On the heels of Sen. Hillary Clinton's equivocations about driver's licenses for the undocumented, many a pundit and political strategist has taken to calling immigration the "New Willie Horton" issue. Whether or not the comparison works, likening the anti-immigrant campaign to the 1988 campaign that turned Horton, an African American convicted of murder and rape, into the central component of a "winning" electoral strategy does make one thing painfully obvious: racism can still turn elections -- and not just racism against African Americans.
To the detriment of all, failure to counter the relentless mainstreaming of such politics means that the sanctioning and institutionalization of racism against blacks will only continue deepening and expanding to include Latinos and Asians.
Consider these words from Newsday columnist, James Pinkerton,
"I'm long out of partisan campaign politics, but Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton reminds me a lot of Dukakis. As he was two decades ago, she's from a big state, has a lot of money, is ahead in the polls -- and she's been grievously injured. This time, the issue isn't prison furloughs, but driver's licenses for illegal immigrants in her "home" state of New York. Clinton has broadly defended Gov. Eliot Spitzer's unpopular plan, even as most New Yorkers have reviled it."
Pinkerton's decision to completely avoid using the words "Willie Horton" anywhere in his Newsday commentary by replacing them with the phrase "prison furloughs" previews what will surely be the deployment of racial codes as the "New Willie Horton" election approaches.
The turn to make immigration the "New Willie Horton" campaign follows the tried and true logic of Republican race baiters like Reagan and Bush I strategist Lee Atwater. Karl Rove mentor Atwater helped the elder Bush overcome a 17-point Dukakis lead by injecting into the campaign racist ads linking Horton to the former Massachusetts Governor. Atwater's Horton campaign tapped into fears and myths resounding nationally thanks, in no small part, to the earlier machinations of the now gigantic right wing echo chamber.
Long before the 1988 Presidential campaign, major donors and large foundations had already begun the work of mainstreaming anti-black politics by funding multi-million dollar think tank "research" projects. Charles Murray, author of the infamous Bell Curve, for example, received fellowships and other support from the American Enterprise Institute, Manhattan Institute and the Bradley Foundation, which gave him more than $1 million. Eugenicist philanthropy also did its part as in the case of The Pioneer Fund, which contributed $3.5 million to work done years before by researchers cited in The Bell Curve. So, by the time Atwater's Horton ads appeared, the mainstream and even some alternative media outlets had already saturated the airwaves for years with news of the "findings" that gave cover to racist sentiments towards black people.
Similarly, many of the main anti-immigrant, anti-Latino groups behind the "New Willie Horton" are getting money from some of the same funders like the Scaife, Olin and other foundations behind the mainstreaming anti-black campaigns of the 80's. Most TV viewers and voters today have no idea that many of the main anti-immigrant voices appearing on CNN, 60 Minutes and other mainstream news shows they watch are those of individuals belonging to organizations like the Federation of Americans for Immigration Reform (FAIR) and other groups that received early funding from the eugenicist, anti-black, Pioneer Fund. And we can only imagine what the "new" political ads in the upcoming elections will look like.
So, when we hear the immigration issue being called "the New Willie Horton", some of us -- conservatives, liberals, progressives, African Americans and people of conscience generally -- should pause. We should ask ourselves why we get that weird feeling when we hear friends -- or ourselves -- expressing positions around immigration that sound uncomfortably similar to those of the reborn Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazi groups and scores of Republicans. We should also question Democratic party leaders like Rahm Emmanuel who is giving candidates like Senator Chris Dodd and "pragmatic Democrats" the green light to go anti-immigrant with his descriptions of immigration as a "third rail" of politics.
The short-term political profits gained from turning the immigration issue into a new "New Willie Horton" may or may not yield the desired dividends. We'll see. But whether or not this resurrected racialized approach to campaigns works, it must be denounced forcefully, if only because of the long-term social liability beyond the elections. Latino, Asian, African and other immigrants have demonstrated in the polling booths and in the streets that they will not stand by and simply watch the unchecked growth of the politics of fear. The "old" Willie Horton campaign taught many of us about the relationship between racial appeals directed at a predominantly white electorate and economic recessions like that of the late 80's.
That the "New Willie Horton" approach to immigration insinuates itself in the context of another, more intense global economic meltdown is less a unhappy coincidence than it is tragic proof of tried and true political calculation; that this "new" political race baiting takes hold alongside an unprecedented and highly racialized "global war on terror" makes it even more noxious -- and dangerous -- to the body politic. Failure to do anything about this politic inches all of us ever closer to the race war scenarios that are every eugenicists and racists dream.