of the administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina, whose victims were disproportionately black (one out of three) compared to their representation in the U.S. as a whole (one out of eight).
Perhaps the most definitive data on Katrina victims, though, lies in the fact that out of 981 deaths, 51% were black and 49% were 75 or older. As with many other mortality data points in the U.S. (maternal and COVID-related, in particular), the wide array of socioeconomic challenges faced by people of color have made themselves known in the form of starkly negative outcomes.
Those hurdles, particularly the ones of the financial variety, were not helped by the economic policies enacted during the younger Bush’s presidency.
The U.S. tax code as a whole has a lengthy history of benefiting wealthy white taxpayers to the exclusion of poorer workers and people of color.
When Congress enacted the joint return for married couple in 1948, for instance, it allowed married, one-income households to pay less in taxes.
This worked well for the kinds of families typical of post-war America— the ones that could afford a house in the suburbs, a car, and 3.2 kids on a single income — but as is often the case in society and data, “typical” means white, and for black families it was far more common for both spouses to work. Not only did those couples not benefit from the “marriage bonus”; they eventually saw their tax burden increase to alleviate part of the tax burden faced by single white men who petitioned Congress for a change in 1969.
Similarly, Bush’s expansive tax cuts, one of the hallmarks of his presidency, almost singularly benefitted wealthy white Americans.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated in 2001 that the Bush tax cuts would benefit less than half of black and Hispanic families and that black and Hispanic children in particular would be twice as likely to receive no benefit from them as their white peers.
An Economic Policy Institute memorandum on the 10th anniversary of the tax cuts in 2011 found a widening of income inequality and the worst economic growth since WWII:
- In 2010, the top 1% of earners (i.e., tax filers making over $645,000) received 38% of the breaks in the 2001–08 tax changes; 55% of the tax breaks went to the top 10% of earners (those making over $170,000).
- A multitude of tax cuts overwhelmingly benefited the wealthiest Americans. These cuts included lower tax rates on capital gains and dividends, elimination of both the personal exemption phase-out and the limitation on itemized deductions, lower marginal rates for the top two tax brackets, and lower estate tax rates and an increase in the estate tax exemption.
- In 2007 (the date for which the latest data is available) the top 1% of earners (making over $382,000) took home 19% of pre-tax national income, while the bottom 90% (making under $112,000) took home just 58%.
- In 2010, tax filers in the bottom 20% of the income distribution (tax filers making less than $20,000) received only a 1% share of the tax cuts, and 75% of these low-income families saw no reduction at all.
- The middle 20% — tax filers making between $40,000 and $70,000 a year — received only 11% of the tax cuts.
These tax brackets and statistics are important because in 2012, white Americans had, on average, 22 times the wealth of black Americans — a gap that nearly doubled during the Great Recession. During that time, black, Asian, and Hispanic households saw a 60% drop in their median net worth, while white families experienced a 30% decrease.
To put all of this into perspective, consider that in 1968, prior to the passage of the Fair Housing Act, the average wealth of a white household was 10.6 times that of a black one.
Homeownership is one of the defining factors in the differences in net worth. In 2010, 72.6% of white Americans owned a home vs. 44.5% of black Americans. By 2017, that gap would widen to 30.1%, wider than it was when race-based discrimination against homebuyers was legal.
Arthur Acolin, an assistant professor of real estate at the University of Washington in Seattle, confirmed this trend. “For both black and Hispanic households, there was an increase in homeownership between 1989 and 2005,” he said. “But when we look at the 2005 to 2013 period, the decrease was such that it more than wiped out the increase.”
Whether or not they were intentionally racially-motivated, the Bush tax cuts clearly had a disproportionately detrimental effect on black Americans. The third and final part of this series will explore how the country’s first black president impacted U.S. politics and inspired the backlash that resulted in Trump’s election in 2016.