"Neither Clinton nor Obama is taking on the weighty
substance of our issues."
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
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.
"Talking race in a white media echo chamber works to
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
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 trying 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.
have no expectations of Obama taking up race issues or
attacking policies that have disparate negative racial
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, especially 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 tens of
thousands (or 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
incarceration rates during the Clinton years surpassed
those during Ronald Reagan's eight years."
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
talons 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 process 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 housing
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?
"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."
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
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, he 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 going 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 longtime civil rights activist and journalist,
living in South Carolina.