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Home arrow Political science arrow Dimensions of Racism in Advertising: From Slavery to the Twenty-First Century

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The Theoretical Framework

The chapter builds on the theory of implicit racist appeal, used by Tali Mendel- berg in her major study The Race Card (Mendelberg 2001). The theory is based on several postulates. First, although racism is repudiated in the United States, racial conflicts still exist. This is because the United States remains a racially divided society.

Second, race is injected into American political campaigns through various indirect methods. Mendelberg observes, “The implicit nature of these appeals allows them to prime racial stereotypes, fears, and resentments while appearing not to do so” (2001: 4). She posits further that “Implicit racial appeals convey the same messages as explicit racial appeals, but they replace the racial nouns and adjectives with more oblique references to race. They present an ostensibly race- free conservative position on an issue while incidentally alluding to racial stereotypes or to perceived threat from African-Americans.” Implicit racial appeals seek to prime white voters’ established racial prejudices through indirect means, with the goal of using racist proclivities to influence their voting behavior. Charlton Mcllwain (2007: 170) notes that “Implicit racial appeals rely greatly on the use of racial “code words” in conjunction with racial imagery to produce subtle appeals.” In essence, the exigencies of the post-Civil Rights era and theemergence of the legal norm of racial equality led to the implicit racial model of political advertisement. Lee Atwater, one-time leading political strategist of the Republican Party, asserts, “You start out in 1954 by saying ‘nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968, you cannot say ‘nigger’—that hurts you. Backfires. So you can say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff” (Herbert 2007: 1).

Third, candidates who employ racism in campaign communications often select wedge issues” such as welfare and crime as kernels of their political advertising. These issues are framed by racial stereotypes that associate blacks with the deleterious effects of the issues. Based on the well-established images white voters have of these issues as they relate to blacks, the expectation is that these voters will decipher the racist message.

Fourth, the power of implicitly racial appeals today is due to the coexistence of two contradictory elements in American politics: powerful egalitarian norms about race, and a party system based on the cleavage of race (Mendelberg 2001: 6). On the one hand, the language of racial equality resonates in various aspects of American politics. Candidates of all races can seek elected offices without legal hindrances. And voters choose the candidates who speak to their issues. On the other hand, the political bases of the two dominant parties—Democratic and Republican—reflect the racial divide: in elections, blacks tend to support the Democratic Party more than they do the Republican Party.

 
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