Commentary – Memo From The Grave of Lee Atwater: “When In Doubt Always Employ Race Baiting, It’s a Winning Strategy”
Who in the hell is Lee Atwater?
(and why am I wasting time writing about him, instead of an album review?)
Well Lee Atwater is an “old family friend” of the Soul-Patrol.com website. In fact the very first award that we ever got was because of Lee Atwater.
Back in 1997 I wrote an essay entitled:
“Lee Atwater and the Destruction of Black Music” (scroll down)
In 1998 Yahoo Internet Magazine (at that time a print publication) named Soul-Patrol.com as the Best Soul/R&B; website on the entire internet. As a part of doing so, they also wrote a detailed review of the website where they cited Soul-Patrol.com as being a place that explored music on a much deeper level than just track listings, discographies, artist biographies, etc. And they said that essays like “Lee Atwater and the Destruction of Black Music,” were a big part of the reason why it was a required destination for music fans who wanted to know more than simply chart information or record industry propaganda. And of course, today we still continue along that same path (much to the displeasure of some of you)
Lee Atwater was a young political consultant from South Carolina who was the protégé of Mr. Harry S. Dent. In 1968 Harry Dent devised something called the “southern strategy” for the Presidential campaign of Richard Nixon. Of course the ‘southern strategy” was indeed a winning strategy for Nixon. While Harry Dent created the “southern strategy,” it was Lee Atwater who perfected it.
Lee Atwater was a person who was extremely knowledgeable about Black culture, in fact he was not only a big fan of Black culture, he was even a Blues musician. Some of you may even remember Lee Atwater playing the guitar alongside BB King, back in 1980’s. He was able to use his knowledge of Black culture to refine the “southern strategy” into the science that propelled the winning elections of Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush in 1980, 1984 & 1988. Using his knowledge of Black culture, Lee Atwater developed the brilliant “Welfare Queen,” “Willie Horton,” and other ad’s that scared the hell out of white voters. Lee Atwater passed away in the early 1990’s. On his deathbed he is said to have asked Black Americans for their forgiveness in using them as a “pawn” to attract white voters to the candidates that had hired him.
As you might well imagine, that essay I wrote about Lee Atwater over a decade ago has generated a whole lot of feedback over the years. I have gotten email from the KKK to Lee Atwater’s children about that essay. Of course if you read the essay (it’s still in it’s raw form, written in a burst of energy at 3am with lots of typos & mis-spellings,) you will see that I am in firm agreement with Nelson George and his book; “The Death of R&B.;” In the book, Nelson George says, that “R&B; ended around 1980.” I go one step further and suggest that the fact that R&B; ended was no accident and for that we have Lee Atwater to thank.
The whole point of using “race baiting” tactics in politics, isn’t really to hurt Black folks. The point is to scare the hell out of white folks, into voting differently. You scare them by suggesting that anytime Black folks make any sort of advancement, the only way that can occur, is at the expense of white folks. Race baiting is a political strategy that is used all of the time, across the United States in all sorts of elections. It’s usually most effective whenever Black folks are advancing and start to get a little bit too comfortable with their success. It’s even more effective during challenging economic periods.
–Today in 2010 Black America is still celebrating the historic election of Barrack Obama as President.
–What type of an economic climate are we in today?
–What does history tell us is a winning type of electoral strategy this climate ripe for?
I am certainly no fan of Obama’s policies to this point. He had a chance for greatness, but he seems to squandered it at this point. He has caved in so much to the right wing maddness on key policy matters, that could have actually resulted in a positive transformation (health care, energy, economy, etc.) he might as well switch parties IMHO. However I would hate to see him get “race baited” out of office, and unfortunately that is what he is allowing to happen. Every time these wingnuts and teabaggers attack someone who is Black and associated in some way with Obama, the reaction of Obama is to “throw that Black person under the bus.” Does that sound like a good way to be a successful President? IMHO if he doesn’t want to start acting like he is the President, he might as well just resign and let Joe Biden have the job, Hell at least we know that Biden’s got a set of balls 🙂
Obama either needs to grow a set of balls, or perhaps borrow Biden’s. He needs to stop caving in to the right wing, drop the whole Jackie Robinson routine (“I’m not allowed to fight back”) and start acting like a leader. This country has far too many major problems that need to be fixed. That is what he was elected to do. Even if his second term is not meant to be, he needs to go down fighting. Instead anytime someone even mentions the word “race,” Obama freezes!
Despite his passing, the legacy of Lee Atwater continues to this day. We can see his continuing legacy in the work the men that Lee Atwater trained, such as Karl Rove, Roger Ailes and others, who have in turn trained others. As we can see from the headlines over the past year or so, the very same strategy that was perfected by Lee Atwater continues to be a winning strategy here in 2010. For example, this morning as they drink their coffee millions of white Americans are being forced to watch a very articulate Black woman named Shirley Sherrod discussing how she was thrown under the bus, by President Obama, then proceed to discuss the whole race issue in modern day America, while the mass media says that we need to have a “national discussion about race.” Meanwhile the 17 million unemployed people are watching and saying, “we don’t need a national discussion about race; “we need to have a President who will be focused on getting me a damn job, how soon can we get rid of this idiot and get a white man in there who will get me a damn job?” It’s ‘race baiting’ at it’s most subtle & effective.
In the end, Lee Atwater said that he was sorry for what he had done. For that I will always admire him. He realized that sometimes winning isn’t worth the price that you have to pay. I think that if Lee Atwater is paying attention to the current US landscape, that he is even more ashamed of himself, then he was on his deathbed.
However I think that Black folks should be ashamed of themselves for allowing themselves to be used by Atwater as pawns in his game.
It will be interesting to see if Black Americans in 2010 will allow history to repeat itself?
Lee Atwater and the Destruction of Black Music
Several times in the past year when I have been asked by younger people & by some older people what happened to the FUNK movement ?
What caused it to end ?
My response is a usually a multi dimensional one involving drugs, the economies of employing/traveling with a big band, the coming of age of the technology that produced rap, and a conspiracy involving the government. The response is usually something along the lines of….”ok that makes sense except for the part about the government”
Some of you younger fans may not remember this guy and some of you old heads out there are probably wondering why I am bringing his name up in this context. Lee Atwater was Ronald Reagan’s campaign manager during the 1980 presidential election and he had a huge influence over just where we are with today’s music. During the 1980 campaign Lee Atwater supplied Ronald Reagan with a vicious campaign strategy designed to make then President Jimmy Carter look like a “n*gga lovin homo” who couldn’t even defend Americans abroad in Iran. It was Lee Atwater who came up with the term “Welfare Queen” with respect to Black women shopping at the supermarket, the phrase “Evil Empire” with respect to the Soviet Union and the notion that the United States was the last world power.
Yes it was Lee Atwater who devised the catch phrases & buzz words that Ronald Reagan was able to use to paint a picture of an America that had gone “too far” & a government that was so out of touch with the people in middle America , that people (Black people) were actually being paid to go to “no show jobs” (CETA program). This was for the Atwater/Reagan campaign and their supporters the very antithesis of the “shining house on the hill” version of America they were peddling.
In 1980 Lee Atwater was a “30 ish/ yuppieish”, young man from South Carolina who had gone to college in the 60’s listening to rock n’ roll, smoking pot & having a good time.
After he graduated from college, Lee Atwater joined the public relations firm of Harry Dent. Mr Dent was the man responsible for the successful “southern strategy” employed by the “big Dick” in the 1968 presidential campaign during the 1968 campaign. Lee Atwater although young by comparison to people like Nixon & Reagan, understood some of the core attitudes of Americans and how to exploit them for purposes of wining a election. Down south this is a tactic known as “race baiting” and has served the cause of many winning candidates in the south. Lee Atwater knew how to exploit the worst fears in people to win an election. He was the one who created Ronald Reagan’s “unspoken campaign promise” to effectively put an end to the American Civil Rights movement after the 1980 election.
One of the most vivid images for me of the 1980 presidential campaign is that of Lee Atwater at one of the inaugural parties on stage playing the guitar with BB King.
That’s right………Lee Atwater was a HUGE fan of Rhythm & Blues music !!!
This meant that Lee Atwater southern, racist, vile & vicious person also had a keen understanding of what was going on in the Black community of the late 1970’s.
Lee Atwater knew that he could create vivid images via Ronald Reagan of a country where somehow lazy & shiftless welfare queens & kings with CETA jobs were somehow buying lobsters with food stamps donated by the poor & suffering white folks. Lee Atwater also knew that beyond creating a sense of rage among white voters that to actually end the Civil Rights movement he would actually need the help of Black people in doing so……
In my opinion, historians will someday look back upon the 1970’s and equate it in many respects to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s. For many Black folks, the 1970’s resulted in the full flowering of a positive culture that had been “stifled” as a result of Amerika’s racist past Many Black people at this time were finally beginning to enjoy the fruits of the Civil Rights struggle. While it’s true that some government programs such as affirmative action and CETA played a role in this, the real catalyst was the Civil Rights Movement itself. The general perception was that it had been successfully concluded and now it was celebration time.
Black culture flourished during the 1970’s, and it flourished in a way that had not been seen since the 1920’s. “Black” became beautiful for the very first time in Amerika’s history and the culture was in “full effect”. Afros, Dashiki’s and Malcolm X became the order of the day for teenagers such as myself at that time. For the first time we began to see Black politicians making serious moves all over the country. Big cities started electing Black mayors and congressmen.. Hollywood began producing a ton of Black oriented movies and TV shows that began to show Blacks as much more than “servants & slaves”.
As a teenager during this time, for me personally and for most of the people I hung around with at that time, the music itself core of all of this positive expression.
The decade had started out with the music of Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, James Brown, Miles Davis, Funkadelic and others completely revolutionizing Black music by somehow blending together jazz, blues, soul & rock n’ roll and inventing something that today we call FUNK. Later in the decade this tradition was carried forward by artists such as Weather Report, Ronnie Laws, Ohio Players, Earth Wind and Fire, Parliment, Gil Scott Heron and many others. This music was not just a “deep groove”, it also made the listener think about their lives and the world around them. It embraced not only the concept of being Black in Amerika, but also made the connection to the Caribbean, Afrika and elsewhere. And it was all positive, not “anti white”, but “pro black”. This force was so powerful in fact that even white people caught the “groove”. White people catching this groove manifested itself in the form of Disco.
Today some people look back at disco and either laugh at t or seek to discredit it for various reasons, such as it’s excesses . Those people are DEAD WRONG. Today we can look back at disco and place it in the proper perspective. Clearly disco is an extension of FUNK, not just as far as the musical groove, but also as a “cultural/social/political “groove” of unity. Not just the unity among Black people that FUNK spoke of, but a type of unity that had never occurred before. You see, for me the bottom line about disco was that it was for all practical purposes the LAST VOLENTARY ATTEMPT BY THE UNITED STATES TO INTEGRATE ITSELF.
To that end it was largely successful and this is what Lee Atwater had to attack and make white people (and Blacks) fearful of. One of the objectives of the Civil Rights movement was an integrated society, where people would be judged not by their color, but instead by the “content of their character”. What better place to be judged for the content of your character than on Friday & Saturday nights with a mix of people that crossed every possible demographic line ?
The social setting created by the advent of discos was something that is very unsettling to racists (both Black and White). The very idea of a legitimized place where “race mixing” might occur is something that this country wasn’t quite ready for. Of course it was this very fear that led to the artificial separation between Black & White music in the first place leading to the creation of the “artificial sub categories” known as “Rock” & “Soul”. The FUNK (jazz, blues, soul & rock n’ roll) brought it all back together once again, creating a positive & universal groove that created the atmosphere for the emergence of disco.
Disco (and along with it FUNK) had to be destroyed, and Lee Atwater was able orchestrate this during the late 70’s & early 80’s. Lee Atwater knew that by destroying the culture, he could destroy the movement.
Consider for a moment these 4 “genres”:
FOR ADULT WHITES:
FOR ADOLESCENT WHITES:
Do you think it’s any accident that these “genres” were promoted as mainstream at the same time that “disco records” were being blown up in a baseball stadium in Chicago ??
The predominant audience today for these “genres” are middle/upper income whites, the same target audience that Lee Atwater was after. It’s also no mistake that each one of these “genres” is promoted as being “pure and untainted”, nothing of course could be further from the truth.
Think back to the election itself. Jimmy Carter and his staff were often seen in the company of Black folks, hanging out at places like Studio 54 and “winking” at drug use. On the other hand Ronald Reagan and George Bush were most often seen wearing cowboy hats going to church and listening to country music. Reagan was running around saying things like “We didn’t have any racial problems when I was a boy growing up in Dixon Illinois”. Of course what he failed to mention was that there weren’t any Black people around . George Bush on the other hand was used to being around Black people. Raised as the son of a wealthy Connecticut US Senator, I have no doubt that George Bush was exposed to the many Black butlers/maids that likely worked in his home and served his every need as an adult. Jimmy Carter (& his corn poke family) were the types of “po white trash”, that are needed in order for integration to occur. As a matter of fact, the presence of “po white trash” is the ONLY way for integration to occur, this was proven by both Jimmy Carter & Lyndon Johnson. Meanwhile Lee Atwater was saying that none of this was racist because he loved Black music and culture because he was a “Blues fan” and that “Blues” was “real/authentic Black music” (enter the “Blues Brothers”), as opposed to disco.
So, just what were Black people themselves doing at this point ??
· Nothing…..absolutely NOTHING after all the Civil Rights era was over…..right ??
· No need to be concerned about maintaining or advancing anything……right ??
· Heck we don’t even need those “symbols” of Black pride anymore like Afro’s and Dashiki’s ….right ??
· As a matter of fact, it’s even cool for us to go back to straightening our hair again (jheri curl) after all it was all just a “fad”……….right ??
· Oh & by the way, lets make a mockery of our recent musical past by having our young people curse and degrade each other while the most positive music ever produced in this country’s history is playing in the background.
· As a matter of fact we don’t need any of it…..we can be just like the white folks and become “buppies” as we lose ourselves in a “desert of white powder” and become totally “sedated”……right ??
Black folks did just what Lee Atwater wanted them to do and as a result a freedom movement and the music that was at the foundation of it was lost. The failure of Black people to “institutionalize” the positive culture they had created in the 70’s, led directly to it’s destruction. It opened the door for a subtle attack by Lee Atwater, resulting in the mainstream now defining what Black culture is (Gangsta Rap”, “Smooth Jazz” and “Today’s R&B;” ) as opposed to Black people defining it for themselves
Today we are left musically with the triple threat “horror story” of “Gangsta Rap”, “Smooth Jazz” and “Today’s R&B;” as the descendants of the music that literally ignited a culture during the 1970’s..
We can thank Lee Atwater for that.