At the same time, though, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s aspirational declaration that the arc of history bent toward justice seemed accurate: America was becoming more open to Black voices and leadership. Appeals to racial hostility were still valuable to the GOP politically, so the “Southern strategy” emerged.
Instead of talking specifically about limiting the power of Black Americans (as was common in the Jim Crow era), Republican candidates talked about issues with obvious racial subtexts: integration efforts, states’ rights, support for social services. Richard M. Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign focused on crime — very much with the understanding of how that focus would be interpreted by White Americans.
In recent years, the facade has slipped. Former president Donald Trump’s appeals to White insecurity were far more explicit than those of prior political candidates. That was in part because he shared that insecurity and saw how it played in conservative media. But it was also timing: A surge in immigration in 2014 and the emergence of Black Lives Matter that same year heightened the concerns of heavily White older Americans. This was measurable and measured.
Still, though, the appeals were usually subtextual. Trump ran close to the line, suggesting that he was being targeted by New York’s attorney general because she, a Black woman, was racist. With a new radio ad from a Trump-allied group, though, the appeal is explicit.
Politico obtained a copy of the ad.
“When did racism against White people become OK?” it begins. The spot then rehashes news stories elevated in conservative media that cast efforts to ensure equal access for non-Whites to things like medical care with limits on access for Whites. “Progressive corporations, airlines, universities: All openly discriminate against White Americans. Racism is always wrong. The left’s anti-White bigotry must stop.”
The ad was paid for by “America First Legal,” an organization founded by former Trump aide Stephen Miller. Miller was best-known during his tenure in the administration for his hard line anti-immigration position. Since leaving government, he’s mostly dedicated his time to railing against the supposed dangers of the political left and making broad claims of how President Biden has undercut America.
Politico reports that the ads are running in Georgia — the only state in the Deep South to swing back to the left after the Civil-Rights-era backlash. The New York Times reports that America First Legal is spending $5 million on radio advertising, though it’s not clear if all of that is going toward this particular ad. Regardless, it is a non-insignificant effort to make a very specific, unsubtle appeal to the concerns of White Americans.
Again: Those concerns exist. White Republicans commonly tell pollsters that they view Whites as targets of discrimination to the same extent as other groups, including Blacks and Hispanics. Polling released last week from PRRI, in fact, found that Republicans see discrimination against Whites as a problem just as big as discrimination against Blacks — and that Republicans are less likely to think that Black people still face systemic disadvantages. Like ones that would warrant ensuring that they have equal access to medical care.
The latter claim from the ad is worth separating out. To the extent that it is meant as anything other than a wave of the hand at perceived “wokeness,” it appears to loop in White backlash against affirmative action policies. Such policies have gotten renewed attention in recent weeks, thanks to the Supreme Court’s consideration of a challenge to them. Recent polling from The Washington Post and George Mason University’s Schar School found that most Americans, including most White Americans, think universities shouldn’t consider race for admissions policies. There’s robust opposition to perceived systemic disadvantages to a racial group — at least when that group includes Whites.
The poll also found, though, that most Americans think there should be an effort to increase diversity on campus. That includes 6 in 10 Whites, though Whites were less likely than other groups to hold that view. This is a core divide in discussions of race in the United States, of course: Can we or can’t we figure out how to build a society with equal opportunity without instituting systems aimed at doing so directly?
But in the context of politics, the line between tacit and explicit support for diversity erodes. The right’s backlash against this vague thing called “woke” is largely a function of treating individual calls for respecting minority voices as somehow being a systemic call to do so. It is the idea that there is a hierarchy of power that exerts itself outside of the law and forces compliance through shaming and compliance. So some professor at San Diego State who puts “she/her” in her Twitter bio becomes part of the vanguard of organized oppression against real America.
This idea that Whites are disadvantaged is cultural and generational and amplified repeatedly in an increasingly unconstrained right-wing media. Miller’s unsubtle intertwining of hostility to immigration and race manifests in this ad that specifically asserts that White America is on the decline.
The appeals used to be coded, quiet. Present and identifiable, but shying away from specific “they’re coming for you” language. The coding is gone. The elevation of racial fear is explicit. The Southern strategy is gone; the Jim Crow appeals to Blacks usurping power are back.
That PRRI poll found that two-thirds of Republicans think American culture and way of life have changed for the worse since 1950. The America First Legal ad is nostalgic for that era in all the wrong ways.