Friday, January 25, 2008

Mister Charlie and Miss Anne

Nearly fourteen years after he was a bystander to one of the 20th Century's worst acts of barbarism, Bill Clinton himself is now personally involved on his wife's behalf as the Hutus and Tutsis of his party engage in another of their periodic paroxysms of fratricide. The party of slavery, Jim Crow, "Dixie-crats" and the KKK (lest we forget that the only alumnus of the Klan presently serving in Congress, Sen. Robert Byrd, is a Democrat) is yet again riven over the issue of race.

To be sure, the fault lines that this internecine conflict have exposed will not soon be mended. The split runs deeper than the ill-advised commentary of Clinton or his many dusky surrogates, although he would be
well advised to follow Rep. James Clyburn's admonition to "chill." His overheated rhetoric (along with Hillary's political tone-deafness) have done minimal damage to Sen. Barack Obama's candidacy, while wrecking havoc on her campaign, not to mention to his already tarnished legacy.

The greater fracture imperiling the Democrats' efforts to retake the White House is two-fold. There is clearly a fissure between whites - particularly blue-collar whites and white "ethnics" - and blacks. This is evidenced by recent polls in South Carolina and elsewhere suggesting that Obama has become the favored candidate of African Americans, garnering roughly 60 percent of the black vote, while Clinton remains the candidate of most whites. With Hillary having all but conceded the state, there is little doubt that her looming defeat in South Carolina (although I've been down this road before) will feed into any race-based paranoias held by certain white Democrat constituencies.

The interracial rift among progressives is paralleled by an intra-racial
division among blacks. An account published in the Chicago Tribune describes this as a generational struggle between established black political leaders and a group of younger black politicians.

At Clinton's side have been not only [Rep. Charlie] Rangel and Johnson but civil rights standout Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and former UN Ambassador Andrew Young, who in videotaped remarks to black Atlanta residents suggested Bill Clinton was "every bit as black as Barack."

Other established black political leaders whose careers have been steeped in the traditions of the civil rights movement and protest politics have been notably cool to Obama. Though Rev. Jesse Jackson has endorsed Obama, for example, Rev. Al Sharpton has stayed neutral.

Obama, meanwhile has drawn especially strong support from a new generation of rising black political stars such as Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Newark, N.J., Mayor Corey Booker and Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.).
For its part, the Wall Street Journal may have gotten closest to the bullseye in characterizing this as having more to do with a class split among blacks. Black political elites notwithstanding (more on them momentarily), most blacks who see themselves as somewhat empowered are more likely to support Sen. Obama, versus those in the black underclass.
A poll this fall by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black think tank, shows the wide disparity of support for Mr. Obama among blacks. While 75% of blacks who went to college had a favorable or very favorable view of the candidate - rising to 88% among blacks who went to graduate or professional school - support dipped to 62% among those with just a high-school degree and to 42% among blacks who haven't finished high school. A similar pattern shows up as income levels fall among blacks. And while 83% of blacks employed full time had a favorable view of Mr. Obama, just 55% of unemployed blacks did.
The Journal went on to elaborate on class distinctions - however apocryphal - established during slavery between so-called "house slaves" and "field slaves," and in so doing, it got closest to identifying the root cause of the divide between black leadership and the black masses. Some black elites, usually of a generation who was taught that success was contingent on the auspices of "good white folks," are in support of the modern day "Mister Charlie" and "Miss Anne", as much as Bill and Hillary may evoke memories of a kindly landowner whose farm they or their forbears sharecropped. These 21st Century "Uncle Toms" stand in contradistinction to African Americans who have learned that accomplishment flows from one's own efforts, and who tend to support Sen. Obama.

With two key Democrat constituencies in conflict (and in the case of blacks, struggling with internal turmoil), any hope of a Democratic victory in November is all the more remote. The question yet unanswered by Hillary, Bill or Barack is how the party will remain unified and energized such that they can win what will doubtless be a down-to-the-wire election. The Clintons being who they are, we can hardly expect any cooling of their bombast. They have declared Sen. Obama persona non grata, and will continue to act accordingly. For example, it is plain that the subtext of Sen. Clinton's efforts to portray Obama as wholly unqualified for the presidency is that he is some sort of "affirmative-action" candidate.

Whatever happens between a chilly January Saturday in South Carolina and a warm August week in Denver, I fully expect a fight to the finish within the Democratic Party for its own soul. I cannot indicate with great confidence any expectation that the gap between Democrats on the matter of race will the bridged any time soon, as they seem inclined to remain completely oblivious to their own racial biases - legion though they are.

Four More Years!

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