Sen. Hillary “as far as I know” Clinton is not sure if Sen. Barack Obama is a Muslim or not. But, in truth, she is sure; she just wants you to have some doubts about it. It is in that and other moments of political calculation that the modern embodiment of the Southern Strategy is coming to define the Clinton campaign.
The cynical Southern Strategy, engineered by Republican Party leaders in the late 1960s, was the plan to win national elections by tapping into the racial fears of whites. The party signaled through thinly veiled racial codes that it would oppose civil rights and other policies portrayed as beneficial to blacks. In a very few years, the Dixiecrat South transformed into a Republican stronghold.
The Southern Strategy, with an anti-Muslim dimension added for flavor, has emerged as Clinton has completely lost African-American voters, an obvious key constituency that only a year ago was seen as locked up and put to bed.
Each week as the 2008 campaign progresses, we have witnessed insinuations and direct accusations made against the Obama campaign that collectively raise fears that he is a racial wolf in sheep’s clothing. These tactics have become the lore of the campaign: Bill Clinton’s remarks in South Carolina; media mogul Bob Johnson’s reference to Obama’s youthful use of drugs; and pressure on Obama to reject and denounce black ministers and others who made controversial statements, whether taken out of context or not.
A recent injection of racialization has been through former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro’s fanciful notion that it is hard out here for a white woman. Obama is winning, according to Ferraro, because it is faddish, indeed great, to be a black man in America today. She conveniently ignores all the statistics on criminal justice, education, employment and health care, not to mention pervasive negative images of even famous African-Americans (such as Michael Vick and O. J. Simpson).
The Clinton campaign and much of the media want to reduce the race to a black-white divide, pointing to the overwhelming support that Obama is receiving from the black community.
The fact is that Obama is winning the black vote not because he has attempted to appeal to it as a “black” candidate, but in spite of doing the exact opposite. Obama twice did not attend the State of the Black Race conferences that brought together black leaders and opinion-makers from across the black political spectrum. Rather than make his announcement at the event in 2007, he chose to make it in Illinois before a crowd comprised of people from different racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds. In fact, desperate for votes, Clinton did appear at the event, although to little effect.
The attacks on Obama are not aimed at black voters who are clearly not going to vote for Clinton, but at frightening white voters who the campaign has come to see as its only salvation. Clinton no longer makes any pretense at wooing black voters. White working-class voters and white women, in particular, are her demographic targets of choice.
In its desperate endgame, the Clinton campaign is willing to pit African-Americans against women, willing to undermine the ability of the party to win in November, and willing to create long-term damage to the party by alienating key constituencies such as black voters, progressives, and youth. In short, it is willing to do just about anything to win the nomination. How sad. How ruthless. How Clinton.
Clarence Lusane is an associate professor at American University and author of many books, including, most recently, “Colin Powell-Condoleezza Rice: Foreign Policy, Race and the New American Century.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.