2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
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Seismic Shift in Racial Politics

 

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Carolyn Lochhead
2/17/08 S.F. Chron. A1


The contest for the Democratic presidential nomination between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a white woman, and Barack Obama, a black man, has scrambled 21st century identity politics, producing startling turns in an election that, whatever its outcome, will make history.

It was former President Bill Clinton who called the racial divide "America's constant curse" in his second inaugural address 11 years ago.

But it was after Bill Clinton injected race into the South Carolina primary last month that African Americans, one of the Democratic Party's most important voting blocs, abandoned his wife's candidacy in droves.

Obama's novelty is not that he is the first black candidate for president, but the first black candidate who is not running as a black candidate. Obama has scrupulously avoided racial stereotyping, yet his race is an obvious element of his appeal that no rival can match.

It was his string of victories in overwhelmingly white states, starting with his upset in Iowa and followed by wins in Idaho, Utah, Nebraska, Maine and elsewhere, that has generated his lead.

That, in turn, attracted black voters stunned that whites would vote for a black man and enable him to win. White voters, especially at higher income and education levels, see in Obama a chance to salve the nation's deep racial wounds.

The combination has undergirded an enormous momentum that last Tuesday in Virginia cracked Clinton's hold on Latinos, women and poorer whites.

Obama acknowledged this appeal in his victory speech afterward, declaring, "This is the new American majority."

"In a matter of months with Barack Obama, we've seen white men support a black man for president," said James Taylor, a race and American politics scholar at the University of San Francisco. "We've seen the country's most pro-black president try to manipulate race against a black candidate. These are some transformational things that are happening in Obama himself. For those who support him, he represents an opportunity to deal with race in an unconventional way."

As the son of a white Kansan and a black Kenyan, Obama's very genetic makeup "is the African and the American ... what W.E.B. DuBois called the 'double consciousness,' " Taylor said. "Obama, on an emotional level, on a psychological and a visceral level, is an opportunity for America to reconcile this history in an important way. If an African American man can become president of the United States in the 21st century, then it tells us that the remainder of the 21st century represents all kinds of possibilities, because in his person there is a representation of both black and white American experiences. He allows us to exorcise some of the demons we've had in our history of race in America."

On a practical level, the Clinton errors in South Carolina allowed Obama to broaden his base into a powerful new coalition, while dangerously weakening Hillary Clinton's.

Hillary Clinton began with many more African American supporters than Obama. Their loyalty had been cemented during the long economic boom under her husband's presidency, when African Americans and Latinos made big economic strides.

"For most of last year, African American voters were more of Hillary's base than Obama's base," said David Bositis, who studies black voting behavior at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington.

Obama's support, by contrast, was concentrated among the young, the prosperous and the highly educated. It was predominantly male and white. It was the base of former Democratic candidates Howard Dean, Gary Hart and Bill Bradley, Bositis said, "that would always lose."

But after Obama pulled out his surprise win in Iowa, the Clintons "panicked ... and began introducing race into the campaign," Bositis said. "It had the opposite effect, I'm sure, of what they intended."

Even after Obama sealed his victory in South Carolina, Bill Clinton sought to marginalize the win, comparing it with Jesse Jackson's victories in the same state in 1984 and 1988.

African American voters turned decisively to Obama. His margins among black voters soared to 8-1 and even higher. In a matter of weeks, the black support that the Clintons had cultivated over decades vanished, while Obama found the missing key to a winning coalition.

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, an African American and nonvoting member of Congress for the District of Columbia, said Obama had to have something more than his race to sunder that tie to the Clintons.

"To break that, you needed something quite extraordinary, and what happened to African Americans is they got to know a black candidate the likes of whom we haven't seen in any race, certainly in my lifetime," said Norton, 70. "You've got to have an extraordinary candidate to have whites do what they have no history of doing, which is vote in large numbers for an African American to be their leader. That means you've got to have a lot of things going for you, and he puts those ingredients together."

Ron Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland who helped run Jesse Jackson's campaign in 1984, said the Obama campaign is "very careful about not posturing him as a racial candidate," which allows white voters to vote for him. It also leaves many people "lapsing into racial analysis and categories, because we can't quite explain what he is and where he is and why he is."

It seems odd that during a time of war and terrorism, a mortgage crisis, health care worries and a teetering economy, that race would assert itself. Last summer, the Democratic contest seemed destined to focus on Iraq. Instead, it has become a lesson in demography.

With few domestic policy differences separating Clinton and Obama, the patterns that have emerged revolve around age, income, education and the ethnic and racial composition of various voting blocs. Clinton has drawn her highest support from white women, Latinos, seniors and lower-income workers. Obama's inroads among each of those groups in Virginia recast the contest and now threaten Clinton's last hopes in Texas and Ohio on March 4.

That race has become an issue in 2008 should come as no surprise in light of enormous immigration-driven population changes, said Simon Rosenberg, founder of the New Democrat Network, previously allied with the Democratic Leadership Council headed by former President Clinton.

"The country is undergoing its most profound demographic change in its history," Rosenberg said. "When I was born, the country was 89 percent white and 10.5 percent African American and 0.5 percent 'other.' Today, it's 66 percent white and 33 percent minority. We've seen a tripling of the minority population in the United States in a very short period of time."

Race began percolating as an issue most recently with the 2005 immigration debate, he said, and continued in that guise through the early GOP primaries, where he contends Republicans "demonized" Latinos. "For any civil society, that kind of transition is going to be hard."

Thanks to the fast-growing Latino vote, many analysts believe 2008 will be the year when a presidential election will be decided for the first time by minorities. Some contend that milestone was already passed when President Bush drew more than 40 percent of Latino voters in 2004, providing his victory margins in closely contested Southwestern states.

"The story that was never written and needs to be written is that President Bush got 6,000 more Latino votes in Florida than Al Gore" in 2000, said Lionel Sosa, who has handled several GOP advertising campaigns and now heads Mexicans and Americans Thinking Together. "Latinos have already elected a president of the United States, and it will happen again in a tight race because the big states are the states that have the highest Hispanic population."

So far, Clinton and Obama have been splitting the Latino and African American vote. That lineup will be tested in the March 4 Texas primary, where Latinos may be the last bulwark Clinton has to keep her hopes alive. Clinton won Latinos in California 69 percent to 29 percent, handing her a decisive victory in the nation's biggest state, without which her candidacy might already be dead.

But unlike California, whose 6 percent African American population is less than half the national average, Texas has the nation's third-largest black population. African Americans vote in much higher numbers than Latinos. And because the Democratic Party allocates delegates among congressional districts based on past turnout, heavily African American districts have more delegates than Latino districts. That gives Obama a stronger edge in Texas than has been widely assumed.

Obama has made gains among Latinos, winning 53 to 47 percent in Virginia. Latinos are a young population, an Obama strength. Young voters seem to care less about race, gender and ethnicity than older voters. After a late but aggressive outreach by the Obama campaign before Super Tuesday Feb. 5, "you saw inroads in Arizona and New Mexico, where Obama's share of the Latino vote was closer to 40 percent," said Arturo Vargas, secretary director of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials.

Bositis, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies researcher, said if Texas is Clinton's firewall, "She's in trouble."

For the best display of the unconventional racial dynamic, look at Obama's appearance inKansas, said Christopher Malone, a Pace University political scientist: "He goes to the hometown of his grandfather on his mother's side and points to a cousin in the audience, a 72-year-old woman who is as white as any other Kansan. Could you imagine him accepting the nomination and standing there and bringing up his family members, Kenyans and white Americans, and saying I am America, this is America? It really seems like a perfect storm here."
 

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