Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Clintons and the Race Card

flckr: SI Neg. 75-2984. Date: 3/28/1975...Bible Quilt Harriet Powers, an African American farm woman from Clark County, GA, created this lively, balanced expression of her religious fervor. She exhibited her quilt at the Athens Cotton Fair of 1886... From The Smithsonian Treasury: American Quilts by Doris M. Bowman, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC, 1991. ..Credit: Alfred Harrell (Smithsonian Institution)

Can't we all just get along?

Two interesting articles today, by Derrick Z. Jackson in the Boston Globe and Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post, both with "Race Card" in the title. Actually, Eugene Robinson's article is titled "The Clinton Play the Race Card" on the front page of the website, while when you click on the article itself the title changes to "A Hand the Clintons Aren't Showing". Both articles address "The Clintons" as both Hillary and Bill Clinton have been campaigning on racial issues.

Jackson's thesis is simple. The Clintons didn't do much to help racial progress while manning the bully pulpit from 1992 to 2000, and are dividing voters today with patronizing racial attacks.

It is time to take a break to remember the fairy tales spun by the House of Clinton.

It increasingly appears that Hillary is unable or unwilling to break from the racial patronization of Bill. In 1993, in the same Memphis church that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke from 25 years earlier, I noted that Clinton spoke as "if African-Americans had full run of the promised land in the last 25 years."

Clinton told the church, "We gave people the freedom to succeed." Clinton said King would have said, "You did a good job . . . letting people . . . live wherever they want to live, go wherever they want to go . . . without regard to race, if you work hard and play by the rules."

I wrote back then that in the broad context of the nation, no one "let" us do anything or "gave" us anything. Yes, African-Americans made progress and many white Americans aided in that progress, but it still came in the face of continued, documented redlining, workplace discrimination, and the decline of funding of public schools.

Bill Clinton hugely betrayed that progress by doing nothing as Draconian, and ultimately racist federal sentencing laws took full effect, punishing crack possession far more harshly than powdered-cocaine possession. Even though Americans use illegal drugs close to their racial percentage of the population, young black men made up the vast majority of those sentenced under crack laws. According to the Justice Policy Institute, the rate of black male imprisonment under Clinton grew from 2,800 per 100,000 to 3,620 per 100,000. As a result, 14 percent of black men lost the right to vote.

What was it that Bill Clinton said about "we gave people the freedom to succeed?"

Now, it appears that the House of Clinton, seeing that the race for the Democratic nomination is not an adoring coronation, is trickling with tricks that raise questions about how much she will toy with the race card and overplay the gender card.


Obama has not been without fault in the patronization game. He made a dumb move in the New Hampshire debates by telling Clinton, "you're likable enough" when Clinton was answering a question about her likability quotient. But this pales next to the steady drip, drip, drip of stereotyping from the Clinton camp of a lazy, drug-using, Muslim black man who believes in fairy tales. It also pales to the gender-card whining of Bill on Hillary's behalf, saying in the 11th hour in New Hampshire, "I can't make her younger, taller, male." You have not yet heard Obama surrogates moaning they can't make Obama older or female.

Hillary Clinton herself fanned the fumes of patronization when she reached clumsily for an analogy that appeared to link Obama and King to simplistic hopers and dreamers, while it took a white man, President Johnson, to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Robinson says the Clintons use of race is deliberate, that they realize that Obama will take the black vote and are therefore using race to drive white voters to their side -- cynically.

A new Post-ABC News poll shows that black Democrats nationwide support Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination by nearly 2 to 1. This striking reversal -- a month ago, Clinton held a big lead among African Americans -- is perhaps why race has suddenly become such a hot issue in a campaign that previously had dodged the subject.


Still, it's surprising that the Clinton campaign has been so aggressive in keeping the race issue alive. On "Meet the Press," Clinton didn't just seek to explain her remarks about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s role in landmark civil rights legislation (she said it took a president to bring about real action) or Bill's "fairy tale" crack about Obama's record on the Iraq war (which some African Americans took as a dismissal of Obama's candidacy as mere fantasy). Instead, she went on the attack, accusing the Obama campaign of "deliberately distorting" her words in a way that was "unfair and unwarranted."

That seemed a curious tactic to employ just two weeks before the South Carolina Democratic primary, in which African Americans are expected to cast about half the total votes. It seemed especially curious after the most powerful black politician in the state, U.S. House Majority Whip James Clyburn, indicated he was so "bothered" by the Clintons' remarks that he might rethink his decision not to endorse any candidate before the primary.


The Clintons are reading the polls, too; they might well be resigned to the possibility that most black Democrats will vote for Obama. This would mean that South Carolina is probably already lost and that the campaign's focus now has to be on Florida and the many states whose delegates are up for grabs on "Tsunami Tuesday."

Is it possible that accusing Obama and his campaign of playing the race card might create doubt in the minds of the moderate, independent white voters who now seem so enamored of the young, black senator? Might that be the idea?

Yes, that's a cynical view. But history is history.

The candidates have announced a moratorium of sorts on these divisive tactics, but it's way too late for that. The Clintons are no fools. They brought up these issues deliberately. They didn't bring up the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote, and say that despite the protests, arrests and jailing of scores of women, it passed after Woodrow Wilson announced his support. (Which would have fit right in with their "only the President can get it done" theme.) They brought up the civil rights laws deliberately. They must believe that race is an issue that works for Hillary. Cynical indeed.

No comments: