Playing Race Cards: A Savvy Derrick Z. Jackson on the Clintons

The Obama-Clinton political contest has received much “horse race” hyping, yet it has revealed some deeper racist realities in this nation. In a Tuesday, January 15, 2008 Boston Globe Oped article one of our best racial analysts in the mass media, veteran journalist Derrick Z. Jackson, does an incisive analysis of the Clinton campaign’s rather paternalistic and patronizing approach to black voters, and to Barack Obama. He first notes assertions by Clinton supporters about Obama’s cocaine use when he was younger, which has been revealed by Obama himself in his book as a warning to young people—the latter a point not accented by the Clinton camp. New Hampshire campaign co-chair Bill Shaheen resigned because of suggesting such drug use might disqualify Obama from being electable. Another Clinton surrogate, black billionaire Robert Johnson, recently hinted that the Clintons were positively and “emotionally involved in black issues” while Obama was doing  drugs in his neighborhood.

Then there is former President Bill Clinton’s attack on Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war  as opposition “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen,” when indeed Obama has been more consistently critical of the war from the beginning than the other leading Democratic candidates.

Jackson points to the intentional misreading of U.S. history that Bill Clinton engaged in during the early 1990s when he patronized African Americans at a famous Memphis, Tennessee church where Dr. King had spoken decades before. Clinton patronizingly preached to African Americans then that, “We gave people the freedom to succeed” and implied that the society had let people “live wherever they want to live, go wherever they want to go . . . without regard to race, if you work hard and play by the rules.”

Writing at that time, Jackson notes, he called Clinton on this patronizing notion and insisted that “in the broad context of the nation, no one ‘let’ us do anything or ‘gave’ us anything.” History backs Jackson up. Against great odds, African Americans themselves had protested aggressively for decades to bring down the walls of legal and informal segregation, usually against great opposition from Clinton’s white elite and middle-class friends, especially in southern and border states like Arkansas.

Jackson also notes that when he was president Clinton had taken much action against African Americans, such as by upholding or enhancing racist federal sentencing laws which punished “crack possession far more harshly than powdered-cocaine possession.” Where was Clinton on such obviously racist laws were under attack? As Jackson notes so succinctly, the “rate of black male imprisonment under Clinton grew from 2,800 per 100,000 to 3,620 per 100,000.” What kind of freedom was this?

Jackson closes his sharp analysis by pointing to Hillary Clinton’s odd accent on a white male president’s (Lyndon Johnson’s) implementing the goals of what she seems to view as “simplistic hopers and dreamers” like King and Obama. This may or may not have been intentional patronizing, but it certainly came off that way. And it would have been very easy to correct that patronizing tone at the time, and later, by pointing up the many ways that a great many African Americans, and especially King and Obama, have forced recalcitrant old racist white men like President Lyndon Johnson to finally take action to bring down the walls of Jim Crow. Absent black action, we might still be living in a Jim Crow society. White politicians almost always take significant action on civil rights only when forced to do so by black civil rights protests.