Playing the Race Card

I hesitantly step into the Hillary Clinton – Barack Obama family scuffle over South Carolina’s black vote. Both candidates are products of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the conservative wing of the Democratic Party. Clinton is a DLC star, chair of its American Dream Initiative touting free markets, balanced budgets and middle-class know-how, while Obama’s political action committee, the Hope Fund, has raised money for half of the DLC’s representatives in the Senate. This is how America measures progress: the DLC, founded as a vehicle for pro-business Southern white men, is now the arena advancing a black man and a white woman who talk as if the more populist Southern white man in the race were invisible.

The “controversy” over Clinton’s Martin Luther King comment (“it took a president to make the dream a reality”) was, if anything, a set up to push Obama to talk race, something he has taken pains to avoid beyond the occasional King quote he tosses into the mix. Talking race in a white media echo chamber works to Clinton’s advantage. First, it is a subtle nod to subconscious and not so subconscious racism. Secondly, it gives her the chance to expound upon the Clintons’ fictional race history with blacks.

What Bill knows, Hill knows. And Southern politician Bill Clinton has always played race politics to perfection. Many have perhaps forgotten about Bill, speaking in the last pulpit King stood in, telling blacks in 1993 how disappointed “Dr. King would be [in them] if he were alive today”, because of black on black crime. “Crime” has long been a white politician’s code to signal, “I can stick it to blacks.” In his first presidential race Governor Clinton supported the death penalty at a time when the country was split almost down the middle on the issue. For good measure, he made sure to oversee the execution of convicted killer Ricky Ray Rector, a brain-damaged black man, in the heat of the primaries.

Then right in time for the Southern primaries in 1992 he posed with Georgia Senator Sam Nunn in front of a phalanx of black inmates in white prison suits at Stone Mountain, Georgia, second home of the Ku Klux Klan. That picture appeared in newspapers across the South the day people went to the polls. It was Clinton’s way to reassure racists.

Now, I have no expectations of Obama taking up race issues or attacking policies that have disparate negative racial implications. I have no expectation of him highlighting his blackness. He isn’t running to be “president of black America” (at least not yet). His message is of the elusive and metaphoric “one America” as opposed to John Edwards’ “two Americas” divided between the “haves and have-nots.” Yet, as Clinton discovered before she started appealing to women and ripping off some of Edwards’ with-the-people rhetoric, looking ahead and tryin g to run a general election campaign in the midst of primary battles can bring problems. For Obama, it has meant ignoring what should be his natural base black voters. That is, until he needed them.

In politics you start with a base. Yet either the Obama campaign is attempting to reverse the process, or he doesn’t see black voters as his base, or he thinks the majority of blacks will vote race without courting. Of course he can’t openly appeal to black people to vote for him solely on race, although several of his supporters on black talk radio have demanded that blacks do just that. The irony is that Hillary Clinton is openly appealing to blacks to vote for her solely on Bill. One of the reasons the battle between Clinton and Obama seems so personal at times is that Clinton considers black voters her natural base, and Obama the upstart usurper who didn’t wait his turn. It’s almost as if, like a disappointed patrician, she were saying, “After all we’ve done for you people” Meanwhile, neither she nor Obama is taking on the weighty substance of our issues.

It would be perilous for Obama to respond to “Friend of Bill” Bob Johnson, founder of BET, on yet another insinuation about his past drug use. It only keeps the drug-using (and, implied, dealing) black guy stereotype alive. Johnson’s comments were deplorable — especially coming from a person who made his money on the exploitation of rump shaking and rap music while simultaneously removing news and public affairs from BET. Moreover, I have been involved in enough campaigns to know that very few things said during them are unintentional, especiall y with smart people. Johnson will now move along, just as Clinton’s New Hampshire chairman did after mentioning Obama and cocaine in the same breath. There’s always someone willing to fall on his sword for the king or queen, and another one waiting to take his place.

To Obama’s credit he put his past drug use out there first in an effort to inoculate himself from attack. That’s how the game works tell your own story before your enemies tell it. It doesn’t stop folk from throwing mud, but it makes the stuff less sticky. Perhaps if Obama spoke more forcefully about the hundreds of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders who were not as fortunate as he, and are now locked up in jail, he might gain a bit more credibility and support from those who accuse him of being devoid of substance.

Obama is fortunate he wasn’t busted during Bill Clinton’s years in office. Clinton left behind a larger, darker prison population than when he took office. Black incarceration rates during the Clinton years surpassed those during Ronald Reagan’s eight years. That Clinton did nothing about mandatory minimum sentences was no surprise. That he did nothing to change the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine that disproportionately affects African Americans was no surprise. That he successfully stumped for “three strikes and you’re out ” in the crime bill, for restrictions on the right of habeas corpus and expansion of the federal death penalty was no surprise. When he came into office one in four black men were in the talins of the criminal justice system in some way; when he left, it was one in three. In many states ex-felons are denied the right to vote, a factor that had a direct impact on the 2000 presidential vote in Florida.

Hillary Clinton strikes a pose as the wife of “America’s first black president,” even as Bill’s policies on due process, equal protection and equal treatment – in other words, civil rights – were horrible. One Clinton initiative required citizens, mostly black, in public housing to surrender their Fourth Amendment, or privacy, rights. His “one strike and you’re out” policy for public housing residents, under which people convicted of a crime, along with anyone who lives with them, may be evicted without consideration of their due proc ess rights is still creating housing problems for the poor. Bill (convicted of perjury) and Hillary Clinton were not similarly chucked out of their publicly subsidized housing, aka the White House. If they were poor and trying to get back into their old place in the projects right now, they might not stand a chance.

That’s reality in a country that left people on their roofs to die. John Edwards used Hurricane Katrina as his entrance ticket to the 2008 campaign, but at a substantive level he, Obama and Clinton seem incapable of addressing “the right of return” for the 250,000 displaced residents relocated after the storm. A “right of return” would require that they have somewhere to live and work upon return. Many of the displaced were renters before the flood. Many have the kind of credit rating that disqualifies them for most private hous ing and some types of government assistance. New Orleans had the highest poverty/crime rate in the region before the storm, and many of the now displaced were unemployed. A significant percentage of the 250,000 have criminal records, or someone in their immediate family does, thus disqualifying them from public housing under the one-strike policy even if forces in New Orleans weren’t intent on eliminating public housing; Will Edwards, Obama or Hillary Clinton support the repeal of the one-strike policy? Will they support waiving or lowering credit requirements? Will they come out for homesteading or granting people a home and a clean start?

If Obama wanted to go after the Clintons on race, there’s plenty of ammunition out there, like Governor Clinton’s refusal to sign a civil rights bill in Arkansas. Or President Clinton’s dumping of his friend Lani Guinier from consideration for the Justice Department’s office of civil rights over her advocacy of cumulative voting, the next frontier for civil rights, which would break down voting by race and party. But I am just as sure that if Obama went after Hillary Clinton to reveal the real record of the period she seems intent on restoring, h e would be savagely attacked for playing the race card by the very same media that is fawning over him now. The fact is, talking up race or even recognizing the racial challenges of living in America brings more peril to Obama than talking up gender does for Hillary. Lately some of Clinton’s black supporters here have taken to whispering to black voters that if Obama can’t bring himself to talk about race in South Carolina, he’s not goin g to talk about it anywhere else. They’re right, but they’re also snakes. As Clinton sniffed the other day on Meet the Press, “This race is not about gender, and I certainly hope it’s not about race!”

Nonetheless, if Obama insists on casting his campaign as a movement, he has to add some substance to it. It’s not just the “old politics of division” that the Clintons represent; it’s the consequences of the policies that they left behind, including the demobilization of a lot of progressive black and working class forces who gave Bill a pass because he said, in many politically masterful ways, “I feel your pain.” Whatever candidate starts defining “change” in terms of abandoning those policies will get my vote. Until then the Clinton-Obama race spat is just a family spat that soon will pass.

KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY is a civil rights organizer in South Carolina and author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike! The Fundamentals of Black Politics which will be published this spring by CounterPunch Books. He can be reached at:




Kevin Alexander Gray is a civil rights organizer in South Carolina and author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike! The Fundamentals of Black Politics (CounterPunch/AK Press) and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He is the editor, along with JoAnn Wypijewski and Jeffrey St. Clair, of Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence from CounterPunch Books. He can be reached at