A dominant Lakers team, led by a charismatic, 6-foot-9 generational talent and a uniquely gifted big man, captured the NBA title. The Dodgers win a World Series featuring one of the most amazing game-endings ever seen. It’s a presidential election year featuring a Republican candidate appealing to his base by playing to the racists.
That was 1988, the last season Magic and Kareem combined for a title. Orel Hershiser was the best pitcher in baseball with a 59-inning shutout streak that broke the record of another Dodger legend, Don Drysdale. Kirk Gibson, unable to start, hobbled around the bases after hitting a walk-off home run off Dennis Eckersley.
And Vice President George H. W. Bush, in his bid for president, ran a campaign that played to white fears by riding a blatantly racist ad that portrayed Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis as soft on crime.
Republicans have always run for national office based on divisive, race-based politics ever since the Civil Rights movement and the adoption of the “Southern Strategy.” But anti-Black policy was usually couched in terms like the “War on Drugs,” started by President Richard Nixon to discredit war protesters and undermine the Civil Rights movement, and later expanded by Ronald Reagan.
Never had racist fears been so open in the portrayal of Black men as criminals and a threat to white society. More importantly, white women. Willie Horton was a convicted murderer in Massachusetts who raped a woman and stabbed her partner while out on weekend furlough.
The ad read:
“Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty, he allowed first degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison. One was Willie Horton. Horton fled, kidnapped a young couple, stabbing the man and repeatedly raping his girlfriend.”
In the documentary “13th,” Lisa Graves, executive director for the Center for Media Democracy, says it was “a racially divisive moment.”
“Willie Horton was metaphorically the Black male rapist that had been a staple of the white imagination,” another expert in Ava DuVernay’s Academy Award-nominated documentary said.
The threat and fear of Black violence against white women has been the justification of countless atrocities committed against Black people in this country, including the Tulsa Massacre and the brutal torture and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till.
Bush, trailing Dukakis by double digits, went on to win the election that November, just a few weeks after the Dodgers hoisted their hardware. The Democrats, labeled as soft on crime, adopted a strategy to move to the right, culminating in the 1994 Crime Bill, pushed by Joe Biden in the Senate and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The bill has been widely criticized by social justice activists for creating the era of mass incarceration in Black neighborhoods, and bloated police department budgets nationwide.
Clinton has apologized for the Crime Bill, and Biden has tried to downplay his role in creating the legislation, though recently said his support for the legislation was a “mistake” during a town hall on ABC.
This leads us to today, as we approach a seeming watershed moment in American history and presidential elections. Bush’s strategists’ propensity for wielding racial division electorally was a problem then, but President Trump has been 100 times worse. He has openly courted white supremacists, called for violence by white supremacists militias, and put Latinx people in concentration camps. His opposition is merely the man who helped incarcerate millions of Black and brown people starting in 1994 and still wants to give more money to cops as a solution today.
Why does history repeat itself? Because we haven’t learned the lessons from it.
One significant difference from 1988? The Super Bowl champs from that year are now known simply as the Washington Football Team, not their previously racist nickname.