WASHINGTON — In the acrid aftermath of the South Carolina primary I think it is safe to say that Toni Morrison, the novelist, was dealing in fiction when she pronounced Bill Clinton our first black president. After watching him huff and puff up the issue of race in a way that Americans have not seen since the presidential campaigns of the late George Wallace, the former Boy President, rather than being our first black president, is our second redneck president.
I say Clinton is our second redneck president because first came Jimmy Carter. Jimmy did not play the role of the bigot while in the White House, not exactly. Rather as the historian Betty Glad demonstrated in her fine biography of him, Jimmy Carter: In Search of the Great White House, Jimmy played the racial politics at the beginning of his political career in Georgia while seeking the governorship. That is not to say that as president he did not use race divisively. He was frequently given to transforming policy disagreements into a matter of white voters repressing black voters, that is to say Republicans repressing blacks. He was forever presuming himself to be the champion of black people and Republicans to be anti-black. Any disagreement on domestic issues he was apt to present as part of a Republican “Southern strategy” to win Southern white votes.
Now after the Clintons’ treacherous campaign against Senator Barack Obama, we see that some Democrats will practice a Southern strategy too. Yet they do it within their own party, dividing Democrats along racial and even ethnic lines. This is the repellent absurdity to which identity politics has sunk. Why two Southern politicians would play the racial politics — each in his different way — is mystifying. Southern politicians, more than any other politicians in this country, should be aware of the racial antagonisms of the past and the potential for racial violence even today. It is especially mystifying to see Clinton play the race card. I do not credit him with many virtues, but the one virtue I thought he had was racial tolerance. Nowhere on his record is there any evidence that he ever sought to benefit from bigotry against blacks. That is no longer the case.
To be sure, as president he treated race the way President Carter did, interpreting policy differences between him and his Republican opponents as inspired by the Republicans’ presumed racism. Now, after his repeated acts of treachery in South Carolina, we see a Bill actively turning whites and blacks in his own party against each other. Moreover, he wants to encourage ill-will between Latinos and blacks within his party. He is making these invidious efforts purely to bring his family back to power. Though I have called him a sociopath, I thought that when it came to the issue of race he might be more scrupulous.
Race is the cruel burden this country has borne since its inception. We fought a bloody civil war over it. The evil of Jim Crow followed after that war, featuring widespread injustices against blacks and violence between the races. From north to south, race riots have broken out in this country for generations. After the heroism and idealism of the civil right movement the country has steadily moved toward racial tolerance and an improvement of the material condition of all minorities. Admittedly there remain instances of unspeakable cruelty, hate crimes committed by brutes on both sides. Yet with a growing sense of tolerance and a growing economy offering jobs and other opportunities, we have reason to believe that racial harmony is replacing the racial strife of the past.
Now comes the Clinton quest for the Democratic nomination and what journalists politely call “the race card” is being practiced. It is a dangerous game. Thankfully, racial tolerance is probably too far along for the Clintons to screw it up. The divide between the races will continue to narrow. But perhaps you will understand my astonishment after the Clintons’ demagoguery in South Carolina: they are actually worse than I have been saying.
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