Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, North America

POLITICS-US: Democratic Race Sheds Issues for Identities

Ali Gharib

WASHINGTON, Jan 16 2008 (IPS) - “These are race-based questions the two of you are asking,” shouted a member of the audience to moderators of the Democratic debate in Las Vegas, Nevada Tuesday night, who had spent the first 20 minutes of the affair asking about the racial controversy that has erupted over the last week on the campaign trail.

Despite a public truce between the candidates, it is clear that the race card has been played in the 2008 presidential campaign and it cannot be un-played.

After what has already been a year-long campaign, the political discourse is finally taking heed of the two elephants at the table in the contest for the Democratic nomination: race and gender.

While this young primary season has demonstrated that it is too soon to call any outcome “inevitable”, it appears likely that the Democratic nod will go to either a black man or a woman. Either would be a momentous event in a country that has elected 43 white men to the highest office in the land.

But it wasn’t until the voting for the nomination began in earnest that the political punditry delved beyond the clichés of “making history” into what the identities of being African American or being a woman mean in campaigning for the presidency.

In Iowa and New Hampshire – two overwhelmingly white states – Senators Barack Obama, born of a black African father and white U.S. citizen mother, and Hillary Clinton were respectively catapulted into a tight and unpredictable campaign, with the pundit class speculating from poll results that race and gender were finally at the forefront.

In Iowa, Obama was bolstered by support from women voters, amongst whom he won a majority. In New Hampshire – on the heels of a call to arms by feminist luminary Gloria Steinem and a much publicised emotional moment – Clinton took the female vote and with it the primary victory.

Steinem’s Op-Ed in the New York Times on the morning of the primary exploded the race versus gender debate onto breakfast tables across the country. Obama’s Iowa victory, Steinem claimed, shows the continuation of a trend where women lag behind blacks in social advances.

As evidence, she cited the two historically oppressed groups’ battles for suffrage. She said that women were given the vote half of a century after blacks – but failed to note that in practical application, it would be another 45 years after women’s suffrage that the Voting Rights Act was passed guaranteeing unconditional voting to black citizens by eliminating discriminatory “Jim Crow” laws at the polls.

Then after Clinton got momentarily choked up in what appeared to be an honest moment of emotional openness, critics and pundits accused her of staging the emotions to play to the women voters who would prop up her victory the following day.

Because of a 13-point Obama lead in the New Hampshire polls, some conspiracy theorists speculated about fraud in the primary. A more plausible theory – and one which is ominous for the Obama run – is that white New Hampshire was hesitant to vote for an African American candidate and, in a poignant example of the so-called Bradley Effect, even more hesitant to reveal this to pollsters after Obama’s surprising victory in Iowa.

But it was comments by Clinton the day before the primary that ignited the public battle over the race card. Making a point about how only the will to affect change is not enough, the New York senator said that the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 was the work of President Lyndon Johnson who “realised” slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King’s dream.

In the wake of charges that her remarks had belittled the long struggle of grassroots civil rights activists, Clinton went on a Sunday talk show and defended the notion that King needed Johnson to ram the law through Congress and accused the Obama camp of deliberately distorting her intentions. This prompted a quick response from Obama during a conference call with reporters where he denied spreading the story and called Clinton’s initial comment “an unfortunate remark”.

However, black political commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson defended Clinton in a blog post called “Obama Needs a History Lesson about Hillary and King,” saying that King and other civil rights leaders had themselves “effusively praised [Johnson] for his tireless effort.”

Obama had previously refrained from personally entering the debate and, by finally doing so, may have violated one of the basic tenets of his bid for the nomination – that he is running a “post-racial” campaign.

This reveals something different than Steinem’s historical trend – for Obama to remain a viable candidate he can’t be a distinctly “black” candidate, while Clinton can run freely as a woman candidate.

In an example of Obama’s reluctance to enter patently racial politics, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson accused Obama of “acting like he’s white” last fall because of what Jackson said was a lack of the Obama campaign’s attention to the Jena Six – a group of black high school students in Louisiana who were arrested in a racially charged confrontation with a white student, and a case that has drawn nationwide protests.

Clinton has very much continued to run a campaign to woo minority voters – an effort that will be put to the test this weekend in Latino-heavy Nevada and again a week later in South Carolina, where potentially more than half of Democratic primary voters are black. She joked earlier in the campaign that she was herself in an interracial marriage, alluding to her husband, former President Bill Clinton, who African American novelist Toni Morrison dubbed the “first black president”.

According to polls, Clinton surprisingly enjoyed more support than Obama among blacks behind her long record of political allegiance with the black community, but Obama has been gaining rapidly – pulling even with or even surpassing Clinton’s numbers.

Obama’s entrance into the fray this week was a political mistake that runs against his principles. Some commentators cynically suggested that it was all a ploy by Clinton’s campaign to draw Obama into a race debate and racialise him. If so, it nearly worked – he had to backpedal during the debate in Nevada and say that he would rein in his supporters in South Carolina who were continuing to push the racial line.

But the ploy may run a risk for Clinton as well. Calling the Clinton campaign’s tactics “racial innuendo” in an opinion for the Washington Post, Majorie Valbrun said that black voters are not as tied to the Democratic Party as past generations.

“If Hillary Clinton competes against Obama fairly and without resorting to covert race baiting, large numbers of black voters will surely embrace her should she be the party’s nominee,” wrote Valburn. “If she relies instead on racial fears and stereotypes, we should not give her our votes.”

If he can maintain his gains in the black vote, this strategy could also pay heavy dividends for Obama, but may do little to solve the racial problems that inhabit the shadows of U.S. society. In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, historian David Greenberg said that Obama’s non-racial politics allure white voters with a “fantasy of easy redemption”.

“Obama doesn’t threaten or discomfort whites. He doesn’t strike them as wronged or impatient, or as the spokesman of a long-subjugated minority group or even as someone particularly culturally different from themselves,” wrote Greenberg.

“Inspiring and exhilarating as it is, Obamamania allows us to sidestep the hardest challenges, at least for now.”

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