“Can he get any white votes?” That’s the usual question asked when a black American files for a major public office like governor, senator or president. In the case of Barack Obama, a Washington Post/ABC News poll has turned that question on its head. The poll shows Hillary Clinton beating Obama among African-American voters by an astonishing 60 percent to 20 percent. When Jesse Jackson ran in 1984 and ’88, his proportion of the black vote in the primaries was 80 to 90 percent.
So, why the difference with Obama? The dominant theory is that, as the son of a white Kansas mother and a black Kenyon father raised mostly in the white community, Obama is not sufficiently black. We’re not talking about skin color here; we’re talking about a black identity. Many black Americans, such as columnist Stanley Crouch, don’t consider Obama as one of their own. Said Crouch, “When black Americans refer to Obama as ‘one of us,’ I don’t know what they’re talking about.”
What they are saying is that Barack Obama does not embody the collective experience of most African Americans whose forebears suffered slavery and segregation and shared the bitter struggle for civil rights. Jesse Jackson epitomized all those things, but to many white voters he also was a constant rebuke, a painful reminder that there was more to be done on the American civil rights agenda.
In that sense, Obama is more like Colin Powell than Jesse Jackson. Powell’s successes were achieved in a parallel institution, the military, without much involvement with the civil rights agenda and its activists. Powell flirted with a presidential run in 1995, and like Obama today he was more popular with white voters than with black, for many of the same reasons. He was a black politician who didn’t make whites uneasy. When asked why he did so well with whites, Powell explained that he spoke English well and was not confrontational. “I ain’t that black,” he added.
Barack Obama was raised in a home of middle-class whites. It is their culture that seems second nature to Obama, not the culture of urban blacks. Those who question Obama’s black credibility argue that it’s appropriate to be suspicious of people who don’t share the totality of the American black experience.
Others think this new cultural test is, frankly, baloney. “If blackness is not consecrated by slavery and childhood poverty, you’re not black enough? That idea is nonsense,” says civil rights activist Roger Wilkins, adding, “Nothing in Obama’s background justifies seeing him as a white guy’s black guy. He has addressed black concerns as a community organizer in Chicago and a state senator in Springfield.” On the question of whether Obama shares the black experience, Wilkins’ wife, Georgetown law professor Patricia King, adds, “If you’re a black man in America today, you’re treated like a black man, every day.”
This debate will go on. Meanwhile, the next question is why Hillary does so well with black voters. Most agree that it has less to do with her than with Bill. “Bill went out of his way to make black appointments, court black voters, and she was at his side when he did it,” says Wilkins, “And blacks are loyal to people who they think have produced for them.”
Patricia King doubts that Hillary’s support will last as African-American voters get a chance to size up both candidates. “Toni Morrison called Bill Clinton our first black president,” King recalls. “He was very comfortable around black people, played the saxophone, went to black churches. I don’t see where Hillary inherits that. She’s a whole different deal.”
These days, more often than ever, Sen. Clinton talks about “Bill and I.” It is reminiscent of the early days of the 1992 campaign when Bill was convinced that bringing a Yale law graduate, a practicing attorney, along as first lady would be an asset. “Buy one, get one free,” Clinton advertised until his pollsters noticed that primary voters were deeply skeptical of the bonus offer. So, Hillary was put on ice, demoted to second string, and it was then she made her bitter and enduring remark, “Well, I could have just stayed home and baked cookies.” Now, however, Bill is her biggest asset in the upcoming primaries, so we are back to Plan A, a full Clinton partnership, package deal.
Who ultimately gets the black vote is the major subplot in the Hillary vs. Obama drama. Watch how it plays out.