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Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, and the man who probably will be the Democratic nominee for the office of President of the United States, made a bold statement recently. He said, “White folks in the South who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals on the back ought to be voting with us, and not [Republicans], because their kids don’t have health insurance either, and their kids need better schools too.”
Dean has caught a lot of press and drawn a lot of ire for that statement, none more amusing than the hypocritical tirade of North Carolina’s U.S. Senator John Edwards. Edwards criticized Dean for making such a reference, but if I remember correctly, this was the same guy who held a press event in some Confederate historical site earlier in the campaign. I guess only Southern white male Democrats can make Confederate references. Howard, you should have asked for John’s permission to do so. Let that be a lesson learned.
Now back to the premise of the statement. Dean may be on to something that was brought out last issue: Democrats must find a way to reach out and relate to Southern whites or they will continue to be obliterated every election. He is right that Southerners are not voting with their wallets, for many poor whites are denied quality health care, adequate housing and premium education. Southern whites, whether they drive pickups or not, are among some of the poorest individuals in America as it relates to income and quality of life.
But if Dean thinks he can overwhelm these poor souls with intelligent arguments, he is on a folly that will lead to defeat in November 2004. That Confederate flag he alluded to is the reason why Southern whites gravitate to the GOP. The Republicans in the South have wrapped themselves in that flag, very subtly suggesting that poor whites are in the condition they are in because of government dollars that are being directed to black folks.
Now, you and I know that there are more whites in TANF programs than blacks, but it is hard to convince Southern whites, especially the ones receiving the assistance, otherwise. The GOP uses black faces in their campaigns when they talk about fighting crime, inciting fear that is unwarranted and unnecessary. The Republicans have even made the flag an issue in itself, saying that its display is about heritage and not hate. These are the obstacles Dean has to face and overcome if he wants to woo Southern whites, especially males, back into the proverbial big tent of the Democratic Party.
As to the argument that Dean will alienate African-Americans with these comments, hearken back with me to the glory days of the 1992 Clinton campaign. Remember Sister Souljah, the social activist that became a one-hit wonder on the rap scene? She made a record that allegedly encouraged the killing of white folks in the lyrics. Who was the person who raised the most concern about that song? If you guessed Bill Clinton, you are correct. Jesse Jackson openly criticized Clinton at his Rainbow/PUSH meetings for chastising Sister Souljah. Many black leaders felt Clinton attacked Sister Souljah to curry favor with white voters, Southern and suburban. Clinton did and the rest is history.
Dean is a shrewd politician. He is not one to go on quixotic political quests. This statement was calculated to make a point that the Dean campaign is open to everyone that wants to be a part of it, even Southern white males. The question is what substantive message can he contrive to make his gambit successful. Only time will tell.
Erik R. Fleming, a Democrat, is a state representative in Mississippi. This essay originally appeared in one of CounterPunch’s favorite websites, The Black Commentator.