Remember back in the last century when Toni Morrison playfully dubbed Bill Clinton the U.S.’s first black president? She said that Clinton “displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, saxophone-playing, junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.”
Back then, it was considered cool to have a “black president” – as long as he was really white, of course! But how will the race card play in the high-stakes presidential poker game now doubling down, when hidden decisions taken in darkness centre on the real possibility of a real “first black president”?
Barack Obama may find that in winning the bitter battle of South Carolina he succeeded only in losing the war against the Clintons.
Race was so dominant in the primary that Associated Press concluded that Hillary Clinton had won “the larger campaign to polarize voters around race and marginalize Obama (in the insidious words of one of her top advisers) as The Black Candidate.”
A major contributing factor to that campaign, of course, was the not-so-subtle manner in which former president Bill Clinton cunningly injected race into the race, as in his invocation of Jesse Jackson’s victories decades ago in South Carolina caucuses. The references served mainly to remind voters that Obama, like Jackson, is African American, and that Jackson’s campaigns failed – in part because of white resistance to the idea of any black man leading the country.
But, as many have pointed out, it wasn’t just the Clintons who played on race: so did Obama supporters who flagged Clinton’s remarks, and the media, which is ever hungry for conflict.
A cursory look at the breakdown of votes after Obama’s victory shows that more than 80 per cent of his support came from African Americans. He was buoyed in particular by strong support from black women, who make up fully 35 per cent of the Democratic primary voters in the state.
He received just one in four white votes.
What’s it all mean? Well, the vast majority of primaries February 5 are in states that are majority white. Many of those voters – especially white males and some Hispanics – would vote for a woman before they’d ever pull the lever for a black man.
It would be stunningly ironic if the buttoned-up, Ivy League, Law Review Barry Obama – son of a white girl from Kansas, raised mostly in multiculti Hawaii by his white grandparents, once reviled in certain African-American circles as “not black enough” – were first marginalized and ultimately undone by his own previously marginal blackness.
And while it’s exceedingly odd that anyone with even a modicum of African-American blood is automatically deemed “black” in our culture, it’s nonetheless true and no doubt indicative of the deep-seated racism that still permeates every aspect of North American social and political life. Those who underestimate its vestigial power do so at their peril.
Now that it has been decisively shown that calling Bill Clinton “the first black president” was just a silly metaphor – and it has also been determined that calling Barack Obama “not black enough” was equally silly – the real racial dynamics of the Democratic race are beginning to emerge.
Blacks have overwhelmingly decided to put aside any remaining questions and embrace Obama wholeheartedly, despite a determined and vigorous campaign to dissuade them waged by our previous “first black president.”
Now the Clintons – long renowned for their steadfast devotion to the Democratic party’s African-American base – have cleverly switched tactics and succeeded in identifying Obama as the black candidate in a race that is about to be decided by whites and Hispanics. They appear to have won by losing the predominantly black South Carolina primary.
After winning South Carolina, Obama told his supporters, “I did not travel around this state over the last year and see a white South Carolina or a black South Carolina.”
But are the days really gone when we could correctly assume that African Americans can’t support the white candidate, whites can’t support the African-American candidate, and blacks and Latinos can’t come together?
Will long-entrenched racial dynamics and deep-seated prejudices decide the Democratic race? Will white and Hispanic voters vote their hopes – or their fears – on Super Tuesday?
If the latter prevail, Obama’s only remaining hope may be to try quickly to convince white voters he is “white enough” to win!
From Alternet. Rory O’Connor is a documentary filmmaker and journalist.