Members of the House Democratic Caucus and their staff received training last week on how to inject the issue of race into nearly any political argument that takes place during the 2012 election season. Maya Wiley, a former adviser for George Soros' Open Society Institute and the founder of the Center for Social Inclusion, was invited to address the caucus on the issue of "race and fiscal policy." The training materials from the session, obtained by The Washington Examiner's Joel Gehrke, outline tactics for insinuating that even plain-sounding talk of budget cuts and limited government is motivated by conscious or unconscious racism.
Conservative calls to cut government spending are "racially coded," Wiley argues. She accuses Republicans of using limited government ideas to play on listeners' racist tendencies. "As public programs are perceived as helping black people," she writes, "white support for the programs drop[s]." Her argument reflects the belief, articulated on her organization's website, that "right-wing rhetoric has dominated debates of racial justice -- undermining efforts to create a more equal society, and tearing apart the social safety net in the process" since the 1980s.
In Wiley's prepared presentation, a few Republican leaders are singled out for supposedly speaking in racist code. The examples cited provide insight into the flimsiness and dishonesty of this political strategy of "crying racist wolf."
One of the offending quotes is Rick Santorum's declaration during a mid-January presidential debate in South Carolina: "Give them more food stamps, give them more Medicaid is the [Obama] administration's approach, rather than creating jobs." In fact, when Santorum uttered this criticism of the Obama administration's welfare policies, he gave Iowans (less than 3 percent of whom are black) as his example of people beset by economic hard times and in need of jobs rather than handouts. Santorum noted specifically that the Obama administration was so aggressive about expanding welfare programs in Iowa that it had fined the state for failing to add enough people to its Medicaid rolls.
Wiley instructed Democrats to counter such race-neutral language about limited government by steering the conversation to race instead. "Explain how each racial group is affected [by a government program], but start with people who are white," she wrote for her presentation. "Then raise racial disparities." In other words, subtly suggest that your opponent is acting from dishonorable racist motives by bringing race into the conversation. It is a tactic many Democrats have used in campaigns -- what's new is that it would receive such an explicit airing on Capitol Hill.
Democratic leaders should rethink such tactics. If truly effective, this brand of demagoguery can only produce two terrible consequences. The first is that, despite the nation's rapidly growing and dangerously large $15 trillion debt, some politicians may shy away from arguing for solutions -- Republicans for fear of being labeled as racially insensitive, and Democrats for fear of undercutting their party's political strategy.
As damaging to the body politic as this would be, the second consequence of crying wolf is arguably worse. Real racism and discrimination still exist in America. How seriously will average Americans take the issue if Democrats redefine "racism" as anything that comes out of a conservative's mouth?