The Clinton-Obama Race on Race

People from all walks of American life pay respects to the unassuming civil rights leader Rosa Parks in the US Capitol rotunda.

I'm not well positioned or exceedingly informed on the subject to comment much on the strange battle brewing between the Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama camps on race. In his comments on George Stephanopoulos' This Week this morning, Senator John Kerry in his broad endorsement of Barack Obama slipped in a line that seemed incongruent with other parts of his statement.

Kerry said something along the lines that when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, he handed the pen he used to Martin Luther King. This had to be a clear reference to Hillary Clinton's comment the other day that "Martin Luther King's dream was realized when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act."

Stephanopoulos pressed Kerry on this wondering whether Obama's team was playing a race card against Hillary Clinton.

I think it's absurd for anyone to be engineering drama over the clear collaboration of effort and objectives that required both Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson -- but politics needs battles. One wishes that they were over real issues and not nuanced language.

But what I find really interesting IF indeed Senator Obama's team is trying to hammer Hillary Clinton for some subterranean racism is that Barack Obama in Iowa was trying to be the candidate who had finally transcended race in this nation -- not an aspirant to the White House who was highlighting the divisions between a white president who signed legislation into law and a black minister who helped inspire the need for that law and change.

Christopher Ames -- Provost and Dean of Washington College, a liberal arts college on Maryland's eastern shore founded in 1782, as well as a media expert -- wrote this note to me on Senator Obama's subtle sleight of hand in his Iowa victory speech that seemed to transcend race but still flirted with the concept without mentioning the word:


I enjoyed listening to your dialogue with Mark Schmitt on over-analyzing the primaries. I then took a few minutes to listen to the Obama Iowa victory speech.

It's quite something. Here's my over-analysis, informed a bit by our conversation at your house in D.C. about the very question of whether Obama can win with the degree of racism still alive in this country.

Here's what fascinated me about Obama's stirring speech: the unnamed referent. "They said this day would never come." "You [voters in Iowa] have done what the cynics said we couldn't." Now I think it is pretty clear to everyone what Obama means by "what" and "this day." I'd paraphrase it like this: Cynics said a black man couldn't draw enough white votes to succeed in a national election, but now, by winning the primary in very white Iowa, we've demonstrated that the country is no longer so racially divided for that to be true. Indeed, people voted for the candidate whom they believed could best turn around (or "change") the disastrous policies of the Bush administration regarding foreign policy, torture, health care, the environment, and corruption.

Now this is a powerful message and a smart one because it pats his supporters on the back for rising above vestigial racism with their votes for him. And it underscores, perhaps rightly, his electability.

In all, I think it is a fine message and a legitimate talking point after the Iowa victory.

What fascinates me is that Obama communicates this in a fifteen-minute speech that never mentions race, even though the electability of a black candidate is the unnamed and perfectly clear referent. Race is thus always present and always unnamed. Thus the appeal of Obama as the post-racial candidate, somehow so different from a candidate like Jesse Jackson, who espouses similar political positions. Thus Obama's appeal to whites who are "tired" of race, who complain of "the race card," who see racial politics as "special interests."

To me, it's a remarkable rhetorical move, almost a sleight of hand. And it just might make the difference.

By the way, I recall your friend recently returned from Russia responding that if I was right about Obama not being electable, he'd like to return to being an ex-pat. Fair enough. I share his frustration and disappointment with the lasting power of racial division. But I wonder what countries one would consider moving to if the criterion was a country that has proven its ability to elect a member of a racial minority to national office. Certainly not Europe?

But that is a genuine question.

All the best,

Christopher Ames

Provost and Dean of the College, Washington College

Ames' comments intrigue me, but perhaps that is because I'm just not as tuned in as others on race policy questions.

One of my first colleagues formerly at the New America Foundation and a person I admire greatly is Debra Dickerson who in the early part of this decade was exploring the politics of race in a post-racial environment. She was watching the collapse of affirmative action and the disaggregation of racial blocs and often spoke about what a post-affirmative action racial agenda might look like.

Given that she was making these comments in the late 1990s and early part of this decade, it seems clear to me that at least in the political benchmarks pols are using -- political machines aren't ready for candidates who are truly racially transcendent.

And one more quip before I close. I found it unbelievable that Senator John Kerry said on Stephanopoulos's show that Obama as a black president could speak differently to African leaders than Hillary Clinton could as a white woman (I'm paraphrasing).

Whoever is in that White House is going to have to talk to all sorts of global leaders, and Kerry's comment seemed racist to me, perhaps not intended by him, but still. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have both invested heavily in relationships with various African leaders -- and Kerry's comments slight them not on substance but for the color of their skin.

My hope if Barack Obama is elected is that he'll get his people and advocates to transcend this kind of positioning.

-- Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note