Sunday, January 27, 2008

Race Matters: South Carolina Post Mortem and Looking Ahead to Super Tuesday

You aren't going to learn anything here about the overwhelming Obama victory in South Carolina that you haven't heard anywhere else, but for the first time I am beginning to think the Clintons are in trouble. Why? Because here is someone who has almost never, in my memory, in a long life devoted to public service, endorsed a candidate: go to this link for Caroline Kennedy's reasons why she believes that Obama can inspire the nation like her father did. Better yet, if you can, go to the New York Times Op-Ed piece where she states her position in full. To quote a piece of the Op-Ed that I found particularly moving: "I want a president who understands that his responsibility is to articulate a vision and encourage others to achieve it," Kennedy writes; "who holds himself, and those around him, to the highest ethical standards; who appeals to the hopes of those who still believe in the American Dream, and those around the world who still believe in the American ideal; and who can lift our spirits, and make us believe again that our country needs every one of us to get involved."

Wow. If the Kennedy family hits the campaign trail for Obama, it's all over but the shouting, friends.

Now, that Obama took many Edwards votes -- even in the white Piedmont and the North Carolina border, where Edwards has run strongbefore -- means something to me about Obama's electability among the poor who have suffered most from conservative and neoliberal market-based economics: textiles and manufactured clothing are at the top of the list of jobs lost to the global economy. And, this is also that South Carolina, where some of the saddest and most violent moments of the sorry history of Reconstruction played out, the state that came to define white domination before and after the Civil War. That a candidate could also muster such solid support across the racial lines also means something to me: there is perhaps something quite historic being played out here.

I still believe in Edwards. Deeply. But recent events that have left Edwards solidly out of the running are impressive, I must say. And while I am sure that there are many feminists who would see the failure of Clinton to make the ticket at all as a real slap in the face, what would mean most to me at this juncture would be to see Obama and Edwards come to some accord about national priorities -- either by putting Edwards on the ticket (unlikely, given what many in the Democratic leadership perceived as a me-first campaigning philosophy on his part when he was bottom-dog on the Kerry ticket) or by Obama pledging that he will give Edwards a cabinet post and give him the power to craft anti-poverty programs. And although the Obama campaign is maintaining what I think is an icky, feel-good take on race that makes me really uncomfortable (last night, prior to the victory speech, the crowd chanted "Race doesn't matter," which personally I think is a little odd since it is exactly the point that he is a black candidate who is breaking into demographics who have not voted for a black candidate in such numbers for over 125 years, or perhaps ever) I am coming around. And what would make a big difference to me also would be for whites and blacks associated with the Obama campaign not to act like thinking about race in a critical way is a poison pill. This country has a lot of work to do on race, and pretending it doesn't matter is not persuasive to most of us who have been working for racial justice for decades and see that work -- particularly as anti-racism has been associated over time with attempts to alleviate social inequality, poverty and violence more generally -- as unfinished and often reviled in the political mainstream.

So let's start with the white people: Step up, why don't you, as few people have since the 1960's, to say that you are willing to form an alliance with progressives of color in which you are not demanding leadership as the price for your participation. And while you are at it -- everybody needs to start talking to the Hispanic and Asian communities. Because when we talk about black-white all the time, guess what we are not talking about? That's right, Papi. Immigration, borders and undocumented workers.

This is also, I think, what John Edwards could do on a presidential ticket, and why I will continue to support him, even though it is clear that the mandate for the presidency is going in another direction. I do think it would be a big deal for a Northern black man and a southern, white progressive to share a national, major party ticket, and for the black candidate to be in the top spot. It would be historic, and not just because of the black man. Better yet, it might produce a national progressive alliance that in itself would be historic in its efforts to not just lift up the middle class (a rhetoric I will always be wary of because of what a critical role it played in the Reagan revolution), but to wed the middle class to the interests of the poor. Because the poor built America: slaves, servants, workers, wage laborers, immigrants, farmers. You name it, they built it, grew it, cleaned it, slaughtered it, wove it, drove it. And its past time that we paid them back.


Afternoon Update: As tipped by Tony Grafton in the comments section of this post, Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass) is reported to be on the verge of a press conference where he too will endorse Obama. I guess it's about time to get on the Obandwagon -- there goes New England, Hillary. Does this mean that Barack is not afraid of the L-word? Stop laughing, Lesboprof -- you know which L-word I mean! But I hope he isn't afraid of the other one either. And sources close to the Tenured Radical report that she is ready to declare party unity as soon as Edwards throws his support to Obama.


Anonymous said...

Yes--very good news for Obama last night. (Can we retire the expression "the race card" now?) But--who cares what Caroline Kennedy thinks? Still, it may help Obama with baby boomers and other old-timers, who tend to support Clinton. Few people under 40 care what she thinks, and even fewer under-30s even know who she is.

Anonymous said...

The reason “many feminists … would see the failure of Clinton to make the ticket at all as a real slap in the face” is because it would be one. What I hear in the chant “race doesn’t matter” – besides the bracketing off of other “colors” and all the remaining ways in which race continues to matter big time for non-whites – is the dependent clause “but sex does.” Hillary brings to the office the things you are hoping Obama and Edwards will bring IN COMBINATION. But that is all being set aside because Obama has cynically convinced lots of whites with big white-guilt complexes that the Clintons are closet racists and with a single vote we can erase all the racist wrongs that have occurred in our national history – and, by the way, get rid of that pushy woman.

That “icky” feeling you’re getting is sexism again holding women down while the men join forces and chant as one united nation, “iron my shirt!”

Anonymous said...

I should add my real appreciation for you lucid postings on the election. You are right that, if we still insist on passing up on a woman as qualified as Hillary for president, Obama and Edwards would be a very exciting step in the right direction(s).

I just hope I can get over my disappointment in time to vote for them.

Anonymous said...

Obama has support from black voters and from Caroline Kennedy. So what? Endorsements are only effective when people respect the endorser. Obama won in a state with 50% black voters. I don't see how that spells trouble for Clinton (no plural, Bill is not the candidate). Clinton won the Farm Workers Union in California, to no fanfare, a much more important endorsement in my opinion. The media are doing a hitjob on Clinton and we all stand by and talk about how wonderful Obama is. Phooey.

Lesboprof said...

Okay, so I am (and have been all along) an Obama supporter. As a white, female voter on the edge of the age cut-off (Gen X would best be my group), I also am very moved by what Caroline Kennedy has to say. (And yes, I know who she is.) And it makes sense that Kennedy would speak out, because she is also part of the white female group that is a growing support for Obama.

I think that the assumption that this political race is race v gender does a disservice to both candidates and the electorate.

As a feminist and a Democrat, I am very disappointed in the Clintons. If anyone could be accused of playing the "race card" (sorry historiann) it would be the Clintons and their scandalous behaviors on the SC campaign trail. And it backfired. But it is part of the reason I could not support Hillary from day one. The Clintons' whole approach to electoral politics is divisive and a strong move away from the values I want in the Democratic Party.

I also think that Bill misunderstands his pass on race issues. Just because Toni Morrison calls you the first Black president doesn't mean you really are. As someone who is proud to have been called "pretty good for a white girl," the first thing I learned was that this status is honorary and temporary, and it has to be continually earned.

TR, I really like Edwards, and I have told the gf all along that I think he is running for VP, although I can see the cabinet post idea. I think he likes Obama, and I think it is mutual. I can see a great Obama/Edwards ticket, and I would gladly support it. Conventional wisdom would put Obama with a governor or long-time senator, but I think Edwards would be an excellent choice.

I was not as turned off by the "race doesn't matter" chant, because I think the hope of those chanting is that our election choice can transcend easy categories (race, gender)--not that we don't talk about it or critically interrogate it. I don't know how you don't discuss or value racial issues if you have a biracial president!

Sorry for the long post!

Anonymous said...

I'd like to see all three of them do an alliance--two on the ticket, one as cabinet member, and campaign nationally with some concrete policies, promises, and division of labor (and with all three in alliance, they ought to have the power to make concrete promises and know they can carry them out).

But I also like the British party system and the notion of shadow cabinet members in the out-of-power party, and that would be akin.

Tenured Radical said...

I think what people forget about endorsements by people like Caroline Kennedy (I agree with Lesboprof here, any of us who are 45+ remember who she is -- and she isn't just a Kennedy, since she has a long tradition of public service on her own) is that this kind of symbolic endorsement is particularly crucial to a candidacy that relies for its power on symbolism, as Obama's does. Hillary Clinton probably would have killed for that endorsement, but for the fact that what the Kennedy Presidency led to was the Great Society, something that neoliberals deliberately distance from.

Remember that JFK went to Eleanor Roosevelt for her blessing; that Hillary Clinton went to Daniel Patrick Moynihan for his; and that numerous Republican pols throughout the twentieth cenury would wait anxiously to hear whether Alice "Blue Eyes" Roosevelt would convey her father's mantle -- or not. So that in addition to my point about symbolic candidacies, I would also say that this kind of endorsement is well within what Richard Hofstadter called "the American Political Tradition." And it is often women who have held themselves aloof from public office, but devote themselves to public service, who play this role.


anthony grafton said...

Dear TR,

Thanks for a great post.

Like Lesboprof, I think this race is not about race vs gender. It's about two very strong candidates. Of the two, as it happens, I prefer Obama,and will vote for him in our primary--but I completely understand why lots of people I respect prefer Clinton.

Come the election, I'd be delighted to vote for either Clinton or Obama. They're both better than most of the white male Democrats this white male Democrat has voted for in the past.

And by the way, Ted Kennedy appears to be following Caroline Kennedy's lead.

Anonymous said...

Just a point of clarification re Lesboprof's excellent post, Toni Morrison did not call Bill Clinton a (or the first) "black president"; she quoted Chris Rock who was talking about what he heard many black folks saying. Lots of folks get that wrong. People have attributed that to her for years despite corrections written in different places. Go back to her original New Yorker essay. You'll see what I mean.

Anonymous said...

Every "off" remark made about Black people is always attributed to Chris Rock. I am a big fan of Chris and have never heard these uttering. In any event, I am a life long Kennedy supporte - sure not interested in either Caroline or Teddy's support of Barack Hussin. Time for Teddy to retire - I am going with Rudg G or McCain.

Lesboprof said...

Hate to disagree with Shorty, but I am pretty sure that Morrison talked about Clinton as the first black president in the New Yorker piece( Actually, one of my favorite historian/American Studies types, Dr. Micki McElya of U Alabama, has a piece where she suggests that Clinton was really the first "white trash" president--and uses that moniker to examine class and race in the US. You can read a quick summary online or read the book "Our Monica, Ourselves" (

Anonymous said...

Hi Lesboprof,

The actual first sentence of the paragraph where she speaks of the racialization of Clinton (not his racial ontology) of that New Yorker essay reads: "African-American men seemed to understand it right away. Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white kin notwithstanding, this is our first black President."

That is Morrison speaking of an understanding among a certain constituency.

She later spoke on Charlie Rose's television show (sorry, don't recall date or transcript) explaining that people didn't read either the first sentence of that paragraph or phrase "one heard the first murmurs" when attributing that thinking to her.

She was also interviewed on stage as part of a conference at Princeotn University in February 1999 by Paula Giddings who queried her about it; Morrison replied then as she has replied a number of times that she heard it from black people she had talked with during Whitewater and that Chris Rock had spoken about it on tv. And at the Second Biennial conference of the Toni Morrison Society held at the Lorain County (Ohio) Community College in 2000 she talked about how consistently she is misunderstood to have called Clinton the first black president. She said then that she understood that it made so much better a narrative to attribute that understanding of Clinton to her rather than to the ordinary black men she was trying to reference as having an analytical standpoint for thinking about what the Whitewater investigation meant in racial terms.

I'm pushing on this both because I've worked on Morrison but also because I have sympathy for the problem of trying to bring into public discourse the sharpness of what black folks say when they're pointing quite astutely to the process of racialization. That paragraph's first sentence is trying to make space for the insertion of such understanding and the phrase "one heard the first murmurs" tries to be true to how that understanding was first articulated and first listened to by Morrison herself.

Why yes, indeed, I'm a Morrison flack. Why do you ask? :-)

Anonymous said...

"Gender Matters: South Carolina Post Mortem and Looking Ahead to Super Tuesday"

January 25, 2008
Updated 8 min. ago

Columbia. Cox Wire Service. Barack Obama swept to a landslide primary victory in the Palmetto State today. Amid consternation that race was brought into the Democratic primary process for the first time, most people lost sight of the fact that gender was the real issue, since all Democrats are women, even the men.