PBS documentary focuses on David Duke

July 10, 1992|By Walter Goodman | Walter Goodman,New York Times News Service

"Backlash: Race and the American Dream" was evidently made while David Duke, the Louisiana politician best known as a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, still seemed to be a formidable figure in the 1992 presidential campaign. But even after the collapse of his candidacy, concern over his appeal lingers. So tonight's hourlong documentary on PBS at 10 p.m. is by no means out of date.

Clips from speeches and interviews show that Mr. Duke has tidied up his prose since the days when he wore the sheet and peddled Nazi pamphlets. But you don't have to be a historian to detect the nativist strains meant to incite white working-class Americans who have been hurt by the recession.

The Duke supporters interviewed here deny hating any group and direct their animus instead at government programs, especially affirmative action. Workers on an oil rig tell of experienced whites losing jobs or promotions to untried blacks. An us-vs.-them spirit predominates. "What more can we do for them?" is the refrain.

The program, made in Louisiana, comes together well, without the glue of narration. Pictures of cross-burnings and clips of Southern politicians of the 1950s in the throes of segregationist rodomontade establish Duke's roots. The only distraction here is a musical accompaniment that goes in for exclamatory clangs to punctuate racist statements.

Mr. Duke's support is said to be mainly among younger whites with incomes of $15,000 to $35,000 a year who are having trouble getting by. One of the historians on hand notes that such feelings of being kept down by what a Duke supporter calls "the unseen enemy" have in the past been directed against both the rich and the poor. This time, he adds, "The have-littles are turning on the have-nots." All present agree that the plausible-sounding Mr. Duke is focusing the free-flowing anger onto the black poor, whom he portrays as criminals and incorrigibly idle producers of illegitimate children.

His admirers seem to be longing for a return to what their man calls "traditional American western Christian values."

Slogans of "white pride" are heard.

As the historians note, the phenomenon is far from new, but these days those who would probably have been part of the white supremacy mobs 40 years ago tend to say, as one does tomorrow night, "I hope I don't sound like a racist."

And that must be accounted a sort of progress after all.

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