Saturday, December 22, 2007

South Carolina's "Black Primary"

I've written a few times about Barack Obama's presidential campaign and the politics of race (see here, here, and here). I've been particularly interested in Obama's transracial appeal - that is, his ability to transcend the acrimony and ugliness of America's most intractable political issue.

Polls continue to show Obama captures broad support across the electorate. Yet, underneath the media glare of celebrity endorsements and polling surges, the nastiness of racial policies threatens to rear its gnarly head.

Exihit A is a new piece at The Nation, "
South Carolina: Inside the 'Black Primary." The article focuses on the unusual blackness of South Carolina's presidential primary. Here's a quick snippet:

With African-Americans likely to make up a majority of primary voters on the Democratic side, South Carolina's contest is as close to a "black primary" as we're going to get in 2008 - the only time in the entire campaign, almost certainly, when Democrats will be fighting all-out for African-American votes. Clinton's support among African-Americans, largely thanks to her husband's popularity, proved surprisingly strong at first, as did her smooth, state-of-the-art machine politics; as late as September, a CNN poll gave her a stunning 57 percent of the black vote here, to Obama's paltry 33. That would deal a death blow to Obama's chances, not only here but in the February 5 primaries, especially in Alabama and Georgia, where large numbers of black voters are weighing their choices--and watching South Carolina.

But while the contest here has been widely portrayed as a Clinton-Obama battle for black votes--especially those of black women reportedly torn between their enthusiasm for electing a sister versus a brother - the real focus, from the get-go, has been relentlessly on Obama. In a state where the Rev. Jesse Jackson's wildly successful 1988 uprising still stands as a high-water mark for black political aspirations, Obama's cool style and post-civil-rights rhetoric went over like a lead balloon in the early months of the campaign. The trouble was epitomized by a speech he gave to the legislative black caucus in April, where he offered his joking opinion that "a good economic development plan for our community would be if we make sure folks weren't throwing garbage out of their cars." To folks like Kevin Alexander Gray, who ran Jackson's campaign here, this smacked not of fresh thinking but of "the oldest racial stereotypes. Translation: black people are dirty and lazy." Obama's middle-of-the-aisle message and delivery kept reinforcing black South Carolinians' doubts about whether he was sufficiently one of them. "I've heard people say, and I've probably said it myself, 'He's a white boy,'" says Gray. "Or he's what some working-class black people perceive as a middle-class Negro. Anyway, let's face it: you don't get a revolution from Harvard."
Obama's not black enough? Heard that one before? This is more of the "insidious ritual" of high profile blacks having to prove their credibility by being "down with the brothers and the sisters."

The debate on Obama's bona fides in the black community died down a bit with Hillary's continued dominance in national polls. But as The Nation article points out, South Carolina's essentially an African-American primary on the Democratic side - a "black thing," an election that provides a powerful case study on Southern racial politics in the post-civil-rights era.

Note though: If there are impediments to the emergence of transcendental black politics in the South, it's not because of lingering Jim Crow sentiment, at least by indications from this article.

The South Carolina campaign has opened a unique window into the fractured state of black politics in twenty-first-century America--a gumbo of bleak cynicism, wary pragmatism, frustrated progressive aspirations and messianic longings. It has been, for black voters and candidates alike, one long, extended soul search. And it ain't over yet.
And it's not likely to be over any time soon, given some of the notions about black sentiment here:

From the beginning, Clinton has been the fall-back candidate for African-Americans here. She has done all the expected things to woo black voters: held forth in black churches and colleges, called for removing the Confederate flag from the Statehouse, lined up endorsements from preachers and politicians, and deployed her wildly popular husband to the state with increasing urgency. She's talked about the Bible (favorite book: James), and she's winced over the "Corridor of Shame," a particularly desperate and heavily black stretch of I-95 that was the subject of a recent documentary by the same name. It hasn't hurt that Clinton's campaign started early with a "phenomenal, highly professional organization" that Obama's more free-flowing, grassrootsy campaign was hard-pressed to match, said Scott Huffmon, a political scientist at Rock Hill's Winthrop University. But mostly, Huffmon said, "She's attracted voters worried about Obama's viability, or his politics, or his 'blackness.' They love Bill, and that's enough. It's not about her."

That became crystal clear in the spring, when prominent State Senator Robert Ford explained why he'd opted for Clinton over Obama. "Every Democrat running on that ticket next year would lose because he's black and he's on top of the ticket," Ford told the AP. "We'd lose the House and the Senate and the governors and everything."

Most folks prefer to put it a little less bluntly. At the Spartanburg rally I ask Phyllis Carter, who teaches English at a local two-year college, why she's standing in line to shake Clinton's hand. "I think she's the brightest person, doing what she's doing, and she's done it a long time," Carter said. "She's the best. I think about Obama all the time. But he may not have the experience to do what she can do. The fact that she's a woman--she's special." What about the argument that a woman can't win? "Ah, we're over all that stupid stuff," Carter said.

But what about the other "stupid stuff," I asked. Is it easier for a woman to win than an African-American? Carter paused, pursing her lips. "Maybe." She paused again. "Look at how long we've been here: 1554. Now, we didn't come on boats because we decided we wanted to come and be a part of you. We came on a boat tied left leg to right leg. The accomplishments that we've done since then are pretty amazing when you think about it. We're not going away. We're going to be voted for at some point in the game. One of these days we'll have a President."
Here's a really telling excerpt:

Across town in Obama's cramped and bustling Spartanburg office--a converted attic upstairs from the local Democratic Party headquarters--it was a whole 'nother story. "Pull up a chair, honey," said Carolyn Reed-Smith, an elementary teacher working the phones at a folding table. "I had been really drawn to Hillary at first," she explained. "Because I voted for her husband. I thought, 'Wow! Now we'll have him and her.'" But then in June Obama came to Reed-Smith's church, Mount Moriah Baptist, and made a convert. "He had such a calming presence. It's sort of biblical, but I believe in men having dominion and having some sort of mystical power that God gave them," she said. "I believe Barack has acquired that."

To Reed-Smith, the questions about Obama's "blackness" actually point up one of his most important assets. "I believe that he has the best of two cultures within him. He has had such loving nurturing from our African culture, and then I think from the Caucasian culture he has the wit and intellect that's so sharp. I just think that both of those things together, it's the best of both worlds that he has within him. I just felt like I would rather work to see that he gets the presidency."
That says a lot. Here's a woman whose discussion of Obama's most important assets illustrates a key variable in explanations of persistent black poverty and social disorganization: Low expectations, that is, the idea that possessing a powerful intellect is a "white" trait, characteristic of the "Caucasian culture."

No mindset could be more deleterious to the promise of black Americans than the self-segregation of blacks to the ghetto of inferior expectations. Blacks must break from premises of reduced ability based in feelings of low self-esteem, fearfulness, sadness, and ideologies of victimhood.

Obama's problem is that he's moved beyond the 1960s-era freedom struggle frame of reference on the future direction of the race. Because he transcends victimhood, Obama can't be the African-American community's "black messiah": He's not "the one," despite Oprah Winfrey stump speeches to the contrary:

At the big rally in Columbia, Oprah notched up her Obama-as-savior rhetoric by referencing a scene in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. "I remember Miss Pittman, her body all worn and withered and bent over. As she would approach the children, she would say to each one, 'Are you the one? Are you the one?'" Oprah didn't mention that Miss Pittman was looking for a black messiah. She didn't have to. "I watched that movie many years ago, but I do believe today I have the answer to Miss Pittman's question. It's a question that the entire nation is asking. Is he the one?" Tentative cheers. "Is he the one?" Big cheers. "South Carolina," Oprah proclaimed, "I do believe he's the one."

When Efia Nwangaza heard that, she could only wonder: "He's the one for who, and what?" Nwangaza, a longtime activist and onetime Green Party US Senate candidate, is among the many black (and white) progressives left cold by the symbolic standoff between Clinton and Obama. But it didn't stop her from driving from Greenville to witness the Sunday spectacle. "I had mixed feelings," she told me afterward. "I was really moved by it. By the yearning of the people who were there to have someone representing them and their interests. I understand the yearning, in that I am also tired. Having been a civil rights-cum-human rights activist all my life, having had movement parents, I would be so relieved to know that there is a fruitful end to those efforts, and that some candidate embodied it. But I don't think that's what's happening with Barack Obama."

Or Hillary Clinton. "When I look at what both Obama and Clinton say, and what they do, they are not it. They are both chameleons. They are both opportunistic. They both come from the overcompensatory 'being first' frame of reference. Which means that they will be more white male than any white male, including George W. Bush, would ever be. My feeling is that people across the board are being sold a bill of goods."

Kevin Alexander Gray, who's working on a book called The Decline of American Politics, From Malcolm X to Barack Obama, seconded the point. "People say they're voting for Obama because they want a change. A change to what? This is people thinking that the cosmetic is more important than the structural. Obama is a candidate who happens to be black. That's his prerogative, and it's fine. But it's not what we need. Obama's campaign is not a movement. It is someone running for office."
I'm not voting Democratic precisely because of sentiments such as this.

Black politics today is more about revolutionary transformation than about building political coalitions for pragmatic change. As long as the yearning for a black messiah remains key to large segments of the black voting constiuency, a true black politics of transcendentalism will remain out of reach.