Code Unknown

••• How to Play the Race Card

Seven words Mark Green's mayoral campaign couldn't say on television: "Can we afford to take a chance?" Aired in the last days of the ferocious primary-runoff battle for the Democratic nomination, the tag line was meant to plant seeds of doubt about Green's opponent, Fernando Ferrer, and though the people swiftly provided an answer—by taking a chance on a billionaire novice—more questions abounded. Was this advertisement (which also borrowed a phrase from a New York Times editorial calling Ferrer "borderline irresponsible") simply another negative ad? Or was it a coded appeal to white voters' misgivings about the prospect of a Latino mayor—who would have been the first in New York's history? Was the Green spot just the subtlest component of a wild streak of covert eleventh-hour leafleting and cold-calling in white enclaves of Brooklyn—efforts that sought to portray Ferrer as Al Sharpton's handmaiden? Was Green playing the proverbial race card, or was Ferrer playing it by saying so? Where is the line between race-baiting and "interest-group mobilizing"? And just who is this royal "we," anyway?

A detailed map for negotiating Gotham's latest color wars can be found in Tali Mendelberg's recent book, The Race Card: Campaign Strategy, Implicit Messages, and the Norm of Equality (Princeton). A professor of politics at the school, Mendelberg identifies a contradictory double incentive for white politicians: They must both adhere to the standard of racial equality and win the support of white voters who may hold racial stereotypes. By the same token, those voters, despite their resentments and prejudices, outwardly affirm the norm of equality; as Mendelberg writes, "Most people want to avoid not only the public perception that they are racist, but also thinking of themselves as racist." The solution? Campaign strategists use what Mendelberg calls an "implicit racial appeal," in which "the racial message appears to be so coincidental and peripheral that many of its recipients are not aware that it is there. . . . The tension between the existence of racial conflict and the inability to express it produces indirect forms of communication."

A surreptitious appeal to white racial anxiety, therefore, doesn't operate via a winking pact between sender and recipient. Rather, its power is subliminal. The message loses force, paradoxically, once the viewer recognizes a message is there at all; exposed to light, it cracks and fades out. The ne plus ultra of suggestive racial appeals remains the infamous Willie Horton ads of the 1988 presidential season, featuring a photograph of a black convict who had raped a white woman while on furlough from prison in Michael Dukakis's home state of Massachusetts. The ads lost their potency once Jesse Jackson and Lloyd Bentsen accused George Bush's strategists of racial intent—making the implicit explicit. (Coincidentally or not, Bush's ratings took a dive after the outcry.)

Minority report: Democratic Party poopers Ferrer and Green
photo: Richard B. Levine
Minority report: Democratic Party poopers Ferrer and Green

If Green did indeed engage in underground race-baiting in the runoff imbroglio, then Ferrer, and later Michael Bloomberg, were able to dissolve his message by spelling it out. "Can we afford to take a chance?" becomes a Rorschach test. Depending on where you stand, the phrase appears as either standard-issue rhetorical flourish or the most noxious noblesse oblige. And strangely enough, it might shape-shift into the latter regardless of the strategist's intent—its message can appear either "by design or by circumstance," as Mendelberg writes.

"In a primary contest against a fellow Democrat, Green had the same type of incentive faced by many a Republican candidate running against a Democrat in a general election," Mendelberg told the Voice. "The case of New York is somewhat different from the standard scenario in which implicit appeals occur, because there are more racial liberals than usual. This in turn means that candidates who use implicit racial appeals, whether knowingly or not, run a higher risk of challenge. You might say that this is what happened to Green—his message was challenged and he lost support. Bloomberg could simply sit back and watch the fallout from the internal division among Democrats."

The profound weirdness of this mayoral election is aptly illustrated by the plausible analogy Mendelberg can draw between your given GOP hopeful and Public Advocate Green—the former Nader's Raider; the candidate endorsed by David Dinkins, the only African American mayor in the city's history; the Giuliani nemesis who sued for access to brutality complaints against the NYPD. A daunting 40 percent of Ferrer supporters crossed party lines for Bloomberg—the anointed successor of a man who recently said, "I don't see minorities; everyone is a minority." Meanwhile, the racial deck-stacking and opportunism routinely practiced by Ferrer's top adviser, Bronx Democratic boss Roberto Ramirez, can hardly be underestimated (see, for starters, Wayne Barrett's "Miller Time" in last week's Voice).

But as Mendelberg points out, Ferrer's appeals to specific ethnic groups—arguably contained in his frequent invocations of "the other New York"—cannot be held to the same standard as Green's, not least because white voters' priorities tend to dominate the political discussion at the expense of minority interests. "Clearly there are incentives for someone like Ferrer to appeal to the specific concerns of Latino and black voters," Mendelberg says, "but those appeals are not 'racial' in the sense I use for appeals to white voters. They don't draw on stereotypical anti-white thoughts or on derogations of whites, but rather on notions of what Latinos or blacks need as a group and on a worldview of American society as racist."

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