In June of 1983, the New York Times published a survey revealing that nearly one in five white voters would not vote for a black candidate for president, even if that candidate was qualified and was the party nominee.2 For some readers, such a revelation might have induced shock or even outrage; for others the poll would merely reflect an obvious and ugly reality. The survey was prompted by the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s attempt to become the first black, Democratic nominee for president.

A news story exploring the prevalence of white racism in the United States was not uncommon when Jesse Jackson campaigned for the presidency in 1984 and 1988. The mainstream press framed Jackson’s candidacies as an index for measuring racial progress, and in some cases, as an outright referendum on race in the United States. Jackson’s own critiques of white establishment politics helped assure that his race—his blackness—would seem to foreground all representations of him. Discussions of Jackson during this time were particularly complex since the continuation of civil rights battles finds itself in “multicultural” and “multiracial environments” complicated by “social, political, and legal constructions of race, ethnicity, gender, class, and religion, among others.”3 The symbolic generation and exchange of identity markers therefore has a particular rhetorical significance for contemporary “race” studies that Jackson’s presidential campaigns are uniquely suited to bring to our attention.

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Copyright © 2009 Lexington Books. This chapter first appeared in Gender and Political Communication In America: Rhetoric, Representation, and Display.

Edited by: Janis L. Edwards

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