With the first African American to have a viable chance of becoming president of the United States, it is inevitable that the race card would be played somewhere along the line. Now we are to understand that voting for Hillary Clinton to win the Democratic nomination is tantamount to an expression of racism and will result ultimately in irreparable damage to the party’s chances of winning the White House.
Race had to be the reason a lot of lower-to middle-class white folks didn’t vote for Barack Obama in Pennsylvania, didn’t it? It couldn’t be that they honestly questioned his lack of experience or any record of administration or that they felt he was paying lip service to their plight, now could it? The whole world knows we’re a nation of unrepentant and unreconstructed bigots — just ask Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Don’t they tell us that every day?
Certainly that’s the message being sent by some leading black Democrats, including the majority whip of the House, Rep. James Clyburn, of South Carolina, who explained that his assessment stems from the fact such talk is in the air. Denial of Obama at this stage, particularly if it comes from overwhelmingly white super delegates to the Democratic National Convention, would be met with a black boycott of the November election.
“If this party is perceived by people as having gone into a back room somewhere and brokered a nominee, that would not be good for our party,” Clyburn was quoted in the press. “I’m telling you that if this continues on its current course it . . . is going to be irreparable.”
So if a majority of those party insiders believe suddenly that Obama is unelectable, tough? They have to vote for him anyway or face a charge of intolerance?
Even a Clinton victory in the Indiana primary early next month — one the same day in North Carolina seems improbable — would make no difference, it seems. Nothing short of a Clinton withdrawal and unanimous anointment of Obama will satisfy many of the party leaders in general and the African American caucus in particular. Never mind that Pennsylvania revealed some startling Obama weaknesses among traditional Democratic voters and that he has lost all of the big states needed to reach the White House or that his rock star image has been tarnished dramatically in the last few weeks or that time and again he has been unable to put Clinton away, revealing a disturbing lack of punch.
Apparently Clyburn, who is the highest -ranking African American in Congress and remains uncommitted as a super delegate, was chosen to carry the word. The threat, while understandable if seen from their eyes, is probably the last thing their candidate needed. He has run a color-blind campaign for the most part, realizing that it is time to put away this black and white thing.
Misguided efforts to force out the first viable female candidate would have an enormously debilitating impact on Democratic hopes. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, she actually might do better in the general election than he. Impugning the motives of white voters who are concerned about Obama’s ability to meet their concerns is likely to drive more of them to Clinton. White and even some black Democratic voters in lower income groups who are now the most damaged by a slowing economy have legitimate questions about him that have nothing to do with race.
If there is any demonstrable indication beyond Pennsylvania that Obama’s momentum could be shifting it is the fact that Clinton’s almost-broke campaign found a $10 million infusion of cash in one day immediately following that primary. A solid majority of Democrats obviously want this contest to continue no matter what concerns the party’s leaders have about damage to their November chances. Inserting racial motivations for her recent success and issuing threats about not showing up at the polls is harmful both to the party and those making the charges. That’s a two way street.
In 1933, an overwhelming number of African Americans fled the Republican Party and joined Franklin Roosevelt’s Democrats, except in the South where they were prevented from voting. They have remained loyal ever since, winning through the years the respect and equality they were due but were denied after the Civil War. A major factor has been their willingness to demand and struggle for these rights without malice. Obama has conducted himself with that sort of dignity, a brilliant, charismatic young man. Are there bigots among us, certainly, and on both sides.
Playing the race card is not what the nation needs nor is threatening to walk away from the election.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)