Playing the race card

Racism is alive and well in the 2008 presidential election

IT IS surely no surprise to readers of this magazine that, in a presidential election race in which an African-American man is not just the front-runner for the Democratic Party nomination, but has a strong chance of winning the White House in November, racism has been front and center. Four years ago, in his keynote speech at the Democratic Convention in Boston, Barack Obama proclaimed, “There’s not a Black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America,” and he set about trying to run a presidential campaign in which his race was not an issue. But whether or not Obama really believed his own rhetoric, ever since he won the Iowa caucuses in January his political rivals have been attempting to play the race card against him, none more so than his chief Democratic Party competitor, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

In the post-civil rights era it is, of course, no longer acceptable to make openly racist comments, but U.S. politicians have long since mastered the art of appealing to racial prejudice in coded ways. This was the basis of the Republican Richard Nixon’s so-called “Southern strategy” in the 1968 presidential election. Nixon appealed to white racists in the South who were abandoning the Democrats for their role in ending legalized segregation, by emphasizing issues like “law and order,” which were strongly linked in voters’ minds to race. After he had won the election, his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, wrote privately that Nixon “emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the Blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”

While crime has been a favorite issue to manipulate, many other issues have played the same role, including opposition to declaring the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a holiday (ostensibly on the grounds that it would be too expensive!), support for displaying the Confederate flag (using the argument that it is simply a symbol of regional pride), and attacks on welfare programs. In 1981, leading GOP strategist Lee Atwater, put it this way: “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968, you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and a byproduct of them is [that] Blacks get hurt worse than whites.”

Over the last forty years, nearly every major Republican presidential candidate has made use of this same strategy. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman noted recently, “Ronald Reagan, who began his political career by campaigning against California’s Fair Housing Act, started his 1980 campaign with a speech supporting states’ rights delivered just outside Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were murdered. In 2000, [George W.] Bush made a pilgrimage to Bob Jones University, famed at the time for its ban on interracial dating.”

What Krugman failed to note, however, was the extent to which leading figures in the Democratic Party have been prepared to move in the same direction to win votes. It was Bill Clinton who returned to Arkansas in the run up to the 1992 New Hampshire primary to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a mentally disabled Black man, and then proudly proclaimed that he was the only candidate who had personally enforced the death penalty. In the same election, Clinton made it a point to criticize comments by the hip-hop artist Sister Souljah at a speech he gave to Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, and repeatedly lectured African-American audiences on the need for them to take “personal responsibility” for their problems. Four years later, to secure his reelection, it was Clinton who “ended welfare as we know it,” in a move that disproportionately hurt minority groups.

With this background in mind, the decision of the Clinton machine to play the race card in this election is not unexpected. In December, the co-chair of Hillary Clinton’s campaign in New Hampshire was forced to resign after hinting that Obama might have been a drug dealer in his youth. After Obama overwhelmingly won the South Carolina primary in February, Bill Clinton “congratulated” him for following in the footsteps of Jesse Jackson, who won it in 1988. (Clinton, who won South Carolina in 1992, pointedly didn’t suggest that Obama was following in his footsteps.) Then began a whispering campaign that while Obama could win the support of African-American voters, he wouldn’t be able to win a substantial number of white votes, despite the fact that by March he had won contests in nine of the ten whitest states to have voted.

In March, after Obama had become the clear front-runner for the nomination, prominent Clinton supporter, and former Democratic Party vice-presidential candidate, Geraldine Ferraro, made the absurd claim that “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position.” When the Obama campaign criticized the remark as “divisive,” Ferraro replied: “Every time that campaign is upset about something, they call it racist. I will not be discriminated against because I’m white.” As British journalist Gary Younge pointed out, Ferraro’s comments were “taken straight from the playbook of late-twentieth-century racism. Before the civil rights era the accusation used to be that Black people could not succeed because they were Black. Once affirmative action was introduced the emphasis shifted to suggest that they succeeded only because they were Black. Either way the point is clear: Black people are genetically ill equipped to succeed on their own merits.”

Ferraro resigned her position on Clinton’s financial team as a result of the controversy, but the racist attacks have continued, sometimes in more subtle ways. In the run up to the Texas primary, Clinton aired a controversial TV spot that raised the question of who was better prepared to answer the White House “red phone” during a 3:00 am emergency. The distinguished Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson pointed out the ad’s racial undertones in the New York Times:

I have spent my life studying the pictures and symbols of racism and slavery, and when I saw the Clinton ad’s central image—innocent sleeping children and a mother in the middle of the night at risk of mortal danger—it brought to my mind scenes from the past. I couldn’t help but think of D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” the racist movie epic that helped revive the Ku Klux Klan, with its portrayal of Black men lurking in the bushes around white society. The danger implicit in the phone ad—as I see it—is that the person answering the phone might be a Black man, someone who could not be trusted to protect us from this threat.

In April, another manufactured brouhaha focused on Obama’s comments that many small-town residents in Pennsylvania and elsewhere are bitter because of job losses and government neglect, and so “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” The only peculiar thing about Obama’s comment was the implication that opposition to pro-corporate trade policy is somehow irrational, even though it is directly implicated in the job losses he talked about. Completely ignoring this, Clinton attacked Obama as an “elitist” and “out of touch.” The journalist and author David K. Shipler, who has written extensively about race, pointed out the subtext of Clinton’s response:

“Elitist” is another word for “arrogant,” which is another word for “uppity,” that old calumny applied to Blacks who stood up for themselves. At the bottom of the American psyche, race is still about power, and Blacks who move up risk triggering discomfort among some whites. Furthermore, casting Obama as “out of touch” plays harmoniously with the traditional notion of Blacks as “others” at the edge of the mainstream, separate from the whole.

Shipler noted that while “subterranean biases” are less obvious today than forty years ago, they still

lurk below, lending resonance to the criticisms of Obama. Black professionals know the double standard. They are often labeled negatively for traits deemed positive in whites: A white is assertive, a Black is aggressive; a white is resolute, a Black is pushy; a white is candid, a Black is abrasive; a white is independent, a Black is not a team player. Prejudice is a shape shifter, adapting to acceptable forms.

Was Clinton consciously playing on such biases? Shipler gives her the benefit of the doubt, arguing that her remarks were racist in impact, not in intent. But given the record of her campaign to date, it would be easy to conclude otherwise. Ironically, of course, Clinton has herself been attacked (though not by Obama) on the basis of similar stereotypes about women.

Obama himself was finally forced to address the issue of race directly in mid-March in a much publicized speech in Philadelphia, following another media-manufactured controversy over comments made by his long-term mentor and former-pastor, the Revered Jeremiah Wright. What caused the most outrage among mainstream commentators were Wright’s argument that arrogant U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East had helped to provoke the 9/11 terrorist attacks and his fierce condemnations of continued racism in the United States. Predictably, Obama distanced himself from Wright’s comments (though he refused to disown the man himself), going so far as to claim that “conflicts in the Middle East” are primarily due to “the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam” and not “the actions of stalwart allies like Israel”—as if the rise of “radical Islam” was not partly due to a long history of Israeli aggression in the region and its continued oppression of the Palestinian people.

But in the most important section of the speech, Obama described both the continuing legacy of racism—including inferior schools, the huge white-Black wealth gap, and the lack of basic services—and the way in which racial divisions have been manipulated to divert attention away from “a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many.”

All this is true, and it is refreshing to hear it spoken in a U.S. presidential campaign. But does this mean that progressives should embrace the messenger as well as the message? That was the conclusion of a recent article in the Nation by a group of prominent left-liberal activists, including Barbara Ehrenreich and Danny Glover, urging “All American progressives should unite for Barack Obama.” The problem, however, is that despite his often inspiring rhetoric, Obama remains a mainstream Democratic Party candidate, with major backing from corporate America and an array of Wall Street advisers committed to continuing, in one form or another, “economic policies that favor the few over the many.”

Ehrenreich et al characterize Obama as a centrist candidate who can be pushed to the left by “the formation of [a] progressive force within his coalition.” As they rightly note, “It was the industrial strikes and radical organizers in the 1930s who pushed Roosevelt to support the New Deal. It was the civil rights and student movements that brought about voting rights legislation under Lyndon Johnson.... It was the original Earth Day that led Richard Nixon to sign environmental laws.” But this last example undermines the argument that it is necessary to support a candidate in order to pressure him (or her), since Ehrenreich et al are presumably not arguing that progressives should have joined the “Nixon coalition.” What is needed is pressure on whoever occupies the White House, and what history reveals is that the pressure is much less easily dissipated if activists organize independently of the Democratic Party, which is irrevocably committed to defending the existing system.

Obama should be defended against any racist attacks, which will no doubt intensify if he wins the Democratic Party nomination. But without a strong activist movement on the ground, his election will do little to solve the problems that he himself has described.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Issue contents

Top story