Thursday, May 08, 2008

Racism and euphemism: The exclusionary candidacy of Hillary Clinton

By Michael J.W. Stickings

TNR's Michael Crowley makes a good point in response to the whites-vote-for-Hillary argument coming from the Clinton campaign (and from the candidate herself):

It's definitely uncomfortable to hear her say it, but if Hillary thinks white Americans won't elect a black president, is it so transgressive for her to say it out loud? Everyone in politics and media has been having this conversation for more than a year now. If anything it seems better than reliance on cutesy euphemisms like "working class" or "electability." I'm willing to be convinced I'm wrong but I think it's worth considering this before the latest "race-baiter" pile-on gets underway in earnest.

As I said yesterday, a better justification for the continuation of her campaign is the credible argument that she remains a strong candidate with broad-based appeal: not just working-class whites, but women and Hispanics as well, not to mention much of the Democratic establishment. Obama has won more contests, more votes, more pledged delegates, and, since Super Tuesday back at the beginning of February, more superdelegates, and we must remember Obama's momentum-generating performance on Super Tuesday (when he more or less drew even with Hillary by outperforming her) and sweep of victories up until Pennsylvania, but Hillary, to be fair, has done well, too, posting victories from California and Arizona to Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, to New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts (and she would likely have won Florida and perhaps also Michigan).

But facts are facts, and Obama is ahead with what is an essentially insurmountable lead. It's possible, of course, that Hillary will bow out after a victory in West Virginia (May 13), or perhaps after a victory in Kentucky and a loss in Oregon (May 20). But it's also possible, as some insiders are suggesting, that she will fight it out not just through the remaining contests, which end on June 3, but until the convention -- unless, that is, there is a surge of superdelegates to Obama and/or the party leadership unites in demanding her withdrawal from the race.

The problem is, her arguments for staying in either aren't true (he wins one, I win one, it's close!) or are, as we are now seeing, based on race. The former is predictable political spin. The latter is deeply troubling.

While it is true that Obama has won and overwhelming majority of the black vote and that Hillary has won, in most states, a solid majority of the white vote, or rather of the white working-class vote, Obama's appeal has never been racial/racist. Rather, he has repeatedly called on Americans to address the country's racial, sexual, economic, and other divisions seriously so as ultimately to move beyond them and fulfill America's promise. His appeal is, in a word, inclusionist.

Hillary has been inclusionist, too, and her policy positions certainly are, but the whites-vote-for-me argument is decidedly the opposite.

Now, identity politics are at work here, I admit. Members of groups identify with and support candidates with whom they share what they deem to be their defining characteristics. Blacks support Obama, women support Hillary. Hispanics support Hillary, not Obama, but this may be because they don't identify with a black man or because they prefer Hillary's positions on issues like immigration or because Bill has a long and positive history with the Hispanic community. Educated and affluent men support Obama, not Hillary, but this may be because Hillary has presented herself throughout this campaign as a (faux) populist, while Obama seems to be the more educated (though Hillary is certainly highly educated and highly affluent -- it's a matter of perspective).

But do working-class whites prefer Hillary to Obama because of her (faux) populist positions on the gas tax, guns, and other such issues? Or because he seems like a coastal elitist who appeals to university students and addresses issues and engages voters with maturity and intellect? Or because he seems to be out-of-touch when he makes "bitter" comments about small-town and rural voters (even if what he said, however artlessly, was the truth)? Surely the preference isn't based on policy, given that, on policy, the two are very much alike?

(Gasp!) Could it be that working-class whites prefer Hillary because she's... white?

Which is not to say, of course, that all working-class whites are racist, or that such racial considerations, of which they may or may not even be aware, determine how they vote. And yet, the very term "working-class white" is a loaded one. On the surface, it seems to mean whites who work for a living and are somewhere in the middle and lower-middle class, as well as whites who are working poor or somewhere in the class between poverty below and the middle class above. (In short, those with blue collars.) But it also means uneducated or poorly educated whites: Hillary does extremely well with voters who do not have a college degree (and who do not have even less than that).

But this isn't just about working-class whites, it's about whites generally. Hillary wins more of them than Obama does. And, of late, this fact has become one of her core arguments. Once an inclusionist, like Obama, she has, in defeat, become an exclusionist: "Whites support me; therefore, I will stay in the race."

I'm not making this up. In her interview with USA Today yesterday, Hillary argued that she has "a much broader base to build a winning coalition on." However, as evidence, she referred to an AP article that "found how Sen. Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me... There's a pattern emerging here." (Her chief strategist, Geoff Garin, made a similar argument in a conference call yesterday.)

Yes, there is a pattern emerging, and it's Hillary and her campaign making more and more of a racial case for her candidacy. And it's not just about whites generally, it seems, but about uneducated and poorly educated working-class whites. And what she herself is saying, as Crowley points out, is that these whites, or at least many of them, simply will not vote for Obama.

Now, let's not go too far with this. It's not clear that Hillary is saying that these whites would never vote for him, that it is racism (or, less malignantly, racially-motivated identity politics) that is determining their preferences. But, as a part of her overall electability argument, this latest racialization of the race would seem to suggest something like that: "Whites -- or, more specifically, some whites, and a lot of them -- are supporting me in ever-increasing numbers and won't vote for him; therefore, I will stay in the race and continue to make the case that I can win in November and he can't. I won't get into why they won't vote for him, but you can draw your own conclusions."

But -- and this question must be asked -- why? Why do these whites support her and not him? To what extent is (white) racism propelling Hillary's campaign? Yes, there are surely racists among Obama's black supporters, just as there are surely racists among Hillary's Hispanic supporters, and so on, but it is Hillary who is bringing this up, and she is doing so with respect to working-class whites who simply will not vote for Obama.

So enough with the euphemisms. Enough with the coded demographics. (Remember the Seinfeld episode where Elaine thinks she may be dating a black man and he thinks she's Hispanic? Enough with the "should we be talking about this?" avoidance of one of America's most divisive problems.

Let's have it out. Hillary, what exactly are you saying?

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