Barack Obama has been confounding the racial calculus of millions of Americans for the last year- including (apparently) the Clintons . It’s difficult being black even in the liberal democratic world. What we have seen in the last couple of weeks is first the outward frustration of the Clinton campaign in trying to understand how they calculated so wrong- and more recently their heinous attempts to restore the racial status quo.
Barack Obama has not only proven that he is a singularly unique Black politician but that he has the awareness and vision and commitment to rise above the sometimes toxic muck of American race relations (particularly within the Democratic Party). The old calculus would have rendered Barack’s presidential bid a folly. It has been near impossible for Black politicians to win statewide offices like Senator and Governor. Even today there are just one sitting Black senator (Obama) and one sitting Black governor (Deval Patrick of Massachusetts ).
Barack immediately started confounding conventional wisdom through fundraising. The Clintons could not imagine that a Black politician completely outside of the party machinery they had lorded over for more than a decade was able to amass a war chest to rival Hillary’s. Not only had Barack gotten the support and dollars of legion of white Americans but also many upwardly-mobile people of color. These folks really don’t exist in the Clintonian vision of the poor and desperate Black and Brown masses waiting for a white knight to lead them to the promised land (re – It took LBJ…).
And then came Iowa . Like he did in Illinois, Barack won Iowa by having a wider focus and broader vision that the Black candidates who had come before him. Barack spoke to the concerns of urban folks struggling with failing schools and lack of health care. He also spoke to the concerns of rural Americans who face the erosion of communities by big agricultural conglomerates and dwindling populations. He spoke to Americans in general and people responded. He has inspired in Democrats an ability to dream and hope- to believe that while the progressive agenda has been derailed it can once again be put back on track. The Clintons had believed that most Americans had been so cowed by the disasters of the Bush years that they would pine for- hope for- nothing more ambitious than the Clinton years. What she was offering was not the America of their dreams but of their memories. Barack offered something intrinsically better.
But the Clintons don’t seem to believe this. From their actions over the last couple of weeks it seems that their remedy to Barack’s potential to win this nomination is not to counter him with an even better vision but to revert to race politics. They want to remind Americans that he’s black. The Clintons seem incensed that Iowans- and the other Democrats who have allowed Barack to erase Hillary’s once overwhelming lead in national polls- didn’t just vote on race. ‘BUT HE’S BLACK- CAN’T YOU SEE !’ is what Hillary and Bill have been telegraphing for weeks now.
To a Democratic electorate that seems to have finally begun to move beyond base race concerns the Clintons- the paragons of progress- are dedicated to dragging the party back to the depths of poisonous racial history. And not a moment too soon. Across the country the Clintons are on a remembrance tour- reminding Hispanics of the historic rivalry with Blacks; reminding Southerners of their latent fear of the Black man; reminding white suburbanites in the North and Midwest of the imagery of Black drug-dealers and gangsters that inspired the white flight to suburbs.
And it may be that the simple message of ‘BUT REMEMBER HE’S STILL BLACK’ will resonate far and wide within Democratic ranks: both black and white. Hillary and Bill are most convincing in their ‘civil rights commitments’ when it comes to vague imagery (Bill as the ‘first Black president’; Hillary as the white partner in an ‘interracial marriage’) but they get in trouble when specifics come in. Hillary endured an onslaught of criticism when she claimed last year in Selma to have had a life-changing moment when she heard Dr. King speak in 1963. Yet in 1964 she was a Goldwater Girl. Goldwater was no ordinary presidential candidate. In addition to fathering the modern conservative movement that now strangles the Republican Party he was a pioneer of what would become known as the Southern Strategy. Goldwater was at the vanguard of GOP radicals in the early 1960s who saw opportunity in the Democratic Party’s embrace of civil rights under JFK and LBJ. Goldwater was one of the few Republican senators to join Southern Democrats in very public opposition to civil rights and equality. Goldwater ran a campaign in 1964 that was in direct opposition to everything Dr. King hoped for. It is shocking that Hillary Clinton- a political astute college entrant who would head the Young Republicans at Wellesley- would not realize that Goldwater’s narrow exploitation of white fears of Black equality didn’t real gel with the civil rights agenda.
What Hillary and Bill do know, however, is that while the national Democratic Party quickly embraced a progressive agenda from the 1960s on it has been much slower going among the grassroots. Republican presidential candidates from Goldwater onward have gained the support of legions of Southern Democrats by appealing to latent racism over the years. Barack Obama’s potency in national polls and his support among white voters across the country may well mark a period of transition as those voters come to terms with their fears of the past and move on. But not if the Clintons have anything to do with it. Perhaps Bob Johnson said it best for the Clintons when he warned South Carolinians that Barack Obama is no Sidney Poitier. In other words he may look and act like the ‘Good Negro’ but it’s just an act; he’s really an inner-city drug fiend. And if Latinos- a critical voting block in Nevada but also in Feb. 5 primaries in states like California and New York- were thinking of moving beyond racial suspicions and voting for Barack on the issues the Clinton folks were nice enough to print a poster in Nevada reminding Hispanics of their history of not supporting Black candidates. Hillary Clinton said it’s not to revive racial memories; it’s to make a historic statement.
But just to cover her bases the Clinton folks have gone to court in Nevada to prevent caucusing at the casinos where thousands of Democratic union workers- heavily Latino and Black- are working on Saturday while the caucuses are being held. The Clintons thought it was a good idea when the plan has made last year but changed their minds when an expected endorsement from the powerful Culinary Workers union went to Barack Obama instead. (A federal court judge rejected a temporary injunction and the caucuses will be held in the casinos).
Iowa made a lot of Americans feel good about the direction of race relations in this country but those good vibes may have been premature. That the Clintons of all people would think it pragmatic- and acceptable- to use race in this way is telling about how far we truly need to go. A truce on the race issue seems to be holding but unfortunately some damage has been done.
I believe Barack Obama has the ability to overcome this damage. His victory will be a testament to the progress we have made as a nation and an inspiration to our children who can still believe they can grow up to be President.
Maxim Thorne is the former Interim Deputy Executive Director of the Black AIDS Institute and the former Chief Operating Officer of the Human Rights Campaign. Thorne has also served on the Finance Committee and the African-American Leadership Council of the Democratic National Committee.