2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
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Hillary-Obama feud shifts focus from black issues


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Brian DeBose
1/26/08 Wash. Times (D.C.) A01
The Washington Times


Democrats say that the rancorous tit for tat between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama is preventing any meaningful discussion about issues affecting blacks here in a state tailor-made for such discourse.

Even though blacks make up nearly 50 percent of the Democratic electorate voting in today's South Carolina primary, the candidates have skirted topics such as black incarceration rates, higher unemployment among blacks and AIDS in the black community.

"I have been disappointed that crime policy has not been a major issue," said Rep. Robert C. Scott, Virginia Democrat, who has endorsed Mr. Obama of Illinois.

Mr. Scott said with national incarceration rates for blacks at 2,200 per 100,000 and the recent racially charged marches in Jena, La., the candidates should be addressing racial issues, including the current gang-suppression bill being debated in Congress and crime-prevention policies through education and after-school programs.

Political analyst Donna Brazile, who heads the Democratic National Committee's Voting Rights Institute, said the press and the candidates have been focused on the battle of personalities and that is a disservice to voters.

"The problem I have with this race discussion is that we don't even talk about race. We are talking about personalities, and we haven't even scratched the surface on the issues: black unemployment, drug addiction, recidivism and incarceration rates, AIDS in the black community," Miss Brazile said.

"It's like people are scared to talk about these things, but they have to if they want to have a really helpful dialogue about solving these problems," she said.

Mrs. Clinton, and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, who's done much of the campaigning here, have been trading accusations with Mr. Obama all week, mostly in negative ads that deal with the past. Mrs. Clinton targeted Mr. Obama for saying Republicans were the party of ideas while Mr. Obama blasted Mrs. Clinton for voting in favor of the Iraq war.

Some issues are simply too difficult for the candidates to talk about for political reasons, said Michael Datcher, a political commentator and professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

"Obama does not want to be too closely aligned with the black underclass because he is trying to run a mainstream populist campaign and not be labeled as the black candidate," Mr. Datcher said.

Former Clinton adviser Dick Morris in his column this week said the Clintons are trying to divide white and black voters nationally to win the nomination.

"If Hillary loses South Carolina and the defeat serves to demonstrate Obama's ability to attract a bloc vote among black Democrats, the message will go out loud and clear to white voters that this is a racial fight," Mr. Morris wrote in the Hill newspaper.

A new McClatchy/MSNBC poll holds warning signs for Mr. Obama. He leads Mrs. Clinton in South Carolina, but his support among white Democrats fell in one week from 20 percent to 10 percent after race became more of an issue in the campaign.

Mrs. Clinton's campaign strategists say they're not trying to stir a racial debate, but they think the fallout has had the effect of marking Mr. Obama as "the black candidate," something he has worked to avoid.

Mr. Clinton reminded a South Carolina audience of the race's historic nature.

"They are getting votes, to be sure, because of their race or gender," he said. "That's why people tell me Hillary doesn't have a chance of winning here."

Mr. Datcher said Mr. Obama's goal to stay mainstream has made it difficult for him to speak about issues affecting black people loudly and, when he does, only broadly.

"AIDS for instance is a traditionally liberal cause, and yet no one is talking about that. That is an issue that is really affecting the lives of black people, and Obama needs to take a chance and address that issue," Mr. Datcher said.

At a round-table discussion Mr. Obama held with female voters in Columbia yesterday, a law professor and former doctor talked about HIV.

"HIV rates are skyrocketing here," said Dr. Jacqueline Fox, a member of Mr. Obama's health care advisory board. "We don't have enough money to fund everybody who needs the HIV cocktail .. so they can stay healthy"

Mr. Obama answered her by describing his health care plan but did not specifically address the HIV issue.

The Clintons by contrast, Mr. Datcher said, would have a hard time talking about high incarceration rates and how mandatory minimum-sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine have contributed to them.

"When Clinton was the president, we began to see that movement on the sentencing disparity issue, and he wasn't willing to do much to get it done," Mr. Datcher said.

"He wasn't fighting against it, that's for sure, even though everyone knows that cocaine is cocaine whether it is powder or crack."

When the U.S. Sentencing Commission recently took steps to remove the disparity and the Supreme Court approved judicial review of retroactively shortening sentences of more than 19,000 inmates, Mrs. Clinton was the only Democrat to say she didn't support it in an August debate.

The Obama campaign yesterday said the candidate is talking about issues important to everyone.

"Barack Obama has spent the last few days talking about how his plan would help stimulate the economy. The only thing that is distracting is the shift of focus from the issues to the horse race," said an Obama campaign spokesperson.

*This story is based in part on wire service reports.


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