A Big Win for Obama and the South

When I was growing up in North Carolina, our neighbor South Carolina played an important role in our lives -- giving us something to look down on. We fell for too many racist demagogues through the years (y'all remember Jesse Helms?), but we weren't always run by them. We didn't have no rebel flag flying over our statehouse. We elected a racially moderate governor at the height of the civil-rights backlash in 1960. It was something to say for ourselves, and we appreciated South Carolina's making us look relatively all right.

After Saturday's primary, this Tar Heel can do nothing but offer a big, deep bow to the Democrats of South Carolina. Not because I was particularly rooting for Barack Obama over John Edwards -- but because of these fine folks' rejection of the Clintons' gutter politics. The majority of white Democrats, in a state where the Democratic Party was so long the organized mob enforcing Jim Crow, repelled the Clinton campaign's unspeakably vile attempt to paint Barack Obama as some kind of coke-dealing, slumlord-pimping cousin of Al Sharpton -- and their equally vile assumption that Deep South whites, whether they're Democratic or Republican, can be manipulated by coded racial divisiveness in 2008 the way they were in 1968. Or, to add a bit more vileness to the mix, their assumption that they could make South Carolina blacks believe that one of their own would be "unelectable" by definition.

The overwhelming majority of South Carolina blacks rejected Senator Clinton in the most profound way: after first supporting her. She had a two-to-one lead on Obama among black South Carolinians at mid-campaign. Whites didn't reject her nearly so soundly -- about one-quarter of them voted for Obama, with the others pretty well split between Clinton and John Edwards. But half of under-30 white voters -- and there were a ton of them -- went for Obama.

What to make of the fact that a strong majority of whites in South Carolina opted against Clinton? Some of it is explained, no doubt, by the fact that South Carolina Democrats hear visceral evidence, most every day, from their Republican neighbors of how little chance the Senator from New York would have of getting a fair hearing in red-state America. Some, perhaps, is due to the fact that with Edwards in the race, white Democrats didn't "have" to vote for Obama to be anti-Clinton. (Though I know from talking to white South Carolina Democrats that many of them were split between Edwards, as a truer populist progressive, and Obama, as an inspirational bundle of potential. They weren't just deciding between the white candidates.)

It is also because the Clintons have come to embody, for many middle Americans, the moral and intellectual emptiness they seen in liberalism -- feel-good, stand-for-nothing, make-no-difference power players cloaking their lust for control in "feel-your-pain" platitudes. In South Carolina, the Clintons demonstrated just how much unfortunate truth there is to that exaggerated view of them (not liberals). And the white Democrats of South Carolina demonstrated precisely the opposite: that there is less truth than ever to the negative stereotypes about them.

The same is true -- albeit a little less so -- of white Republicans in the Deep South. The backlash generation is dying off, thank goodness. A new generation of voters -- not just young Southerners but also millions of Hispanic voters -- is rising. Where they will take Southern politics is anything but certain. But as South Carolinians showed tonight, it isn't going to be backward toward the days of Strom Thurmond and Lee Atwater -- or Bill Clinton.

"That is not the America we believe in," Obama said tonight at a victory rally that surely made the eyes of many Southerners, black and white and otherwise, get misty. Seeing Obama cheered by so many hopeful South Carolinians -- and such a gorgeous mix of them, black and white and Hispanic, young and old, blue-collar and Blue State Liberal -- reminded me a little of the 1976 Democratic Convention, when both George Wallace and Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan were onstage, singing "We Shall Overcome" with Jimmy Carter and Friends. It felt like the New South -- a place no longer hopelessly perverted and held back by race -- was dawning in front of us, watching our TV sets.

That was a false dawn. Most Southerners, like most Americans, accepted school integration peacefully -- and then generally challenged themselves no further, retreating into the suburbs, and into the blithe assumption that since we no longer held black people unequal under the law, we were now "colorblind" and could stop worrying about it. The Republicans were superb at promoting this comforting notion. The Democrats have been lousy at contesting it.

Cheering Obama, of course, can be another self-congratulatory exercise for white people. It can become a kind of cheap expiation of our guilt -- whether we're white in Mississippi or white in California. But, especially because of the way the Clintons have racialized this campaign, a vote for Obama has now come to mean something else: a repudiation of at least some of the worst instincts that politicians have so long depended on us to manifest.

South Carolina-bashing has always been popular sport -- almost as much as Mississippi-bashing. During the war that was this primary, the pundits were often just as bleak as the Clintons about South Carolinians' potential to rise above. Bob Herbert of The New York Times wrote a scathing column about how "South Carolina, where the Confederate flag still flies on the grounds of the State Capitol, is a disturbing example of how difficult it is for people of good will to dispose of the toxic layers of bigotry that have accumulated over several long centuries."

He had his reasons, some a bit silly (a statue of the insanely racist "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman at the statehouse) and some damningly substantive (the "Corridor of Shame" along I-95, with its breathtaking black poverty). And he said something awfully wise: "In South Carolina the Confederate flag is flying right out there in the open and Pitchfork Ben is on display for all to see. But in most other places, the hostility to blacks remains on the down-low. No one wants to deal with it."

Saturday night, it looked like at least a few South Carolinians -- and most of them who are white and under thirty -- had dealt with it. At least one small fraction of it. And as we used to say, in a different context, bless their hearts for that.


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