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Race hides campaign’s bigger issues

January 20, 2008 by  
Filed under News, Politics, Weekly Columns

( Usually I would like to see hecklers, no matter what their cause, take a long walk off of a short pier.

But when some off-camera guy interrupted MSNBC’s Democratic presidential debate in Nevada for an end to the “race-based [or baiting] questions,” I sympathized.

I’m all in favor of questioning the candidates about race and gender issues. But, after 20 minutes of the two-hour debate, I began to wonder if they were going to get to anything else.

For several days, the Democratic race had slogged through a national argument that Sen. Hillary Clinton inadvertently started in regard to Martin Luther King Jr.’s role in winning passage of civil rights laws. Emotions were further fueled by questions about the role women played in helping Sen. Barack Obama’s close loss to Clinton in the New Hampshire primary.

After days of seeing their party’s political base divided by the same identity politics that helped to build it, all three Democratic front-runners did their best to be nice to each other at the Las Vegas debate—and move on.

But in the debate’s opening segment, every time the front-runners tried to shy away from race and gender, the questioners pulled them back in.

After all, according to an observation by a San Diego woman at the debate, “The policy differences among the remaining candidates is so slight that we appear to be choosing on the basis of personality and life story.”

Then came her question, “Why should I, as a progressive woman, not resent being forced to choose between the first viable female candidate and the first viable African-American candidate?”

It wasn’t clear who was “forcing” the woman to choose, but former Sen. John Edwards responded with a passionate recitation of his agenda and bio. He said voters should vote based on whether they believe “America needs change.” Edwards added that as a guy who “grew up in a family of millworkers” and “the first person in my family to actually be able to go to college,” winning similar opportunities for others who grew up like him was “central to everything I do,” a personal, personal fight for me.”

To which Natalie Morales from NBC’s “Today” show brought laughs with this rather blunt question: “What is a white male to do running against these historic candidacies?”

Oh, I dunno, Natalie, maybe curl up and die?

But, no, Edwards didn’t say that. He’s nicer than I am. He talked about how proud he was to belong to a party that has “a woman and an African-American who are very, very serious candidates for the presidency. They’ve both asked not to be considered on their gender or their race. I respect that.”

Nice answer. It is particularly ironic for Clinton and Obama to be caught in an identity trap since both have records of rising above identity politics and benefiting from it by broadening their bases.

In his second best seller, “The Audacity of Hope,” Obama wrote about a lesson he learned while sitting in the Illinois Senate with a white Democratic legislator as they watched a black colleague, whom Obama called “John Doe,” deliver a floor speech on why eliminating a certain program was racist. “You know what the problem is with John,” the white senator asked Obama. “Whenever I hear him, he makes me feel more white.”

As an African-American, I understand how that white senator must have felt. Sometimes I hear white people—certain demagogic talk radio hosts come to mind—who make me feel more “black.”

Obama observed that it’s not easy for a black politician to strike the right tone between anger and not-angry-enough. But, rightly or wrongly, “white guilt has largely exhausted itself in America.” Every time news people talk about “the black vote,” for example, I suspect it makes somebody feel “more white.” But race is so deeply ingrained in American customs, traditions and memory that it’s hard to cover politics without talking about it.

Written By Clarence Page

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