Will They Play the Race Card?
I'm scared for Barack Obama, but not for the same reasons that many other black voters are. While the possibility of a crazed gunman coming after him does worry me, my real fear is grounded in something more probable -- that Hillary Clinton, after her less-than-stellar showing in Iowa and her close call in New Hampshire, will now go straight for Obama's jugular. Race, whether used subtly or as a blunt weapon, will undoubtedly be a factor.
We saw inklings of it last February in South Carolina, a state rich with black voters that holds its primary this month. News reports disclosed that an influential state lawmaker and prominent megachurch minister who had endorsed Clinton also happened to have a political consulting contract with the campaign worth some $200,000. Two other black state senators who later endorsed Clinton have financial ties to the lawmaker on the Clinton payroll. While the Clinton campaign defended the deal as legitimate and said the state senator was a longtime supporter, it looked to many like a slicker, ostensibly more respectable version of the old political strategy of spreading "street money" to black preachers to either depress or get out the black vote.
Last month, William Shaheen, a political surrogate for Clinton, was quoted publicly peddling concerns about Obama's admitted past drug use and intimating that Republicans -- not, heaven forbid, candidate Clinton herself -- would raise questions about it if Obama was nominated.
Shaheen, who was co-chairman of the New Hampshire campaign but has since resigned, told The Post: "It'll be: 'When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?' There are so many openings for Republican dirty tricks. It's hard to overcome."
What's harder to overcome is the idea that these patently insincere sentiments about Obama -- coming from an experienced political adviser working for a tightly controlled and heavily scripted campaign -- weren't part of a deliberate attempt to paint the Illinois senator as a stereotypical black drug dealer.
Clinton herself has made racially tinged comments that could be taken as either insensitive or patronizing. The most widely noticed was in her efforts to dismiss Obama's talk of "hope" and "change" as empty idealism. In doing so, she offhandedly diminished the important role played by Martin Luther King Jr. in pushing America to meet its promise of equality for millions of black Americans. "Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act," Clinton said. "It took a president to get it done."
In other words, "I have a dream" is a nice sentiment, but King couldn't make it reality. It took a more practical and, of course, white president, Lyndon Johnson, to get blacks to the mountaintop. Of course no black man could have hoped to be president 44 years ago. And, for that matter, neither could any woman.
What was Clinton thinking? King's name is sacrosanct in most black households, and for poor and struggling blacks whose lives have yet to reflect King's ideals, "hope" is more than just a notion. Clinton managed to insult a beloved black leader in her eager attempt to insult a rising black leader.
Last August, while speaking to a gathering of black columnists, Clinton quipped that she was "in an interracial marriage." It was a cute allusion to the now common joke about her husband being America's first black president. I rolled my eyes nonetheless. One of the columnists characterized her speech "as shameless pandering." For me it was just another example of how, on the one hand, Clinton tries to give the impression that she really gets black people and, on the other, covertly uses race to undermine the credibility of the only black candidate running for the Democratic nomination.
If anyone needed any proof that the mean Clinton machine is alive and well in this campaign, all they had to do was watch Bill Clinton deliver his angry diatribe against Obama in New Hampshire last week just before the primary. His red-faced anger was clear and a little scary, too. It wasn't what he said but how he said it. His tone was contemptuous of his wife's main challenger, whom he described as a political neophyte who for some reason was being granted a honeymoon with the national media.
This is the same Bill Clinton who took on Sister Souljah, a young and, at the time, controversial black rapper who made incendiary racial remarks after the Los Angeles race riots. Many people accused Clinton of using the rapper, and an appearance before Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition, as an opportunity to distance himself from Jackson, the ultimate race man. The move helped reinforce his white moderate bona fides.
Racial innuendo, whether used by those on the left or the right, is unacceptable. Democrats may think themselves protected against allegations of playing the race card because of the party's reliable past support from black voters. Those Democrats would be very wrong.
My generation of black voters is politically savvy and well educated. We couldn't care less about outdated notions of party loyalty. We are not our grandmothers, and no amount of candidate appearances at black churches is going to influence how we vote. We will certainly not sit back and allow Democratic candidates, or Republicans for that matter, to engage in Willie Horton-style tactics, even if the tactics are Willie Horton lite.
If Hillary Clinton competes against Obama fairly and without resorting to covert race baiting, large numbers of black voters will surely embrace her should she be the party's nominee. If she relies instead on racial fears and stereotypes, we should not give her our votes.
Marjorie Valbrun, a journalist, lives in Washington. Her e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org.