Dissing Diversity

Political ads dissected and explained.
Sept. 22 2000 3:00 AM

Dissing Diversity

"Education Savings Accounts" was produced by Richard Nadler for the Republican Ideas Political Committee. Click {{here#90013}} for a transcript of the ad;click {{here#2:http://hotlinescoop.com/web/content/ads/thursday.htm}} to see it on the Hotline Scoop site.

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{{Photo#90066}}Since the 1968 presidential election, Democrats have been complaining that Republicans make use of "coded" racist messages in campaigns. In 1988, they denounced an independent expenditure ad that featured Willie Horton, a black rapist furloughed from a Massachusetts prison while Michael Dukakis was governor. In 1990, they were outraged at a Jesse Helms spot in which a pair of white hands crumpled a rejection letter, as the announcer said: "You needed that job ... but they had to give it to a minority." (The ad was the work of Alex Castellanos, later of "RATS" fame.)

Jacob  Weisberg Jacob Weisberg

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

This year, Democrats are making the same complaint about an ad sponsored by an independent expenditure group known as the Republican Ideas Political Committee. The ad is running on a small scale in Kansas City, Mo. In it, an actress playing a mother of two children complains that the Clinton administration blocked a Republican proposal to expand education savings accounts and allow her family to spend pretax dollars on private school for their son. 

Most of the 60-second spot is simply the woman speaking from a sofa in her living room, describing her family's experience with public schools. The touchy part comes in the middle, when she describes how her son, "Jason," started "hanging out with the wrong crowd." We see a group of teen-agers sitting in what looks like a school playground. They're wearing their baseball caps backward and look like they're up to no good. One of the boys unwraps a handgun concealed in a towel. The other two sitting with him recoil in alarm. "We didn't want him where drugs and violence were fashionable," Jason's mom continues. "That was a bit more diversity than he could handle."

Things have changed in the past decade. After the Washington Post wrote about the ad in a front-page story earlier this week, Republicans including George W. Bush immediately disowned it and distanced themselves from it, saying they favor diversity. I think this response shows that the GOP has finally put its so-called "Southern Strategy" to rest. Even though the ad is much less racially charged than either Willie Horton or "White Hands," Republicans didn't even try to defend it. Events surrounding the South Carolina primary notwithstanding, the GOP of George W. Bush really doesn't want to benefit from racial prejudice.

But need conservatives have scurried away in such a hurry? This ad is certainly deceptive and not a little grotesque. Viewers would have no idea that the characters depicted in it do not actually exist or that the events discussed are entirely fictional. The actress who plays the mother creates such an unappealing character that it seems possible she's really a liberal engaging in subtle sabotage. Or she might just be an awful actress. She can't even hold her high-class Southern accent for 60 seconds.

But while the add is crude and deceptive, it's hard to argue that it's racist—covertly or overtly. Everything hinges on how you interpret the term "diversity." Liberal critics like Bob Herbert, who excoriates the ad in his {{column#2:http://www.nytimes.com/2000/09/21/opinion/21HERB.html}} in the New York Times, recognize this term as a euphemism for "racial integration," especially given the context of Kansas City's only recently resolved fight over desegregation. It's not surprising that liberals read "diversity" this way, because that's how they use the term themselves. They assume that someone who slights "diversity" objects to being around blacks. By saying that her son couldn't handle that much diversity, the mom in the ad must be implying that hanging around with African-Americans wasn't good for him.

But Jason's mom doesn't say that. If you read the text literally, "diversity" refers to drugs and violence. And while it's hard to make out just what's going on in the schoolyard scene, if you look closely, there pretty clearly aren't any African-Americans in it. The kid who shows the gun is white, as is "Jason." Any of the three others in the scene may be Latino, but it's hard to tell. The overall impression is one of delinquency and disorder, with an ambiguous ethnic component.

So, creepy and misleading, yes. But I wouldn't call it racist.

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