It was only a matter of time before race and gender leapt from the background and into the fierce spotlight of the Democratic primaries debate. With less than three weeks until "Super-Duper Tuesday", as it’s now being called, that moment has well and truly arrived.
Over the weekend, the Clinton and Obama campaigns parried over whether the Clintons had made racially insensitive comments. Clinton-the-former-President used the phrase "fairy tale" in relation to Obama, whose supporters claimed that Clinton was implying that a Black man could never be President. Clinton then called Reverend Al Sharpton’s national radio program to apologise, and explain that he was only talking about Obama’s statements on Iraq. "There’s nothing fairy tale about his campaign," he said. "It’s real, strong and he might win."
Clinton-the-possible-President also had to backtrack on race. She credited President Johnson with kick-starting civil rights in the US by signing the Civil Rights Act. Some saw that as undercutting the importance of Black campaigners like Martin Luther King.
The Clinton campaign accused Obama of exaggerating and misinterpreting their comments to turn possible Black voters away from them. Obama, predictably, denied those claims, and tried to maintain the impression that he is above that sort of dirty politics.
It’s no coincidence that these scuffles have erupted now, with primaries in States like South Carolina rushing down the pipeline. Black voters make up a significant hub of Democratic support in that State, and recent polls have Clinton and Obama in a dead heat: at 35 and 34 per cent respectively. Even a small defection from one camp to the other could determine the result.
There is also a history of supporting Black candidates in South Carolina. In 1988, primary voters there backed the other Black man to have made a serious bid for President: the Reverend Jesse Jackson. The State has never elected a woman governor.
The feud over race also comes a week after Hillary Clinton’s ‘emotional moment’ in the last days before the New Hampshire primary. Pundits disagree on whether her tears compelled women to vote for her, or whether women rallied to support Clinton after commentators mocked her for choking up. Either way, it was as if she was being outed as a woman, just as Obama is now being outed as Black. In both cases, the candidates’ gender and race are now explicit factors in the debate.
Professor Robert Lieberman from Columbia University says it was inevitable that the campaigns come to this point. "I’m surprised at how low profile Obama has been about race," he said. "I think the same thing applies to Hillary’s campaign with regard to sex. I think the remarkable thing about Clinton’s campaign is how little reference she’s made to sex."
Lieberman says that both candidates have minimised those personal characteristics as a deliberate strategy to avoid being pigeon-holed when it comes to the actual election.
"If you compare it to Jesse Jackson in the 1980s, who ran the first serious Black campaign for President, his entire professional career had been in the civil rights movement. So he had no choice but to run as a civil rights campaigner."
But Obama’s background as a community organiser is different, according to Lieberman. "I don’t think he’s done anything to call attention to the fact that he’s Black. Until this weekend it had been a non-issue in the campaign."
At least, it has not been as explicit an issue as it has just become. For Kim Benson, who works as at a community organisation in Harlem, Obama’s race has always been a latent issue. "It’s really a touchy area for America in particular," she said. "I don’t think anyone wanted to address the issue that a Black man and a White woman are competing against each other. I think when you are in that position, you have to be very careful."
Benson says she supports Obama because of his policies, but she shares a common fear that could convince her to vote for Clinton. "I’m thinking, wow, if Obama runs, will someone try to assassinate him?" Benson says that if enough people start talking about that, she might change her vote because she wants to protect Obama.
Nevertheless, she is glad that race is finally coming to the fore of the debate. "It needs to be talked about. If there is an elephant, call it an elephant. And race is the elephant in this campaign," she said.
Her colleague, Sean Moore, agrees with the sentiment, but says he favors Clinton at this stage. He’s been disappointed with Obama’s failure to speak out more on Black issues, like the rebuilding of New Orleans or the racial conflict in Jena, Louisiana, where White students hung nooses from a tree where black students wanted to sit.
Asked whether he thinks that’s because Obama is reluctant to be branded as the Black candidate, Moore disagrees. "I think he’s trying to take the middle of the road approach so that people can’t tie him down to things later."
As with many voters at this early stage, Moore has not yet committed to either candidate. "I’m waiting for Obama to say more about his plans," he said. "With Clinton, I know what I’m getting. George Bush ran under the banner of change, and that’s what Obama’s doing."
The bottom line for many of the Harlem locals interviewed by newmatilda.com, is that they could support either candidate, and don’t want the campaigns to turn uglier.
"I don’t care about sex or race," said Fallou Ndiaye. "I care about the ideas and the programs."
According to Professor Lieberman, the current disputes are no more than the normal scuffles of a high stakes campaign, and signal the fact that Clinton and Obama have emerged as the only two serious Democratic contenders.
"Any campaign will seize on anything that the other person does that gives them an advantage," he said.
But the sensitive issues of race and gender elevate this above normal politics, and have the potential to damage both candidates and undermine the watershed moment.
"No one who is seriously paying attention to the race can fail to notice that the Democratic nomination will either be a Black man or a White woman," Lieberman said. "That’s a historic event, either way."
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