From the Horse’s Mouth

The following remarks by the late, unlamented, Lee Atwater, the Karl Rove of the 1980s, explains the evolution of the use of racism in American politics. Atwater was the architect of the infamous “Willie Horton” ad that helped George H. W. Bush brand Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis as soft on (black) crime during the 1988 U.S. presidential election:

“You start out in 1954 by saying ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can't say ‘nigger’—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced bussing, states' rights, and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a by-product of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, ‘we want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the bussing thing and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’”
—cited in Southern Politics in the 1990s, Alexander P. Lamis, 1999

Published: 1917 No.28 (December 2005)