Race, rhetoric, and fear 1958-1968: How elected officials exploited white middle class racial anxiety in 1960’s America



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This work is a sociopolitical history focusing on the relationship between political rhetoric and white middle class racial anxiety in America from 1958 to 1968. Throughout the 1960s, elected officials employed coded language to exploit white America’s racial resentments for political gain. As the decade progressed from its early optimism to despair, this dialogue recalibrated the American political landscape and significantly impacted the nation’s conversation on race. This analysis utilizes existing scholarship as well as primary source material to examine this discourse and its place amid the racial unrest and social fracture that characterized the 1960s.

This study closely observes white America’s racial perceptions, outlining the critical events that fueled white anxieties, while also avoiding blanket characterizations of universal bigotry and racism. Whites in the 1960s understood and interpreted the chaotic era and the hard fought racial progress that it produced in varying ways. This progress is examined from the standpoint of an often uneasy, white middle class that had grown fearful of rising crime rates, urban unrest, and changing social landscapes. Their discomfort left many white voters susceptible to racially coded calls for law and order from candidates who promised to restore the status quo and return the nation to the relative calm of previous eras.

Though the scope of this work is limited to the 1960s, it speaks to present day political concerns in its analysis of the foundational fears and resentments that characterize contemporary race relations in the United States. Its primary contribution is to trace the post-war origins of a political dialogue that continues to shape the relationship between America’s white middle class and the elected officials they place in office. By outlining the distortions and anxieties that divided the nation along racial lines in the 1960s, this study challenges readers to be aware of the ways in which contemporary office seekers exploit this tension for political gain. In exposing this dynamic, the political manipulation of racial trepidation may be lessened and, for those who recognize the process chronicled in this study, relegated to the past.