Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama vowed to knock off their racial jawing and sniping at each other before their Las Vegas debate. And they should. Now they should start talking about racial profiling, affirmative action, housing and job discrimination, the racial disparities in prison sentencing, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, health care for the poor, failing inner city schools, and ending the racially-marred drug sentencing laws, and what they intend to do about them. They only pecked around the edges at these issues in Las Vegas.
And before that they’ve said relatively little about them on the campaign trail. In fact, the last time they took a mild stab at talking about racial issues was at their Howard University debate back in June. Their deafening silence since then on racial issues was disturbed only by Clinton and Obama’s swipe at each other over what Martin Luther King, Jr. did or didn’t do for civil rights and Oprah’s arm and arm jaunt with Obama through South Carolina.
While it’s satisfying to hear the candidates utter a few soundbites about racial problems in one debate it’s no guarantee that they’ll keep talking about them. Even John Edwards who started out his campaign with a bang when he toured the universal symbol of poverty and neglect, New Orleans’ Katrina wrecked 9th Ward, has gone virtually mute talking about race and poverty.
If the Democratic contenders don’t find their voice on these issues, and boom it out loudly and repeatedly, they will stumble badly with those that need and deserve to hear it the most, namely black and Latino voters. They have been the most loyal of Democratic shock troops. In every election stretching back to Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory in 1964, they have given the Democrats the overwhelming majority of their vote. Even when many white ethnics and trade unionists defected to the Republicans, blacks and Latinos stood pat with the Democrats. But in the last two presidential elections they haven’t got much from them for their staunch support.
During the 2000 election, Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore spent most of his campaign avoiding appearances in black and Latino communities, and was stone silent on racial. Gore got away with this blatant benign neglect by playing hard on the terror and panic that a Bush White House win in 2000 stirred in many blacks and Latinos. But when blacks and Latinos scurried to vote for Gore out of fear of a Bush win they gave the Democrats another free ride.
In 2004, Democratic presidential contender John Kerry pretty much followed the same cautious script. He once called affirmative action “limited” and “divisive.” He did not totally publicly recant his words. He made a tepid and vague call at the NAACP and Urban League conventions that year for increased support for minority business, job creation, and against discrimination and gang violence. Bush, however, said pretty much the same thing.
There are two reasons why race has been a taboo subject for Democratic presidential contenders in debates and on the campaign trail for the past two decades. The spectacular expansion of the black middle class implanted the myth that racial problems are largely part of America’s distant and by-gone past, and except for isolated pockets of racial discord, the problems have long since been resolved through legislation and the enactment of social programs. The other reason is that no president or presidential challenger, especially a Democratic challenger, wants to risk being tarred as pandering to minorities by talking openly about racial problems.
Shunting race to the back burner of presidential debates invariably means that presidents shunt them to the backburner of their legislative agenda. The lone exception was President Clinton. He was well into his second term in 1997 when he felt secure enough to take a mild stab at directly confronting racial problems.
Yet, presidents have not been able to tap dance around racial problems. Ronald Reagan’s administration was embroiled in affirmative action battles. George Bush Sr.’s administration was tormented by urban riots following the beating of black motorist Rodney King. Bill Clinton’s administration was saddled with conflicts over police violence and racial profiling. George W. Bush’s administration has been confronted by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, voting rights and reparations battles. By ignoring, or downplaying these issues until they burst into flashpoints of national debate and conflict, presidents have been ill prepared to craft meaningful legislation and programs to deal with them.
Clinton and Obama did the right thing in calling a halt to their silly mouthing off at each other about King and civil rights. The big test for them now is whether they will go where Democratic presidential contenders haven’t gone in years, and talk up health care, education, criminal justice system reform, job creation, and hate crime violence and not be scared stiff they’ll blow the election by alienating middle class voters with this talk. The Las Vegas debate was a halting start in the right direction, but only a start.
– Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February, 2008).