Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s recent war of words over racial politics reminded me of a blog entry from 2007. Last summer, I blogged about a Washington Post op-ed piece called “Obama’s Tightrope.” The essay, written by African American freelancer Amina Luqman, argued that the secret to Obama’s success was his ability to avoid the topic that most white Americans do not want to hear black leaders talking about—namely, race. She wrote:
[T]he subtext of his appeal is in what he does not say. It’s in his ability to declare that things must get better without saying who or what has made them bad. It’s how he rarely chastises and how he divides blame and responsibility evenly; white receiving equal parts with black, poor equal parts with rich. The “we” Obama has created leaves blank the space traditional African American candidates would have filled with passion or a clear articulation of the state of black Americans. It’s left some black voters unfulfilled and some white voters with a sense of acceptance and absolution from past wrongs and present-day injustices.
Obama continued to navigate these tricky racial waters, overcoming questions about his racial “authenticity” among many blacks and winning over many more whites with his message of optimism and shared values. Then, in what seemed to me a moment of desperation, Hillary Clinton injected race into the proceedings in a way that you perhaps wouldn’t expect from the wife of “America’s first black president,” forcing Obama to respond. The Democratic opponents have since called a truce, but it’s hard to believe that the issue is going to go away.
One of the most compelling commentaries about the Clinton-Obama dustup was done by New York Times journalist Timothy Egan, who observed:
Where all of this goes now depends on whether the race genie goes back in the bottle. Again, history is a guide. The trick for a black politician in a nation where only 12 percent are African-American is to find a shared narrative.
The piece if full of thoughtful analysis. I strongly recommend it.
Also, Clarence Page’s piece about the episode is worth a read as well. My favorite paragraph references Gloria Steinem, a Clinton supporter, who apparently took Obama to task in another NY Times essay. Says Page: “You know things are getting vicious on the left when a pioneer of modern feminism stigmatizes Obama as someone who benefited unfairly from gender preferences.”