Racial Sleight of Hand

Race has officially entered into the Democratic presidential race, and it’s an ugly thing to see. In case you missed it, the first shot was fired when Barack Obama was criticized for not disavowing the endorsement of Louis Farrakhan; in fact, Senator Obama was derided for referring to him as “Minister Farrakhan.” In retrospect, this little tiff seems like a warning shot to show Obama that his “blackness” was going to become an issue, particularly as the race for the nomination became increasingly tight.

The next shot was Geraldine Ferraro’s astounding statement that Obama would not be where he was were he not a black man (as I blogged about recently). When asked to clarify, she refused to back off and said that Obama had no recognizable experience or qualifications other than his skin color, and then she expressed outrage that anyone would consider her remarks racist.

When Ms. Ferraro made her remarks, I thought this incident was very damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, but I’ve reconsidered. I doubt very much that anyone told Geraldine Ferraro to say what she said, but from what I hear, her remarks represent what is routinely talked about privately within the Clinton campaign: Obama is the black candidate. The  beauty of this incident is that Ferraro raised the fears of a lot of white people: successful black people are successful only because of their skin color. By disavowing the statement, Ms. Clinton can play into white resentment at the same time washing her hands of the incident.

The latest kerfuffle has been over the over-the-top ravings of Obama’s friend and pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Right-wing talk radio has been all over this, to the extent that it’s become a campaign issue, and Obama is scheduled to make a speech formally and specifically distancing himself from his pastor. Once again, Ms. Clinton has safely distanced herself so that she can claim total innocence in the matter while Obama is savaged from several fronts. While the Obama campaign was doing serious damage control (campaign operatives even called Sean Hannity’s radio show), Ms. Clinton was giving a rather bored and droning speech on troop levels in Iraq.

As I said, I don’t have any idea if the Clinton campaign had a hand in orchestrating this perfect storm of racial politics, but she is deftly taking advantage of it.

This tactic may work well in the primaries, but it could have serious repercussions in the Fall. White voters have now been shown a caricature of Obama that plays into the worst fears of closet racists. On the flip side, Hillary has demonstrated to African Americans that she is not above using race if it means victory. If Obama wins the nomination, I would say we could expect some white Democratic defections to John McCain, and if Hillary wins, I would expect some black voters to sit this one out.

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