Monday, January 14, 2008

Fairy Tales and Reality

Well, the Winter of Love didn't last very long. Was it only a week ago that everybody on television was busy pronouncing the end to racial discrimination in the United States? The results of the Iowa caucuses turned some rather formidable brains into a mush of Hallmark Channel tearjerkers and ABC After School Specials. This was not simply one man's triumph against the political odds, we were told, but rather one of those transcendent American moments that tell us who we are and how far we have come: Neil Armstrong, meet Barack Obama. One reporter, in the full throes of premature exultation, pointed out that Obama "won in an overwhelmingly white state, suggesting that the country might be moving to a new era in which race no longer defines identity as it has throughout U.S. history".

What a difference a loss makes!

The first murmurs began almost immediately after Hillary Clinton took to the podium in New Hampshire, claiming her upset victory in the nation's first presidential primary. Talk of the "Bradley Effect" started in the blogs and quickly spread to the traditional media. It was a term unfamiliar to most Americans, who perhaps assumed it meant that any candidate recently endorsed by former Senator Bill Bradley must necessarily be doomed to defeat and obscurity.

But in fact the reference was to the 1982 California gubernatorial election, in which African American Mayor Tom Bradley of Los Angeles was stunningly upset by his little-known GOP opponent despite holding a healthy lead in the polls throughout the campaign. Many white voters, the pundits concluded after Bradley's loss, had been unwilling to tell pollsters that they intended to vote against a black candidate. Is this what happened to Obama in New Hampshire?

Suddenly, a campaign that had supposedly transcended race found itself mired not just in the politics of 1982 California, but also the tribulations of 1962 Alabama. Senator Clinton, stressing the importance of experienced leadership—i.e., hers—mentioned that, despite the soaring words of the Civil Rights era, it took a seasoned and skillful president, Lyndon Johnson, to push the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts through Congress. This was interpreted, in some quarters, as an attack on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., suggesting that perhaps, in terms of legalizing racial equality in America, LBJ was more important than MLK. Unhelpfully, pundits pulled Clinton's words out of a context in which it appeared at least possible that the senator's comparison was not between Johnson and King, but rather between LBJ and his relatively less experienced predecessor, John F. Kennedy.

In such an overheated atmosphere, even relatively innocuous comments by Bill Clinton contributed to the racially charged conditions that followed his wife's unexpected New Hampshire victory. The former president labeled Obama's campaign "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen". While it would be difficult to conjure up a racial context to this petulant outburst, Clinton nevertheless felt the need to appear on Al Sharpton's radio program to explain that he was referring to the kid glove treatment Obama was receiving from the national media.

So there we are. A nation that was, just a week ago, pointedly ushering in a new era of racial harmony is now faced with a Democratic campaign in which race, at least for the moment, has become an issue of division. It will, evidently, take more than a few thousand white Iowans to bring America's most vexing dilemma to a happy conclusion.

All of this represents a rare bit of good news for the Republicans, who are currently going through a frontrunner a week, and enduring their own six-way mudslinging contest between candidates that have all, at some point in the proceedings, been judged inadequate. One suspects, in fact, that the GOP spinmeisters and their Fox News collaborators have had a hand in stoking the fires. As hard as the Republican Party has worked over the past decade to suppress the African American vote, it seems obvious that they would welcome a racially charged battle on the Democratic side that might result in black voters refusing to turn out for Hillary Clinton in November. It will, after all, take more than just John McCain to get John McCain elected president (or whoever the Republicans select).

In one respect, of course, there is something quite healthy about the current debate. The country is rarely at its best when adopting a self-congratulatory stance on the matter of race. Despite what Ward Connerly may think, the equality agenda in the United States remains active and unfulfilled, and that will not change regardless of which man or woman steps into the Oval Office next year. If nothing else, the events of the past week, and those that will no doubt follow, will likely give pundits pause should Seantor Obama be elected president. Milestones are just that; they mark the progress made along the way, but they do not signal the end of the journey.

Meanwhile, Democrats must find a way to manage the current controversy. It is, as always, the burden of the party that cares most about civil rights to keep temporary political conflicts from undermining the bigger project. The agenda of Barack Obama and John Edwards, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Jesse Jackson, Nancy Pelosi, and the rest will not be served by a divisive, racially coded primary season that delivers the White House to the Republican Party for another four years of benign—and malign—neglect.

But, as the cliché mongers point out, one can neither return the toothpaste to the tube nor unring the bell. So some way must be found to deal with these matters without destroying the best chance the Democrats have had of winning the presidency since Antonin Scalia declared the 2000 election over. The stakes are much higher than the ambitions of any one candidate.

At this point, the healthiest result of all this would be to bring race back into the campaign. Let the candidates talk freely about the party's commitment to African Americans on issues of affirmative action and poverty and racial justice. Speak out loud about inequality, racial profiling, and state of education in the inner city. No other party in history has been so reluctant to address the needs and issues of one of its core constituencies. At least the Republicans give lip service to the Christian fundamentalist platform.

Not everything that is said in such a dialogue will go down well with many white Americans. But as Mitt Romney found out about Mormonism, issues and concerns that remain unspoken do not go away. Now—not Labor Day—is the time for the country's first viable African American candidate to lay out publicly his views on race in the United States. Now—not October—is the time for the Democrats to work for the votes of both black and white Americans by addressing issues that matter deeply to them and will almost certainly influence turnout later this year.

This is not a question of "playing the race card". It is a question of playing with the full deck.

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