Race and politics

October 11, 1994|By Cecil Johnson

Fort Worth -- THE NEW politics of race is not rattlesnake venomous with vituperation, as it was in decades past, but it rattles its message through to those who know the buzzwords.

Sometimes, of course, the rattling is so blatant as to leave no doubt about the nature of the poison being injected into the arteries of public opinion. The Willie Horton ad run repeatedly during the George Bush/Michael Dukakis presidential contest was a classic case of putting a black face on everyone's worst nightmare.

At other times the race ace is played more subtly, but not so subtly that those to whom it is intended to appeal don't get the message. An issue is raised that evokes a racial stereotype, although the candidate makes no reference to race.

This is what Texas gubernatorial candidate George W. Bush is doing by bleating about welfare reform. Mr. Bush and those who set the tone for his campaign know that many Texans associate welfare with African Americans and Hispanics, although the majority of welfare clients are white.

Of course, the man who would be governor will deny on a stack of Bibles that his raising the welfare issue is a tactical use of race in the campaign. He did essentially that at a recent meeting with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram editorial board when the discussion turned to his calls for welfare reform.

"It has nothing to do with race," he turned in midstream of discourse and said to an African-American journalist.

Neither that writer nor anyone else in the room had suggested that it did. With his response to a question that wasn't asked, Mr. Bush provided instant confirmation in that journalist's mind of the unspoken racial content of the candidate's television ad. Mr. Bush, of course, was just making it clear that he knew that the majority of welfare clients are white. He could not, therefore, be accused of playing racial politics with the welfare issue.

However, most of the potential voters at whom the ad is directed don't know that. In their minds, welfare recipients are overwhelmingly black women who stay on the dole forever and breed illegitimate babies to collect fatter Aid to Families with Dependent Children checks. The ad reinforces that stereotype.

Other than to exploit widely held racial conceptions about welfare, there is no real reason for Mr. Bush to raise welfare reform as a campaign issue. Last year, the Texas legislature mandated a study of Mr. Bush's primary welfare reform proposal, limiting welfare recipients to two years of benefits.

Moreover, Mr. Bush's effort to pin responsibility for a 142-percent increase in welfare spending during the past three years on Gov. Ann Richards is manifestly ludicrous. That increase does not refer to just AFDC. Mr. Bush is figuring in Medicaid and other health benefits, whose costs have more than tripled during the past three years.

Most of that is due to federal mandates signed into law by Mr. Bush's father. And more than half of that is federal money.

Although it is true that the numbers of AFDC beneficiaries and the cost of the program have increased greatly since 1991, the size of that increase is not close to what Mr. Bush's ad suggests. In 1991, approximately 688,033 families received AFDC payments. That number is projected to increase to 828,206 by the end of the 1995 fiscal year. Payments, which were $470.4 million in 1991, are expected to grow to $603.5 million in 1995 -- a 28 percent increase.

Granted, Texas -- like every state in the nation and the federal government -- needs to do its utmost to get all people who can work off the rolls of public dependency and into gainful employment. An economic upturn, however, will take care of much of that. Without one, of course, it would be futile to try to put people off welfare after two years if there are no jobs available.

Texas ranks only above Alabama and Mississippi in the size of its welfare payments. With that in mind, welfare reform shouldn't a hot issue in the governor's race unless, of course, it serves another tactical purpose.

Those who know their racial buzzwords sense what that purpose is.

Cecil Johnson is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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