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Playing a frayed and faded ‘race card’

by Joe R. Hicks

January 17, 2008 | 7:00 pm

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is making a truly impressive run for the White House, and in doing so is being considered by many as America's first mainstream "black" candidate -- in other words a "black" candidate not running on a near-exclusive agenda of identity politics.

In fact, Obama's soaring stump rhetoric often speaks about the nation needing to transcend racial divisions, arguing that "we are one nation" as he did in his victory speech after the Iowa caucuses. In doing so Obama, the product of a white mother from Kansas and an African father from Kenya, became the nation's first "black" presidential candidate who was not appealing directly to the politics of racial identity.

However, it didn't take long for this race-transcendent rhetoric to become mired in the same old tired politics of blame and guilt that have for too long been the un-natural state of America's racial affairs. As the race has became increasingly heated between Obama and his chief rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), the gloves have come off and race has emerged as an issue that has dominated all discussions of the Democrats' run for the White House.

The series of comments began back in December, when the chair of the Clinton campaign in Michigan speculated whether Obama has ever dealt drugs. Just prior to the New Hampshire vote, Bill Clinton referred to the increasingly successful Obama campaign as a "fairy tale." Then Sen. Clinton told an audience of supporters that it took the work of then-president Lyndon Johnson to begin realizing the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. -- which seemed to some sensitive ears to diminish the importance of the great civil rights leader. Candice Tolliver, a Obama spokesperson, said that "a cross section of voters are alarmed at the tenor of these statements."

Predictably, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said the Clintons, his old friends and allies, "Regrettably ... have resorted to distasteful and condescending language...."

Democratic Rep. Jim Clayburn, a critical voice in black South Carolina politics, said he'd now consider endorsing Obama due to what he termed a lack of respect in the Clinton campaign's approach to Obama.

Bill Clinton went on Al Sharpton's radio show to explain his comments, and Sen. Clinton appeared on numerous news shows engaging in damage control. But the racial silliness seemed to have a momentum all its own. While campaigning with Sen. Clinton in South Carolina, Bob Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, again raised the specter of Obama's drug use while a teenager. Clinton refused to repudiate the comments, even though she was standing on the stage as the over-the-top statements were made.

It is impossible to know, at this point, whether the Clintons, stung by the strength of the Obama campaign, decided to reach back for the race card as a device to weaken the cross-race appeal of Obama's message. The Clintons' electoral machine is known to "take no prisoners" and to do so with a fair amount of ruthlessness. That said, it is also a stretch to attempt to portray the Clintons as racially bigoted -- having been devoted to liberal racial politics their entire lives.

On the other hand, why did it take Barack Obama more than a week to attempt to defuse the growing argument that somehow the Clintons are neo-racists? Only within the past few days has Obama spoken out, saying "Bill and Hillary Clinton have historically and consistently been on the right side of civil rights issues. I think they care about the African American community and that they care about all Americans and that they want to see equal rights and justice in this country."

So will this issue go away now? Most likely it will not. Once unloosed, the beast of racial identity politics will be tamed only with great difficulty.

Speculation about racial motivations regarding elections is nothing new. A prime example are the views of folks like Michael Eric Dyson, a black Georgetown University professor -- a guy who could turn a visit from Santa Claus into a racial issue -- who recently made featured appearances on various 24-hour news channels, peddling the view that the so-called "Bradley effect" defeated Obama in New Hampshire. In 1982, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, a black man, was defeated in his race for governor, even though polls indicated he'd win. The continuing claim is that whites lied to pollsters, then went into the voting booth to vote for the "white" candidate, George Deukmejian.

This is, of course, all rank speculation, but the view has become enshrined as reality among those with transparent racial agendas. No one knows what was in the minds and hearts of California's voters in that 1982 Gubernatorial race -- just as race-conscious pundits like Dyson now speculate wildly that New Hampshire's mostly white voters were mindful of race when they handed Hillary Clinton a narrow three-point win over Barack Obama.

But wouldn't a more thoughtful analysis have led to the conclusion that Clinton had a more effective New Hampshire ground operation? Or what about the fact that many uncommitted voters waited until the last moment (nearly 40 percent made up their minds in the last three days prior to the election), with women and older voters perhaps influenced by Clinton's "humanizing" emotional moment in front of television cameras?

Why are some racial "traditionalists" so distraught by what Obama's electoral successes represent? I think the obvious willingness of white voters to disregard the candidate's skin color is a direct challenge to the argument that racism dominates the nation's social, political and economic life. Already, Obama's highly credible run for the highest office in the land has caused the country's professional racial complainers to scramble in order to put their spin on things.

It is obvious that if Obama were to win the Oval Office not all racism would be eliminated by this feat. However, I have not heard anyone making that claim. Racism and bigotry will perhaps always exist in some form. There will always be those idiots and fools who define others exclusively by their skin color, ethnicity or religion. But so what? At least 10 percent of the American people believe that Elvis Presley is still alive.It is still too early, and this presidential race is still far too volatile to predict its outcome. What is clear is that Obama's phenomenal appeal to voters is shaking up the long-standing argument from black traditional leadership that racism still reigns in America, and would never allow "a brother" to win the White House. Obama may not win -- but if he doesn't, it won't be because of his skin color, but rather a result of the usual tactical and strategic errors that candidates make.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I do not plan to vote for Obama. However, I do believe Obama's highly competitive candidacy puts the lie to the claim that America remains a racist country. While black civil rights-types have been fixated on highlighting every example of a racial slight, no matter how inconsequential, the vast majority of white Americans have simply moved on -- focusing on living their daily lives, paying bills and raising their kids. For this timely gut-check of American race relations we can, in part, thank the candidate: Barack Obama. With both the Obama and Clinton camps striking conciliatory notes in Nevada regarding their recent racial skirmish, perhaps the two campaigns can now get back to real issues, as opposed to racial posturing.



Joe Hicks is the vice president of Community Advocates, a Los Angeles-based human relations agency (www.cai-la.org,) and a KFI talk radio host.

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