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Willie Horton and the 1988 Race

The 1988 presidential contest between Republican Vice President George Bush and Democratic Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis was shaped by one of the enduring stereotypes in American racist architecture—the portrayal of blacks as criminals. Down in the public opinion polls by 18 percentage points, the Bush campaign was desperate to find the “game changer” in the presidential race. The racialized issue of crime became the “ace.”

The Bush campaign used William J. Horton, an African American man in prison for murder, as the centerpiece of its racist political ads on crime. While on his ninth furlough from prison in Massachusetts, Horton jumped furlough (Glick 2004:2). He was eventually arrested in Maryland and charged with assault, kidnap, and rape of two Maryland citizens. In its political ads, the Bush campaign coined the name “Willie,” which was not the way Horton was referred to. The formulation was used as a deliberate way of getting what Glick (2003:1) refers to as “racial mileage.” The Bush campaign blamed Dukakis, as governor of Massachusetts, for Horton’s crimes, specifically for having an “ultraliberal, ultralenient approach to crime” (Eberhardt & Fiske 1998: 91).

A visual commercial used many times in the Bush campaign showed a “revolving door of justice,” with prisoners of ambiguous skin color being released from prison as soon as they were admitted” (Eberhardt & Fiske 1998: 91). Again, this was designed to portray Dukakis as “too soft and permissive on crime.” Collectively, the racist Bush administration ads were designed to convey to white voters the idea that their lives and property were in danger from “black criminals” like “Willie” Horton. Only Bush could develop the policies to “maintain law and order” by ensuring that “black criminals like Willie Horton” serve their sentences. When the ballots were counted, George Bush emerged victorious with 53.4 percent of the popular vote and 426 electoral votes. Like the aforementioned elections, it was difficult to gauge the impact of the racist ads on white voting behavior.

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