Election 2008

America's New Racial Reality: White Minority Status

While Obama raises the bar for racial understanding, the Democratic Leadership Council leverages white voter fear to counter America's new landscape.
Barack Obama's speech in Philadelphia eloquently displayed how the Obama and Clinton campaigns are divided by race idealism versus race realism.

Combining the statesman's calm cadences with the reverend's passion, Obama delivered what was arguably the crispest, most important delineation of U.S. race relations by a presidential candidate since Abraham Lincoln gave his House Divided speech.

In response to the ongoing racial pyrotechnics seen most recently in the controversies surrounding Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's former pastor whose racial denunciations from his Chicago pulpit have drawn criticism, and Clinton-backer Geraldine Ferraro who sparked controversy after saying, "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position," Obama used his abundant rhetorical gifts to advance the cause of race idealism. His speech tried to weaken the relentless pull of our racial past on our electoral present by pointing to a post-racial future.

"This nation is more than the sum of its parts," he declared before a very racially mixed crowd of supporters sitting and swooning in Philadelphia's National Constitution Center. "We may have different stories, but we hold common hopes." The elevated responses in the Constitution Center seemed to simulate the paintings of children and adults of various ethnicities dancing in a circle as they rise from the ground.

In stark contrast to Obama's strive-for-higher-ground idealism is the boots-on-the-ground march of the pre-eminent practitioners of racial realpolitik: the Clinton backers of Washington's Democratic Leadership Council (DLC).

Caught between the current reality of an electorate that's still mostly white and a primary process that reflects stunning demographic shifts, the racial politics of the Clinton supporters in the DLC reflect a strategic decision to consolidate their white base. Viewed from this vantage point, the DLC's re-engineered appeals to white racial solidarity preview the new politics of the white minority era that looms on the racial horizon.

More than any other political machine in this very tense political moment, politicians affiliated with the DLC have developed policies and made statements that reconfigure racial politics beyond the Southern Strategy -- appeals to white voter fear and anxieties with anti-black policy proposals that successfully transformed the once Democratic-leaning South into a Republican stronghold -- that still defines much of the Republican racial realpolitik. DLC affiliates have more or less formed a beeline to make racial comments appealing to white voters as an unprecedented racial reality has come upon America: white minority status.

DLC operatives seem to recognize how quickly the political process is moving past the black-white racial politics towards a Sunbelt strategy targeting a more diverse and demographically different country, increasingly concentrated in the sunny southern states stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Like Obama, the DLC recognizes and anticipates the inevitable domination of the electoral college by Texas, Florida, California and other states heavily populated by Latinos and Asians.

Among the most recent comments and policy proposals by DLC affiliates reflecting the Sunbelt strategy are: the Geraldine Ferraro statement; the strong support for the anti-immigrant policies of the very punitive, anti-immigrant STRIVE Act by Rahm Emmanuel and James Carville, an enforcement-heavy immigration reform proposal which many Congressional Hispanic Caucus members have said will increase racial profiling; the anti-immigrant ads used by DLC Chair Harold Ford during his Senatorial bid in Tennessee; DLC stalwart Bob Kerrey's claim that Obama attended a "secular madrassa"; the numerous racially-charged comments made by former DLC leader Bill Clinton, and, of course, Hillary Clinton in the course of her own campaign.

These most recent statements and policy proposals by DLC affiliates reflect the DLC's insights into the post-Southern Strategy, post-Dixiecrat moment. This vision was developed by several of the mostly southern founders of the DLC who, in their zeal to combat the GOP successes with white voters through the Southern Strategy, rejected the affirmative action and other "identity politics" in the Democratic party to return to the old white identity politics.

Asked about the statements by Ferraro and other DLC affiliates, DLC's press secretary, Alice McKeon, declined to make a statement. Asked if Ferraro was affiliated with her organization, McKeon answered, "I'm not prepared to say anything about that right now."

Longtime DLC critic, and editor of the Black Agenda Report, Bruce Dixon, sees in the ratcheting up of racial politics in this primary season the DLC's aspirations to make Democrats more competitive against the GOP. "The historic position of the DLC is that they want to compete for Republican voters and corporate dollars," said Dixon. "Their support for the SAVE Act, the racial attacks on Obama are rooted in this desire."

Dixon has for many years also questioned the relationship between the racial statements and policy proposals of DLC members and the major funding it receives from corporations and from foundations like the Bradley Foundation, a philanthropic organization which gave the Progressive Policy Institute, the DLC's think tank, over $200,000. Bradley Foundation also has a long history of giving money to organizations and individuals dedicated to destroying civil rights like Charles Murray, author or the controversial Bell Curve who still supports thoroughly baseless racial ideas like the belief that there's a correlation between race and intellectual capabilities. "The Clintons, Rahm Emanuel and the DLC have to say these (racial) things because their corporate sponsors need a segmented and divided workforce," said Dixon. "They can't possibly do anything else."

Yet, given the chronic inflexibility of politicians of all stripes to articulate the real problems of race in the United States, Obama's race idealism may, in fact, mark the beginning of, as he promised, real change. Charles Murray himself noted this on the National Review website after Obama's speech. "As far as I'm concerned, it is just plain flat out brilliant -- rhetorically, but also in capturing a lot of nuance about race in America," he wrote. "It is so far above the standard we're used to from our politicians."

Race idealism, who knows, may very well carry the day beyond the primaries and the general election.
Roberto Lovato, a frequent Nation contributor, is a New York-based writer with New America Media.
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