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How Clinton Courted Racists in Pennsylvania


Time for a discussion on … not race, but racism.

One of the clear observations that can be made about the ugly Democratic presidential primary just held in Pennsylvania is that it was marred by racism.

The winning candidate, Hillary Clinton, who bested Barack Obama by just over 9 percent of the vote after a six-week campaign, made a determined effort to court the white, working class voters in Pennsylvania’s midsection and in the heavily ethnic northeastern part of the state, and she succeeded. According to exit polls, for example, white men voted 57 percent for Clinton and 43 percent for Obama. White women went 68 percent for Clinton and 32 percent for Obama. White Catholics, a particular target of the Clinton campaign, went 70 percent for Clinton and 30 percent for Obama—her biggest margin of any grouping.

Most of Clinton’s white voters came from the overwhelmingly white rural parts of the state and the ethnic northeast and far west. The evidence: Obama won the urban vote by 60 percent to 40 percent.
Clinton began her focus on the white vote in earnest during the South Carolina primary, when husband Bill famously equated Obama’s campaign with that of an earlier black presidential campaigner, Jesse Jackson. The linkage was immediately spotted as a clever way of labeling Obama as a “black” candidate, since Jackson has always been a lightning rod for white voters because of his active support for such touchy issues as affirmative action and fair housing laws.

She also made much during the Pennsylvania campaign of Obama’s membership in a black church in Chicago, and of his relationship with the church’s black liberation preacher, Jeremiah Wright (adding that she “would have left” such a church herself).

As I said, it was an ugly campaign, in which Clinton and her surrogates went out of their way to parse and divide the Democratic electorate, and to tear down her opponent in ways that could do lasting damage, should he win the nomination in August and have to go head to head against Republican John McCain.

Now, Clinton backers are trying to rebut the charge of racism in Clinton’s campaign and among those who voted for her, arguing that the 90 percent of Pennsylvania’s blacks who voted for Obama are equally racist. As one correspondent on the website put it, “I’m not sure how this works. I’ve seen splashed all over the media how we Clinton supporters are racists because a percentage of people said that race was important in their decision. And yet, 9 out of 10 blacks voted for Obama. I haven’t seen numbers (if they were asked at all) indicating what percentage of blacks were influenced by race when voting for Obama. Who are the real racists? We are not allowed to say. And the media is afraid to ask.”

Another individual, commenting on one of my columns, wrote, “It is ridiculous to suggest that white people who don’t vote for Obama must be racist. It is not whites who are most heavily influenced by race in this election. On the contrary, it is the black electorate who have shown a tendency to cast a race-based vote. How else do you account for Obama receiving 90% of the black vote? If 90% of whites voted for Clinton, you’d scream racism. Why aren’t you similarly critical of blacks?”

Let’s examine this claim critically, though.

Yes it is true that 90 percent of blacks who voted in Pennsylvania cast their ballots for Obama, the black (half-black, actually) candidate. But remember, these are people who for all their adult lives have been voting for white candidates for president. It cannot be said that they do not or will not vote for whites; only that given the opportunity to vote for a black candidate, they did so.

In Clinton’s case, certainly most of those who voted for her did so not because she was white, but because of other reasons (not least because she is a woman—Clinton won 59 percent of the female vote). But clearly some of her support came from whites—men and women—who, as Clinton Pennsylvania mentor Gov. Ed Rendell said, “will not vote for a black candidate.”

And there in stark terms is the answer. There are white voters in the Democratic Party in Pennsylvania—a lot of them, in fact—who are simply racists. They will not vote for a black candidate for president. Period.

That is a far different thing from a black voter who votes for a black candidate, or a Catholic voter who votes for a Catholic candidate. Identity politics is not racism. A black voter might rationally feel that a person of color in the presidency could better understand the issues confronting the voter in question, just as a woman voter might think a woman candidate could better understand her issues. That does not make the black voter a racist any more than it makes the woman voter a man hater.

But the white voter who will not vote for a black candidate is something different, just as a man who will not vote for a woman candidate is something different. These are bigots or sexists.

Now clearly no candidate can be blamed if bigots simply happen to vote for them, but Clinton, in this campaign, is guilty of deliberately seeking the votes of bigots. Her use of the Rev. Wright to smear Obama, her choice of lily-white extras for her campaign ads, all speak to this obscene strategy.

It was, as I said, an ugly primary.

DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based journalist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006 and now available in paperback edition). His work is available at





Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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