The dust-up between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama over race has worked to Clinton’s advantage.
First, it is a subtle nod to the subconscious and not-so-subconscious racism some whites might harbor.
Second, it gives her the chance to talk about the Clintons’ fictional progressive record on issues of concern to blacks.
Former President Bill Clinton always played race politics to perfection.
In 1992, he ran for office supporting the death penalty. Then for good measure, he rushed back to Arkansas as governor to oversee the execution of convicted killer Ricky Ray Rector, a brain-damaged black man.
For years, I kept a picture of Clinton and then-Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn posing in front of a phalanx of black inmates in white prison suits taken at Stone Mountain, Ga., which is infamous as a home of the Ku Klux Klan. The picture appeared in newspapers all across the South the day of the primaries in 1992.
As president, he was scarcely any better.
Clinton left behind a larger, mostly black prison population than when he took office. Black incarceration rates during the Clinton years surpassed those of President Reagan’s. The incarceration rates for blacks increased from around 3,000 per 100,000 to 3,620 per 100,000 people during Clinton’s administration.
That Clinton did nothing about mandatory minimum sentences was no surprise.
That he did nothing to change the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine that disproportionately affects African-Americans was no surprise.
That he successfully stumped for "three strikes and you're out" in the crime bill, for restrictions on the right of habeas corpus and expansion of the federal death penalty was no surprise.
When he came into office, one in four black men were in the toils of the criminal justice system in some way; when he left, it was one in three.
What’s more, Clinton’s “one strike and you're out” policy for public housing residents, along with anyone living with them, is still creating problems for the poor.
Now, I don’t expect Obama to attack this Clinton legacy. In fact, he’s unwisely giving Bill Clinton a pass because he doesn’t want to highlight his own blackness.
His message is of the elusive and metaphoric “one America” as opposed to John Edwards’ “two Americas” divided among the “haves and have-nots.” Yet looking ahead and trying to run a general election campaign in the midst of primary battles can bring problems. For Obama, it has meant ignoring what should be his natural base — black
In politics, you start with your base. Yet the Obama either doesn’t see black voters as his base or it believes the majority of blacks will vote for him without courting. That won’t cut it, especially because Hillary Clinton considers black voters her base and views Obama as an upstart usurper who didn’t wait his turn.
One way Obama could appeal to his base would be to speak forcefully on the millions locked up in jail, who were not as fortunate as him to evade arrest and incarceration. Or he could talk about the plight of the cities.
If he insists on casting his campaign as a movement, he has to add some substance to it. It’s not just about the “old politics of division” that the Clintons represent but the consequences of the policies they left behind.
Kevin Alexander Gray is a writer and activist living in South Carolina. He managed the 1988 presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson in the state. His forthcoming books are “Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics” and “The Decline of Black Politics: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama.” He can be reached at email@example.com.