Civil rights panel calls on political parties to avoid 'racial tactics' Willie Horton ad cited as example

July 23, 1991|By Arch Parsons | Arch Parsons,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON VPB — WASHINGTON -- With an eye on the 1992 elections and with an unusual show of political unanimity, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission is urging President Bush and leaders of both political parties to take "racial tactics" out of political campaigns.

The commission released yesterday a letter containing the plea that it sent Friday to Mr. Bush and to the leadership of the Senate and House. The letter called upon the nation's political leaders to "prevent the use of irresponsible campaign tactics that only serve to divide the nation along racial lines."

The letter also asked Mr. Bush and the congressional leaders to convene a "summit conference" of federal, state and local public officials, the media and private citizens to "prepare guidelines for proper conduct" on racial issues during election campaigns.

The letter was released simultaneously at the commission's Washington headquarters and in Atlanta at a news conference at the national convention of the National Urban League, one of the nation's major civil rights organizations.

In Atlanta, commission Chairman Arthur A. Fletcher noted that the letter had been approved unanimously by the eight members of the independent federal agency.

Mr. Fletcher, a veteran of Republican politics and one of the major black appointees in the Bush administration, said that all eight -- a mix of Democrats and Republicans; males and females; whites, blacks and Hispanics; conservatives, moderates and liberals -- "bought into every word of our letter."

"It's not about censorship or political correctness or coercion," he added. "It's about ending destructive, divisive racial stereotyping in this nation's public life, especially in political campaigns, by having our national leaders take the moral high ground on this issue without delay."

Among the unspecified and unmentioned "racial tactics" that were targets of the letter, according to commission members, were:

* The television commercial used by Bush campaign aides against former Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign, dwelling upon the case of black inmate Willie Horton, who assaulted a Maryland couple while on prison furlough from Massachusetts.

* The television commercial used last fall by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., in his re-election campaign to suggest that white job applicants lost jobs to blacks because of race-preference hiring policies.

* Redistricting strategies that seek to undermine the potential political strength of a racial or ethnic minority.

Exemplifying the commission's effort to achieve political cohesion -- at least publicly -- was its approach to the issue of racial hiring quotas as a campaign issue.

Mary Frances Berry, a black liberal, said yesterday that she had proposed that the commission specifically urge Mr. Bush and Congress not to use the issue of racial quotas in political campaigns.

But Ms. Berry's usual dueling partner on the commission, William B. Allen, its former chairman and a black conservative, said that a specific mention of quotas would open the commission to criticism from those who had no use for the agency anyway. "There is no need to define our enemies," Mr. Allen was quoted as saying.

Quotas were not mentioned in the letter. Instead, it said, "The use of inflammatory racial rhetoric in political campaigns will only fan the flames of racial division and distrust."

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