Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Clinton’s Working Class Heroes
By Sikivu Hutchinson
Surrounded by a sea of white faces after her big win in West Virginia, Hillary Clinton’s racial message was abundantly clear—while Obama’s “we are the world” candidacy is fine and dandy for his fantasy world tribe of elite whites, blacks and young folk, she can deliver the heartland and Bubba. Over the past few weeks, Clinton’s repeated evocation of Obama’s alleged failure to win “hard working” white Americans was yet another reminder of her penchant for playing the race card. Hard working white Americans, as distinct from the trust-fund harboring, white-wine sipping, Volvo-driving constituency that catapulted Obama to victory in Iowa, Minnesota and North Dakota, cherish middle-American values like faith, family and the right to bear arms, and rightfully disdain the uppity ways of a big city black politico like Obama. Granted, with its 96% white population West Virginia is certainly a snapshot of red state intractability. According to one exit poll, 20% of whites cited race as a factor in voting for Clinton over Obama and a majority cited the economy as their number one issue in the election. To be sure, entrenched racism poses a significant challenge to Obama’s electability. Clearly, whites who are comfortable enough to disclose their racist views on Obama are in the minority.
In her paeans to white working class sensibilities Clinton played on this sentiment, well aware of how her “my kind of people” rhetoric would go over in small West Virginia towns like Parkersburg. Yet it is important to note that the campaigns of both Al Gore (who won the popular vote) and John Kerry struggled to win swing state white working class votes in 2000 and 2004. Moreover, the states where Obama scored big with white voters are hardly bastions of prosperity; by painting Obama as the other Clinton’s big tent pretense of inclusiveness is exposed as a sham once again.
Clinton’s appeal to white supremacist class consciousness is a preview of Republican tactics in the fall. Implicit in the appeal is the notion that other racial groups, specifically African Americans, are not hard working, represent a political monolith beholden to the welfare state, and are solely defined by race. This image fits squarely with conservative notions of black indolence. The appeal to white supremacist class consciousness implies that those who suffer most from the US’ economic downturn are underemployed or unemployed rural and suburban whites, not people of color who make less on the dollar than do white men and women. When whipping up class sentiment among whites, the reality of the earnings and household income gap that exists between whites and people of color is not one that the Dems (Obama included) have ever truly been willing to address.
In the fading weeks of her campaign, Clinton has proven that she will try and win by any means necessary, displaying the integrity and accountability deficit that Bill Clinton demonstrated during his administration when it came to issues of social justice. If the Democratic National Committee denies Hillary Clinton’s desperate bid to have votes from the discounted Michigan and Florida primaries included, and Obama wins the nomination, he would do well to keep her ease with the Republican playbook in mind when the drumbeat to nominate her to the vice-presidency begins.
Sikivu Hutchinson is editor of blackfemlens.org, a journal of feminist criticism.