Sunday, December 13, 2009

Crime Politics and Racial Signals: Evidence from Houston

In the 1960s, racial conservatives (defenders of the Jim Crow order that was crumbling) used the language of "tough on crime" as a new discourse in which they could appeal to potential allies outside the South, without having to defend the indefensible. Politicians like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan helped forge that link into an important anchor of the Republican Party's "Southern strategy." But forty plus years later it is clear that the discourse of crime fear has long ago slipped its bonds to racial conservatism to become a far more general logic with appeal to voters across the spectrum of opinion on racial issues. Yesterday's Houston Mayoral election was a case in point. The voters handed a solid victory to Annise Parker, a Democrat, recently that city's comptroller, and the first openly Gay or Lesbian politician to be elected mayor of one of the major American cities. But in the competitive race her opponent, Gene Locke, also a Democrat and formerly Houston's city attorney, made crime and whether Parker was "soft on crime" his main issue. Now the crime talk may have offered a way for Locke to send a signal to anti-Gay conservatives, or to anti-feminists, but one thing it clearly did not seek was to send a signal to Houston's remaining racial conservatives. Indeed the consensus on the eve of the election (read James McKinley's article in the NYtimes) was that the best opportunity for Locke, an African American, to overtake Parker's steady lead, was to produce a large turn out of African American voters.

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