Column: Undercurrents: Democratic Presidential Contest Turns Nasty

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday March 14, 2008

One ought to avoid writing political commentary when angry. It doesn’t make for coherent thought. But it is difficult not to get angry about recent events in the Democratic Presidential race between Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. It’s even more difficult to try to ignore it, and write about something else. So let’s give it a shot. 

The Clinton campaign has introduced race as a wedge issue in the election, as a way to elevate her chances to overtake Mr. Obama and win the Democratic Party nomination. It is nasty. It is vicious. It is reprehensible. It is inexcusable. 

The legacy of what Ms. Clinton has allowed—and is allowed—is like a backed-up toilet, overflowing, the political and social and racial repercussions of which will last for many years, and take many hours of toil to wash away again. 

We had thought this was over in South Carolina, with the failed attempt by the Clintons to diminish the importance of the vote in that state because—after all—there were so many African-Americans there. We were told that after that debacle—which Obama won over Clinton, 55 percent to 27 percent, propelling him towards the frontrunner status that he has never since relinquished—Ms. Clinton’s husband, the former President and the hit man on the Carolina trail, would be put on a short leash, the implication being that the tactics which brought him the muzzle would also be put on the back burner. 

The day after the South Carolina primary, in case we now forget, the Washington Post wrote: On Saturday, as Sen. Barack Obama was sweeping up the South Carolina primary, former Pres. Bill Clinton was busy downplaying the significance of Obama’s impending win, casting it as a function of the state’s demographics and the Illinois senator’s heavy African American support. “Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in ’84 and ’88,” Clinton said at a rally in Columbia. “Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here.” 

For the younger among us, this might have no meaning. But those of us who lived in the era when African-Americans were first winning the right to vote in major portions of the country—including South Carolina—remember in Mr. Clinton’s framing the old white Southern dictum that “niggers only vote for niggers, and don’t need no other reason for it except they’s niggers,” a philosophy that fueled resistance to African-American voting rights in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the violent overturning of African-American voting and political rights in the post-Reconstruction ninety years before. 

It’s the kind of wink-wink, nod-nod catering to racial preference that we’ve come to expect from the Republicans from Mr. Nixon through Mr. Reagan and beyond, but had thought had been purged from public display among those in the Democratic Party who are supposed to be friends of the African-American. It’s the type of tactic the old folks in South Carolina used to call “throwing a brick and hiding your hand,” that is, saying or doing something reprehensible that will accrue to your advantage, but doing it such a sly way that you can later deny you had that intent. 

Thus, for example, did George Bush interject the term “crusade” at the beginning of the Iraq War, later insisting, over and over, that the American effort was not to be considered a war of Christians against Arabs. 

It is also the type of tactic which allows the perpetrator to accuse the victim of the attack of being “overly sensitive” or “raising the race question” when they protest. Insidious. 

While Ms. Clinton was doing well through the 24-state Super Tuesday primaries, the issue of race was put on the back burner by her campaign. But with Mr. Obama holding a consistent delegate lead and the cold reality of delegate math making the prospects of a Clinton nomination more difficult even as she won in Texas and Ohio last week, the tactic got dusted off and put up for display. 

A week ago Geraldine Ferraro, a former Congressmember and vice presidential candidate and a fundraiser for Ms. Clinton, told the Daily Breeze newspaper of Torrance that Ms. Clinton’s role as a possible first woman president was being overshadowed by Mr. Obama’s role as a possible first African-American president, with the dig that Black is the flavor of the day, and Mr. Obama’s major qualification is that he happens to be that color. 

“I think what America feels about a woman becoming president takes a very secondary place to Obama’s campaign—to a kind of campaign that it would be hard for anyone to run against,” the Daily Breeze quoted Ms. Ferraro as saying. “For one thing, you have the press, which has been uniquely hard on her. It’s been a very sexist media. Some just don’t like her. The others have gotten caught up in the Obama campaign. If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.” 

That Mr. Obama is “lucky” to be an African-American man—in America—was probably the most galling and egregious of the statements. You look up the statistics, if you want. The libraries and the college classrooms and the Internet are all full of them. Or come along on a tour of the streets of East and West Oakland, or Santa Rita or San Quentin or Pelican Bay, if you’d like to know where such “luck” is likely to land you, these days.  

But it got worse. When Ms. Ferraro was called to question on her comments, she complained that she was the one who was being victimized, but in a tone so flippant as to call into question how seriously she took the problem of racism.  

“Any time anybody does anything that in any way pulls [Obama’s] campaign down and says let’s address reality and the problems we’re facing in this world, you’re accused of being racist, so you have to shut up,” Ferraro said in a followup interview with the Daily Breeze. “Racism works in two different directions. I really think they’re attacking me because I’m white. How’s that?”  

Ms. Clinton immediately distanced herself from Ms. Ferraro’s remarks, but the effect was akin to distancing oneself from a pile of feces one’s friend has left in the middle of the sidewalk. Is there not some responsibility to clean it up? And that Ms. Ferraro has since resigned from the Clinton campaign—with a defiant and unapologetic parting word that she will continue to speak her mind—does not bode well toward where this is going. 

One doesn’t have to wait or look far to see. Witness a March 12 posting by someone calling himself/herself the Unreconstructed Southerner on the website of a group calling itself the Council of Conservative Citizens ( I quote at length, so there can be no misunderstanding where this is all leading. 

“It is amazing that in this age of political correctness that it took a very liberal Democrat to articulate to the nation what many of us knew all along,” Unreconstructed writes. “Ferraro is exactly right ... Barack Obama has won 90 percent of the black vote in nearly every major contest so far in the Democratic primary while lagging in the white votes in states that are more racially divided. One need only look at last month’s cover of the ethnic Ebony magazine to know that black citizens take immense pride in the success of one of their own. Likewise many women are encouraged by the candidacy of Senator Clinton and the historic implications that it means which is easily reflected in almost every exit poll, including those where Obama defeated Clinton. Are these positions wrong? If not wrong they are at least very shallow and reflective of the priorities of Democratic primary voters that they put the race and gender of their candidates ahead of a candidate’s qualifications. America’s Left is caught up in the notion that our nation must atone for slavery and Jim Crow and the election of Obama would be a symbolic gesture akin to the old tradition of sackcloth and ashes. Can any of us name how many one-term Senators fresh from the state legislature that have come to the brink of the presidency? Call it the real Inconvenient Truth of the day but it nonetheless true and those who would deny it are either naive or caught up in Obamamania so much that [they] refuse to acknowledge that Obama’s ethnicity has played an essential role in his appeal and success to date. The politics of tribalism are never politically correct nor will they ever be. It is the politics of tribalism that allowed New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin to proclaim the need for a chocolate city and still be reelected with the majority support of the city’s black population as well as Durham DA Mike Nifong to win reelection despite the utterly groundless charges against the Duke Lacrosse team. America has never and will never be uniquely immune to this reality of tribal and ethnic politics and it took courage on the part of Geraldine Ferraro to not only say it but to stand by her comments despite the whirlwind of criticism she has received.” 

“They sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind.” (Hosea 8:1-14) The question is, whose whirlwind are we talking about, and who will get swept away in it? It is not likely to be those who would halt the progress of African-Americans or the progress of American women. And so, like the proverbial crabs in a barrel, it is more difficult for any to escape oppression because many of the ones temporarily left behind see their path to freedom lies in pulling down those who have temporarily gotten ahead. Sad, and angry, that we have come backwards to this, at a time when there could be so much to celebrate. A woman and African-American, major presidential candidates. Most of us thought we’d never live to see either, and backbiting may destroy any gains that might have come. 

Mercy, as my old Charleston Chronicle editor, Jim French, used to say.