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THE “race card” is out in full force. In Tupelo, Mississippi, the birthplace of Elvis Presley, Republicans want to make their stand against Democrats. The city is at the centre of the 1st Congressional District, where a special election was held on May 13. Reliably conservative, the Republican Party has held the seat for several decades. The seat was hard fought between the Democrat Travis Childers and the Republican Greg Davis. Both are white, and both are fairly conservative. They would have to be to compete in a district that sent George Bush back to the White House in 2004 with a plurality.
The Republican Party sent out its heavy hitters (Vice-President Dick Cheney among others) to prevent a Democratic victory in the Deep South. They did not want the Democrats to use this victory as a harbinger of what is to come this November: an across-the-board Democratic victory against a party too closely identified with the Iraq debacle and the imploding economy. For Republicans, it was far better to turn this election into a mandate on race than to allow the real grievances of the population to enter the ballot box.
One part of the onslaught against Childers, who eventually won the election, was that he was in the same party as Barack Obama. Advertisements using images of Obama with Childers, drawing on fears that Childers is as liberal as Obama, flooded television channels. But this was not just about politics. It was also about reviving fears that Childers was too closely affiliated with a powerful black man.
This was the old Republican playbook, which was well crafted during the Nixon years and named the “Southern Strategy”. In 1964 and 1968, the overtly racist George Wallace ran for President on his own party ticket. Wallace’s run created the basis for a racist coalition against the victories of the civil rights movement. It was this coalition that was adopted by Nixon into the Republican Party, and which became its base for the next 30 years. A combination of poor whites, whose only claim to dignity was that they were legally superior to blacks, and the big business faction threw its support behind the racist populism of Republicans.
When Ronald Reagan ran for office in 1980, he went to the town of Philadelphia, Mississippi, just to the south of the 1st Congressional District to announce his candidacy. In 1964, a group of white supremacists killed three civil rights workers in this small town of several thousand. Reagan chose it not for its numbers but as a symbol of the Republicans’ quiet solidarity with entrenched racism.
Reagan returned in 1984 and chanted “The South Will Rise Again”, a long-time favourite phrase of the racist Ku Klux Klan. Rather than consider that it was his own policies of privatisation and deregulation that threatened the livelihood and dignity of the white working class, Reagan and Republicans put the onus on what they called “special interests”, whose main beneficiary, they pointed out, were blacks. Hatred for the advancement of blacks and an irrational fear of “black domination” allowed Republicans to package themselves as the defenders of “American values” and “state’s rights”, code phrases for racism in a world that no longer honours overt racism.
Overwhelmed by the Obama phenomenon, Hillary Clinton and her team have resorted to the kind of coded language that appeals to this racist voting bloc. After her loss in the South Carolina primary, where the Democratic electorate is substantially black, Hillary Clinton’s husband, Bill, told the press, “Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in 1984 and 1988. Jackson ran a good campaign and Obama ran a good campaign here.”
On the surface, this is empirically true. However, a little beneath the surface lies another reality. The reporters did not ask Bill Clinton about Jackson, nor did they ask him if Obama ran a good campaign. His statement was unsolicited. The point he seemed to be making is that Obama won in the same way as Jackson won: as black men they appealed to the “black vote”. Obama is not a candidate for President, Bill Clinton seemed to suggest, but a black man who would do well in South Carolina but cannot win the majority of the votes in the country.
When he was roundly criticised for this remark, Clinton lost his temper and suggested that he was being unfairly charged with racism and that the Obama camp “played the race card on me”. The Obama people disputed that their campaign won only because Obama is black, but they did not say that Clinton was being racist in his comments. He, however, took the occasion to play the aggrieved white man unfairly called racist. In doing this, Clinton appealed to those other white men who might find their privileges threatened by the presence of non-white people in their workplaces and neighbourhoods.
The surreptitious use of this kind of highly charged race language continued from South Carolina to Pennsylvania and onward. Eager to win the “white vote”, Hillary Clinton’s campaign began to question the ability of a black man to win over white voters. Governor Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, a Clinton supporter, told the press, “Some white Pennsylvanians are likely to vote against Barack Obama because he is black. You’ve got conservative whites here, and I think there are some whites who are probably not ready to vote for an African American candidate.”
Bill Clinton went to small Pennsylvania towns, to rooms with all-white audiences, to warn them that Obama did not represent “voters like you”. After her loss in North Carolina and slight win in Indiana, Hillary Clinton told the press that Obama does not have the support of “working, hardworking Americans, white Americans”. The only hardworking Americans in her scenario are white Americans, a view held precisely by those who believe the racist dogma that non-whites leech the system.
Terms like “swing voters” and warnings about “electability” have swept the punditocracy, which pretends to be neutral when discussing how the “white working class” will vote, without a consideration of how the Clinton camp has joined the Republicans to grow their constituencies on a racist soil.
When Obama’s former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, became the focus of a controversy about his comments on America, Hillary Clinton seized on them to point out once more that Obama carries too much baggage to appeal to these “white voters”.
Clinton made no noise about the distasteful comments made by John McCain’s religious friend, John Hagee, who attacked the humanity of core Democratic voters (gays and lesbians, Jews and African Americans).
Wright speaks the “truth to power”, arguing that United States history is filled with examples of the government being unjust to the people. Hagee, on the other hand, speaks the truth to the powerless, claiming that events such as Hurricane Katrina occurred because New Orleans is a city that welcomes gays and lesbians.
Clinton saw the political opening against Obama and took it but did not go after Hagee-McCain. Making common cause with McCain allowed Hillary Clinton to appeal once more to that racist white bloc against Obama. But this concern for working-class whites is shallow.
In 1995, Hillary Clinton told her husband at a strategy session that he owed nothing to this demographic which failed to vote for his agenda in the 1994 midterm election. “Screw ’em,” she said. “You don’t owe them a thing, Bill.” This section now allows Hillary Clinton a wedge against Obama.
Barack Obama shone in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention. He was a local politician from Illinois, given the stage at Boston fortuitously, at John Kerry’s request. Obama catapulted himself to fame principally because he appealed to the population to give up the politics of despair and cynicism for the “politics of hope”.
Obama’s slogans “yes we can” and “you are the change you are waiting for” offered a bright light through the darkness of the Bush years. Few are untouched by the phenomenon, which is not so much about the actual programmatic beliefs of Obama as with the sense that the U.S. is not on a one-way road to destruction. Obama is the parachute to another world.
Hard to beat on these terms, Obama’s opponents have turned to the coded racist grammar perfected by Republicans. But even this is not as effective as it once was. It gave Hillary Clinton the edge in Pennsylvania, but it did not give her as much a victory as she wanted in Indiana. In another special election, in Louisiana, Democrat Don Cazayoux defeated his Republican rival in a conservative district. The Republicans painted Cazayoux as a clone of Obama. While that cut into his lead, it could not bring him down.
The Mississippi election portends a shift in the power of this “white vote” and the declining significance of racist electioneering. The Republicans now talk of Obama’s “toxicity” in the general election, but perhaps if the Louisiana and Mississippi elections are any indicator, the ground might have shifted from Nixon’s Southern Strategy. Few can resist the Obama allure. Even the man who officiated over the wedding of George Bush’s daughter, Reverend Kirbyjon Caldwell, is an Obama supporter. The race card might finally be trumped.
VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was originally published by Frontline, India’s national magazine.