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First Black President?

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Message Rory OConnor
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Remember back in the last century, when Toni Morrison playfully dubbed Bill Clinton our first “Black President,” adding that Clinton “displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas?”

Back then, it was considered cool to have a “black president”—as long as he was really white, of course! But how will the race card play in the high stakes presidential poker game now doubling down, when hidden decisions taken in darkness center on the real possibility of a real “first black president?”

If the “horse race” for the Democratic presidential nomination just turned into a “race race,” Barack Obama may find that in winning the bitter battle of South Carolina, he succeeded only in losing the war against the Clintons.

Let me explain. Saturday’s primary in South Carolina came, as the New York Times noted in its usually understated manner, “at the conclusion of a weeklong campaign, where issues were interwoven with discussions of race.”

In fact race was so dominant that the less-restrained and more accurate Associated Press concluded at week’s end that Hillary had in fact won “the larger campaign to polarize voters around race and marginalize Obama (in the insidious words of one of her top advisers) as ‘The Black Candidate.’”

A major contributing factor to that campaign, of course, was the not-so-subtle manner in which former president Bill Clinton cunningly injected race into the race throughout the run up to Saturday’s vote — such as his invoking Jesse Jackson’s victories decades ago in South Carolina caucuses. The references served mainly to remind voters that:

A) Obama, like Jackson, is African-American; and
B) Jackson’s campaigns never succeeded despite two wins in South Carolina — in part because of white resistance to the idea of any black man leading the country.
But “it was not just the Clintons who played the race card,” as the AP’s Ron Fournier noted:

“There were plenty of people dealing from the sordid deck: Obama advisers who pointed reporters to the remarks; Obama supporters who took the Clintons’ remarks out of context to condemn them; a Clinton surrogate who made a veiled reference to Obama’s drug use as a youth; the conflict-obsessed media that exaggerated every twist of the race debate; black voters who publicly declared a black man is unelectable; and white voters who openly admitted that they or their neighbors couldn’t vote for a black man.

“If nothing else, South Carolina has reminded us, sadly, that race is still an issue in America.”

A cursory look at the breakdown of votes from Obama’s victory shows that more than eighty percent of his support came from African-American voters in every category, across the board — and African-Americans made up the majority of the voters in South Carolina’s Democratic primary. Obama was buoyed in particular by strong support from black women, who themselves make up fully 35% of the Democratic primary voters there. But he carried just one of four white votes – while white male candidate John Edwards, who came in a distant third overall, garnered the most votes from – guess who? — white males.

What’s it all mean? Well, as we “now turn our attention to the millions of Americans who will make their voices heard in Florida and the 22 states, including American Samoa, who will vote on Feb.5,” (as Hillary’s pithy South Carolina concession statement put it) let’s also remember that:

A) The vast majority of primaries in those states are majority-white;
B) Most of those millions of Americans are not black; and
C) Many of them — especially white males and including numerous Hispanics — would even vote for a woman before they’d ever pull the lever for a black man.
It would be stunningly ironic if the buttoned-up, Ivy League, Law Review Barry Obama –- son of a white girl from Kansas, raised mostly in multiculti Hawaii by his white grandparents, once reviled in certain African-American circles as “not black enough” – was first marginalized and ultimately undone by his own previously marginal blackness. Although his Kenyan father may grant Obama greater claim than others to the term African-American, he hardly seems ghetto fabulous in either experience or presentation. And while it’s exceedingly odd that anyone with even a modicum of African-American blood is automatically deemed ‘black’ in our culture, it’s nonetheless true, and no doubt indicative of the deep-seated racism that still permeates every aspect of American social and political life. Those who underestimate its vestigial power do so at their peril.

Now that it has been decisively shown that calling Bill Clinton “the first black president” was just a silly metaphor—and it has also been determined that calling Barack Obama ‘not black enough’ was equally silly—the real racial dynamics of the Democratic race are beginning to emerge. Blacks have overwhelmingly decided to put aside any remaining questions and to embrace Obama wholeheartedly despite a determined and vigorous campaign to dissuade them waged by our previous ‘first black president.”

Now the Clintons — long renowned for their steadfast devotion to the Democratic Party’s African-American base—have cleverly switched tactics and succeeded in identifying Obama as the black candidate in a race that is about to be decided by whites and Hispanics. They appear to have won by losing the predominantly black South Carolina primary.

After winning South Carolina, Obama told his supporters, “I did not travel around this state over the last year and see a white South Carolina or a black South Carolina.” But are America’s politics truly that color-blind? Are the days really gone when we could correctly assume “that African-Americans can’t support the white candidate; whites can’t support the African-American candidate; blacks and Latinos can’t come together?”

Or will long-entrenched racial dynamics and deep-seated prejudices instead decide the Democratic race? Will white and Hispanic voters have the audacity to vote their hopes – or their fears — on Super Tuesday? If the latter prevails, Obama’s only remaining hope may be to try quickly to convince white voters he is “white enough” to win!
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Filmmaker and journalist Rory O'Connor writes the 'Media Is A Plural' blog, accessible at
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