Saturday, March 15, 2008

Brer Rabbit, Brer Bear: Barack, Hillary

Well, it finally happened. America's racial history caught up with Senator's Obama and Clinton. Obama's appearance on all the talk shows repudiating Rev. Wright's angry diatribes (called sermons) finally brings the boil of ugly American racism, festering since the South Carolina primary, to a head. Too bad and tragic. Tragic for the candidates--especially Obama--and tragic for America.

Race and racism have never been far below the surface in American politics. A quick primer reminds us all of the "hanging" of southern populism on the gallows of race baiting and bigotry. The creation of a deep divide between white and black working class voters in the south was not settled until black voters were segregated and denied their voting rights by a variety of legal stratagems. These voters did not return to the political arena until well after passage of Lyndon Johnson's Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Hillary Clinton grew up in the civil rights generation--todays baby boomers and the generation that cut its political teeth on civil rights and opposition to the war in Vietnam--Rev. Wright grew up in the civil rights generation. Barack Obama grew up in the post-civil rights era, a thirty something, Obama shared his generation's hopes for a multicultural America, wanting to put race aside and begin a hopeful new day--not in--but for American history.

Amazingly, he almost made it. Until the South Carolina primary we saw a democratic presidential primary contest based on the issues: substantive concerns about Iraq, America's place in the world, the economy. Both candidates appealed to a broad coalition of voters with younger and older Starbuck voters (the multicultural generation with millions of generational crossovers) supporting Obama and older, dunking donuts voters (the civil rights generation with millions of generational crossovers) supporting Hillary. It was a new day, a hopeful new day in American politics and American history: a black and a woman vying for the democratic party's nomination for the presidency. Eleanor Roosevelt should have lived to see the day.

In a tragic and terrible misstep it was Senator Obama, the Brer Rabbit of this story, who first raised race in the run up to the South Carolina primary. In a clever move, Obama accused Senator Clinton of not giving Martin Luther King Jr enough credit for the civil rights gains of Dr. King's era, of Hillary's era, the era of millions of aging white and black folks who lived through those years, who struggled through Freedom Summer, who responded to the non-violent appeal of Dr. King; most, black and white, rejected the divisive voice of Stokley Carmichael and the separatist voices of SNCC. Dr. King was honored as an American hero with a national holiday. Malcolm X was not.

Bill Clinton took the bait--grabbed hold of the tar baby. Ham-handed, a little like Brer Bear, former President Bill Clinton, so often the deftest politician in the room, reacted with understandable anger at charges of racism leveled at his wife, Hillary. Of course it was a political slight of hand, of course it was a sly way to excite and anger black voters in South Carolina, of course, it worked. But, unlike the usual Brer Rabbit, Brer Bear tale, this time, taking the tar baby out of the American closet meant that everyone was destined to get stuck. The tar baby tarred everyone; that particular American closet door was better left closed--especially, in the end, for Senator Obama. In that closet, was an ancient legacy of hatred and bigotry. Lynchings, murders, discrimination--informal and de jure--stood just behind the door. Rev. Wright, as Senator Obama has been at pains to point out, has been shaped by those same forces; Lewis Ferrakhan is another product of those same deep resentments, understandable pain and lasting hurt.

Nevertheless, once the tar baby is let out everyone suffers, especially the amazing, hopeful young Barack Obama. Slowly, race came to the fore following the South Carolina primary; each contest since has increasingly been marked by racial identity voting--black and white. Mississippi saw 90% of the black vote go to Senator Obama and in Ohio 1 in 5 white voters indicated they voted along racial lines. The simmering black and Latino divide has also been close below the surface since the first contests in California and the most recent in Texas.

But the angry diatribes of Rev. Wright bring these underlying resentments, this legacy of race and racism to the top. The issue, as this is written, is race; the worst possible outcome for Senator Obama and the worst possible outcome for turning a hopeful new page in American history.

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