Friday, May 02, 2008

Black unlike me

So I guess the cat is out of the bag . . .

Barack Obama is black. African-American. Exotic. Bi-racial.

Call him any of the above. Just make sure you don't refer to him as white. And, above all, make sure you identify him as "the first serious African-American candidate."

After seven or eight months of intensive campaigning by Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain and their now-forgotten rivals, the mainstream media have now fallen into line and begun the intensive public cross-examination of Obama that more suspicious observers (me included) of racial politics knew was inevitable.

Since Bill Clinton, a man for whom I voted twice and used to respect as a racial bridge-builder, tried to diminish Obama's victory in the South Carolina primary back in January as nothing more than blacks voting for a black candidate, I have viewed his comments, as well as Hillary's inaccurate and strangely irrelevant comments about Martin Luther King, Jr.'s place in the civil rights movement as the turning point for Democratic primary voters. Those comments certainly energized African-American voters, who turned out in record numbers to vote for Obama in the next significant string of February primaries, when Obama ran off twelve consecutive victories to knock the Hillary-tanic off-stride. The Clintons were, at least in public, offended that they had been accused of subtle and not-so-subtle race baiting, touting their long and, at least to them, admirable service to African-Americans. I thought those comments would turn the momentum permanently towards Obama, since they were a straight lift from the Lee Atwater campaign book of racial politics.

Yet, from Super Tuesday forward, the Clintons have played the race card to perfection. They have moved the mainstream coverage of Obama away from his early position as a cross-cultural candidate (read: a black man who doesn't scare white people) to a black man with a strange and radical past, with crazy preachers (Jeremiah Wright), late 60s revolutionaries (William Ayers) and celebrity anti-Semities and racists (Louis Farrakhan) as part of his contemporary entourage. The Clintons knew exactly what they were doing when they made this racial pivot, and it is paying off in droves. Hillary Clinton deserves special credit. Once the media-anointed front-runner who surrounded herself with the centrist, Volvo-driving, Land's End-vest wearing, Martha's Vineyard-bound, East Coast-educated white establishment Washington-centric Democrats determined to secure her place as the candidate who could "manage" the less capable and less schooled, Hillary has reinvented herself, with a powerful assist from the mainstream media, as some sort of populist frontierswoman who enjoys nothing more than a night out with her bowling buddies for a few beers and some pizza. Her reputation for truthfulness is so jaundiced that her lies on the campaign trail, big and small, are shrugged off as simply Hillary being Hillary. Had Obama offered a fabricated story about enduring snipers in Bosnia, not only would he have been mercilessly excoriated for lying, he would have had to answer questions about what kind of father would willingly travel with his daughter to a war zone. Underneath this criticism would have been Obama's behavior as a "responsible" black man.

Next Tuesday, voters in North Carolina and Indiana will vote in the Democratic primary. For weeks, Hillary's camp has been playing down the North Carolina election as one that she cannot win because of the large number of black voters. Instead, Hillary's forces, with the media in tow, have made Indiana, which has voted for a Democrat twice in presidential elections since 1932 (1936 and 1964), the bellwether state in determining Obama's "electability." North Carolina doesn't really count because too many blacks live there. Indiana does count because it will measure Obama's ability to, as Newsweek put it its cover story this week, close the "Bubba Gap." Barack Obama has already won some of the "whitest" states in the country (Alaska, Kansas, Idaho, Nebraska, Montana, Utah and Wisconsin). Apparently, that doesn't matter. Sorry, but Indiana simply doesn't matter. A $5 bet in Las Vegas on Indiana to go Democratic in November should net $2 or 3 million, just like a $2 bet on Vermont to go for John McCain in November should yield a similar return.

The Clintons' estrangement from African-American voters is the result of a deliberate calculation to concede that "bloc" to Obama and court instead the "working-class white" vote, which is, politeness stripped, a demographic that historically has not voted for black candidates and carries a legacy of racism all its own. Americans tend to measure their attitudes towards racism by the "purity" of their legal structure. American law no longer permits the formal segregation of blacks, nor permits government or business to discriminate formally against blacks and other minorities. Yet the courts have demonstrated an increased willingness to restrict public and private efforts to address racial discrimination in American life by limiting the power of government to require remedies for past and ongoing racial misdeeds. In June 2007, the Supreme Court emphatically stated that the only way to end racial discrimination was to end racial discrimination, concluding that a voluntary effort to diversify segregated public schools was unconstitutional. And last week, the Court upheld a completely worthless "voter I.D." law, passed by Indiana, requiring voters to use a government-issued I.D. to vote in all elections. The law was not passed to address a problem in voter fraud, because no such problem existed, as the Court even acknowledged in its plurality opinion. Indiana, like the other states that have passed voter I.D. laws in the last five years or so, enacted this statute to make it more difficult for voters most likely to support Democrats -- the poor, African-Americans and other minorities -- to cast a ballot. Not a single state that has passed a voter I.D. law has done so with a majority Democratic legislature. Does this mean that the voter I.D. movement is a clever Republican tactic to secure their power in the states? Sure. But to suggest that voter I.D. laws have no relationship to race is simply to continue a great American tradition -- simply because laws and customs tend to burden minorities disproportionately does not mean that race is a factor. A more reasonable interpretation of the Indiana case is that it amounts to a poll tax, a mechanism that was long used to exclude blacks from the voting rolls. And when you take into account African-American support for Republicans nationwide, the motivating force in this movement comes into clearer focus. For me, this is a truly disgusting development in American politics, one I thought would be so transparent that it wouldn't make it out of the starting gate. How wrong I was . . .

* * * * * * * * * *

I started writing this on Friday but didn't finish. This morning, Sunday, I accidentally came across an article in the Washington Post Outlook section on Chelsea Clinton's emergence as a political surrogate on behalf of her mother. The article was written by a 29 year-old Post reporter, whose curiosity in writing the piece, as far as I can tell, is whether Chelsea really "represents" his generation. Here's an observation and question that comes at the front of the piece:

"Chelsea has been winning kudos in this campaign as an effective surrogate for Hillary Rodham Clinton, but I keep wondering whether she's an effective representative for us. Like me, Chelsea's a twentysomething (28 to my 29), a member of the generation that, as it happens, I spend a lot of time learning and writing about. We're ironic, sarcastic and self-deprecating, a reflection of the pop culture and politics that played out while we grew up in the 1980s, 1990s and onward. We were weaned on Chevy Chase movies ("Spies Like Us," of course, being the best), grunge and MTV's "The Real World" (seasons 1 and 2 only, please) and trained by the Onion, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to detect spin in the most banal comments. People my age shed privacy at the nearest high-speed Internet connection and, more often than not, display the very grown-up qualities of self-awareness and self-reflection.

So how does Chelsea fit in with the rest of us?"

Notice anything curious about the above? First, the "us" the author asks about is clearly white. I could be wrong here, but go out and poll, scientifically or in a black barber shop (the African-American equivalent of the white diners where establishment reporters journey to find out what "real" Americans are thinking during the election season), how many African-Americans fitting Chelsea's "generation" were "weaned" on Chevy Chase, MTV, Jon Stewart and The Onion. Second, ask 28 or 29 year-old African-Americans if they've ever looked at Chelsea Clinton as some sort of peer in the fun house mirror and, more to the point, whether she is "one of [them] us." You might get a very different answer.

Read this carefully. There isn't anything racist about an article on Chelsea Clinton's role as a campaign surrogate, or whether she's too goody-goody to reflect a "generation" of Americans who get their news from Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert (who are my age, by the way) and the Onion. But the article is a perfect example of unspoken race privilege in American politics and culture. Go check out the Nielsen ratings and find out just how many African-Americans are tuning into Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert every night, or watching MTV, or putting out their $9.50 to watch the latest Judd Aptow adventure, or tune into the high-jinks of Will Farrell, Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn. Wanna bet you'll find some racially split results?

* * * * * * * * * *

The Clinton and McCain campaigns have succeeded in portraying Barack Obama as a black candidate, knowing full well that white Americans on the lower end of the socio-economic ladder harbor a deep suspicion of blacks in positions of political power. Obama has spent the last six weeks or so fending off questions about Jeremiah Wright, his "association" with the Weather Underground and a host of other scary black folks, while Hillary has gotten a free pass on her unsavory relationships over the past 30 some-odd years, her habitual lying or her race-baiting (Question: why hasn't Newsweek run a cover story called, "Hillary's LeBron Problem"?) and John McCain has not had to answer questions about his crazy preacher in-residence, John Hagee, or his characterization of the Confederate flag as a symbol of "Southern heritage." How in the world did a man born to a black father and raised by a white mother, who received food stamps and public assistance, become some arugula-munching elitist?

And the bigger question: why do the establishment media keeping running a story line that suggests that Hillary Clinton can win the Democratic nomination? If the roles were reversed; if Barack Obama had been mathematically eliminated from the race, as Hillary has; if Obama were dependent upon a sub-group of party activists to leap-frog him over the winner, as Hillary is; if the media persisted in running stories about Hillary that bore no relationship to her ability to hold public office, such as her flirtation with 60's radicalism and poor choice of business associates; if . . . if . . . if . . . the outrage from the Clinton campaign would be justifiably palpable.

But, no . . . Hillary is not black. You can be a Woman for Hillary; but you can't be an African-American for Obama, even after you have consistently supported white Democrats since white Democrats (and some Republicans) said you were allowed to vote 43 years ago; you can be a country-club Republican who found liberalism at Wellesley and Yale, who lives in an exclusive New York City suburb, who has been on the government payroll one way or another since the early 1980s, who can call Elton John to host a Manhattan fundraiser for your presidential campaign and somehow market yourself as a descendant of William Jennings Bryan. You can raise one eyebrow after another about your African-American opponent's questionable African-American acquaintances; wonder if he's genuinely a "Christian;" alienate an entire generation of voters, black and white, who chose your opponent because they found him interesting, accessible and inspirational, not because he differs much with you on policy, by appealing to the racial fault line in American politics . . . and have the mainstream media echo everything you say and still portray yourself as a victim. You can do all these things because you are white, and because you are smart enough and shrewd enough to know that Jeremiah Wright scares white voters to death, despite knowing that whatever garbage flows out of his mouth is G-rated compared to Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robertson, John Hagee, Sean Hannity and the rest of the nativist, modern Know-Nothing brigade.

So go ahead, Hillary. Blow the Democratic party to bits. Demand that nomination for yourself because you want it, not because you earned it. Tell yourself that every black voter who sees through this "populist" facade that you're not really playing the race card and then wonder why they won't vote for you in November. Tell white voters more like you -- upper-income, well-educated and knowledgeable about politics -- that they should vote for you anyway after insulting their intelligence and turning them into a parody of a Martin Mull routine on silly white folks co-opted by a fairy tale.

And above all, remind every "white working class" voter in Indiana and North Carolina in the next 72 hours that Barack Obama is black by congratulating him for his "historic" candidacy of which African-Americans can be proud.

Unlike you.

No comments: