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A 2007 Gallup poll showed 94 percent of U.S. respondents saying they would vote for a Black presidential candidate, while 88 percent indicated they would vote for a woman. A Newsweek poll released on May 26th showed roughly 70 percent of voters agreeing that the country is ready for a Black man to serve as president, up from just 37 percent in the 2000 election. The political landscape has at long last shifted sharply away from the racist and sexist bigotry that have kept the popular majority so divided historically, ignoring their shared interests–and thereby allowing the political status quo to continue to flourish.
But this seismic shift in mass consciousness was nowhere to be seen in the Democratic primaries in recent months. On the contrary, as Hillary Clinton’s quest for the Democratic nomination succumbed to the momentum of Senator Barack Obama’s, the multi-millionaire Clinton ludicrously posed as a populist spokesperson for that minority of stereotypical rural, racist whites who steadfastly refuse to vote for any Black candidate — complete with photo-ops swilling shots of whiskey and posing on the back of pickup truck. As New York Times columnist Bob Herbert noted, “There was a name for it when the Republicans were using that kind of lousy rhetoric to good effect: it was called the Southern strategy, although it was hardly limited to the South. Now the Clintons, in their desperation to find some way — any way — back to the White House, have leapt aboard that sorry train.”
The Clintons’ last-ditch effort was in full display at the Democratic National Committee showdown on Saturday, May 31st at a Washington, D.C. hotel. Hundreds of bitter Clinton supporters protested inside and outside while the DNC’s rules committee attempted to forge a compromise on the contested delegations of Florida and Michigan, which violated party rules by holding early primaries. As the rules committee met, tensions ran high. Jeering and cheering filled the hotel ballroom, while “one woman, wearing a blue ‘Team Hillary’ shirt, shoved a man in a suit and tie wearing a small Obama button on his lapel,” according to the New York Times.
Clinton’s supporters, whipped into a frenzied and desperate attempt to rescue her long-doomed campaign, couched their complaints as an attempt to restore “democracy” to the primary contests. But the racial overtones were hard to ignore. Harriet Christian, one of Clinton’s more unruly supporters, was captured on YouTube calling Obama an “inadequate black male” exploiting the “white woman running for president,” as she vowed to vote for McCain in November rather than cast a vote for Obama.
Former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro had primed the pump for the angry Clinton mob just one day earlier, in a racist tirade that appeared as a Boston Globe op-ed piece. There, Ferraro clumsily fused the interests of feminists and white racists in an anti-Obama rant. “Perhaps it’s because neither the Barack Obama campaign nor the media seem to understand what is at the heart of the anger on the part of women who feel that Hillary Clinton was treated unfairly because she is a woman or what is fueling the concern of Reagan Democrats for whom sexism isn’t an issue, but reverse racism is,” she wrote.
Ferraro made headlines in March when she told the Torrence, California newspaper, the Daily Breeze, “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position.” She later defended her comments by stating angrily, “I will not be discriminated against because I’m white.” She resigned from Clinton’s finance committee afterward but clearly reserves her right to articulate the clarion call of white racists—all in the name of feminism. “If you’re white you can’t open your mouth without being accused of being racist,” she argued in the Globe. “They [racist whites] see Obama’s playing the race card throughout the campaign and no one calling him for it as frightening… [W]hen he said in South Carolina after his victory ‘Our Time Has Come’ they believe he is telling them that their time has passed.”
One of Hillary Clinton’s scandal-ridden younger brothers, Tony Rodham, briefly escaped the DNC melee at a nearby Irish bar, where he seethed over a beer, as his pregnant wife and small children waited for him to finish. There, he told a Los Angeles Times reporter, “I’m just here to make sure Americans are represented by one vote for every person.” (Rodham apparently does not appreciate that most democracies require more than one candidate to appear on the ballot, in contrast to Michigan’s, where only Clinton’s name was on offer.)
Rodham described himself as a “yellow dog Democrat, all my life” while threatening, “If my sister doesn’t end up with the nomination, I gotta take a look at who I’m gonna vote for.” Lest there be any confusion about Rodham’s political motives, his commitment to women’s rights is highly suspect. His first wife, Nicole Boxer (daughter of California Senator Barbara Boxer) was forced to sue him in court last year to retrieve $158,000 in back alimony and child support payments he had failed to deliver since they parted ways. Nevertheless, he played a prominent role in Clinton’s fracas at the DNC, which consciously pitted the interests of ‘60s generation white feminists against the African-American candidate.
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Hillary Clinton’s entourage appeared to be above the fray on May 31st, hundreds of miles away, relishing victory in the Puerto Rican primary. But the Clintons were the key architects of the thinly veiled race-based campaign strategy that escalated when Hillary Clinton’s own presidential aspirations disintegrated after Iowa’s caucuses delivered victory to Obama in January. The Clintons appeared unable to gracefully relinquish control over the party apparatus that they have so ruthlessly abused over the last twenty-odd years. Indeed, they were barely able to conceal their outrage that the First Lady of the so-called “first black president” could be so easily upstaged by an actual Black presidential candidate.
Before embracing a classic “Southern strategy,” the Clintons seem to have paid close attention to polls such as one conducted by the Los Angeles Times in 2006 that reported only 34 percent of respondents said they could vote for a Muslim for president. Even prior to the January Iowa caucuses, at least two Clinton staffers forwarded an email reading, “Let us all remain alert concerning Obama’s expected presidential Candidacy. Please forward to everyone you know. The Muslims have said they plan on destroying the US from the inside out, what better way to start than at the highest level.” Clinton summarily fired the two staffers, yet the campaign theme remained, even as right-wing bloggers circulated rumors, as the Washington Post reported, claiming that Obama is “a ‘Muslim plant’ in a conspiracy against America, and that, if elected president, he would take the oath of office using a Koran, rather than a Bible.”
Indeed, when Clinton was asked on March 2nd in an interview on CBS’ 60 Minutes whether she believes Obama is a Muslim, she replied, “No, no why would I — there’s nothing to base that on,” while adding suggestively, “as far as I know.” In contrast, John McCain chastised a radio host for repeatedly referring to “Barack Hussein Obama” during an interview. Clinton’s campaign denied leaking a widely circulated photo of Obama wearing a turban and also denied leaking a rumor that the young Obama had “spent at least four years in a so-called madrassa, or Muslim seminary, in Indonesia” to Insight, an online conservative magazine. Insight editors insist their source was the Clinton campaign.
Opinion polls have reported in recent months that roughly one in ten U.S. voters erroneously believe that Obama is a practicing Muslim.
Moreover, a Pew Research Center survey released on March 27th showed that, while Obama has a highly favorable image among Democratic voters of all races, the breakdown shows his clear areas of demographic weakness. The report noted, “white Democrats who hold unfavorable views of Obama are much more likely than those who have favorable opinions of him to say that equal rights for minorities have been pushed too far; they also are more likely to disapprove of interracial dating, and are more concerned about the threat that immigrants may pose to American values. In addition, nearly a quarter of white Democrats (23%) who hold a negative view of Obama believe he is a Muslim.”
In early May, Hillary Clinton ventured into territory once limited to the likes of white supremacist George Wallace, telling USA Today that Obama’s support has been weak among “hard-working Americans, white Americans”—invoking the racist stereotype of “lazy” African-Americans embraced by the most reactionary section of the voting population. “There’s a pattern emerging here,” Clinton added, reinventing her waning campaign as a crusade for whites unable to stomach the prospect of voting for a Black presidential candidate.
In this process, Clinton has shifted the parameters of election year politics backwards by several decades–away from the most urgent issues facing voters, which include falling living standards, lack of healthcare and the Iraq war—to a debate over whether a Black person has a democratic right to become president over the persistent opposition of a minority of white racists who happen to be “swing voters.” She has deliberately stoked the mistaken and racist fear that Muslims threaten the principles of democracy.
Those pockets of racism are undeniable, and they continue to flourish in both so-called “Blue” and Red” states. And the Clintons have courted all of them, from Boston to West Virginia. While Hillary Clinton has undoubtedly been subjected to virulent sexism as she seeks to become president, the Obama campaign has played no role in contributing to it. In contrast, the Clintons must bear tremendous responsibility for embracing society’s most backward elements in their cold-blooded quest to move back into the White House.
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In a rare report on the uglier encounters faced by Obama campaigners, the Washington Post described on May 13th, “For all the hope and excitement Obama’s candidacy is generating, some of his field workers, phone-bank volunteers and campaign surrogates are encountering a raw racism and hostility that have gone largely unnoticed — and unreported — this election season. Doors have been slammed in their faces. They’ve been called racially derogatory names (including the white volunteers). And they’ve endured malicious rants and ugly stereotyping from people who can’t fathom that the senator from Illinois could become the first African American president.”
Tunkhannock Borough, Indiana Mayor Norm Ball wrote a letter to a local newspaper explaining his opposition to Obama with anti-Muslim racial stereotypes. “Barack Hussein Obama and all of his talk will do nothing for our country,” he wrote. “There is so much that people don’t know about his upbringing in the Muslim world. His stepfather was a radical Muslim and the ranting of his minister against the white America, you can’t convince me that some of that didn’t rub off on him. No, I want a president that will salute our flag, and put their hand on the Bible when they take the oath of office.”
Obama supporters in Kokomo, Indiana (an historic bulwark for the KKK) have been chased by dogs and treated to a steady stream of racist invective. Obama’s Vincennes office was vandalized on the eve of the Indiana primary, spray painted with slogans such as, “Hamas votes BHO” and “We don’t cling to guns or religion– Goddamn Wright” as they proved otherwise.
Obama supporter Ray McCormick, who is white, arrived at the crime scene and took photos. “I thought, this is a big deal,” he told the Washington Post. But when he notified the Obama campaign, he was told that the incident was not newsworthy. All told, Obama’s Indiana campaign offices received three bomb threats from disgruntled locals, but the campaign chose not to raise these as a campaign issue. Likewise, Obama’s response to claims that he is a practicing Muslim has been reduced to repeated denial, rather than a defense of one of the world’s largest religions, which is currently so disparaged in mainstream Western discourse. “Barack has never been a Muslim or practiced any other faith besides Christianity,” states one of his fact sheets.
Obama is innocent of Ferraro’s charge that he has played the “race card” during the primary season, but this is unfortunate. Obama’s reluctance to forcefully challenge racism on the campaign trail has allowed the Clinton campaign to make the “Southern strategy” respectable once again, emboldening the racist white minority—in stark contrast to majority opinion in this changing political climate. To be sure, there has been an anti-racist backlash against Clinton’s white supremacist supporters. Even in Indiana, Clinton barely scored a victory, with an unimpressive 51 to 49 percent, while Obama attracted a strong percentage of white voters.
Now, as Clinton faces the inevitability of failure in her quest for the presidency, she is floating the possibility of vice president on Obama’s ticket. He should give her a middle finger, after surveying the wreckage the Clinton campaign has left behind.
U.S. politics are at a potential turning point, in which a nation founded upon slavery, with racism ingrained in its very foundation, could finally begin to correct its hideous past. This process is long overdue. But realizing it requires a candidate willing to wage a frontal assault on the minority of white Americans from all social classes who still cling to racism—who the Clintons have consciously emboldened—while championing the civil rights of African-Americans, Muslims, Latinos and Asians victimized by the system.
SHARON SMITH is the author of Women and Socialism and Subterranean Fire: a History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States. She can be reached at: email@example.com