Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Clinton vs. Obama: A Distinction without a Difference for Black Voters

Recently, one of my students told me that she felt that the competition between Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senator Barack Obama for the Democratic Party's nomination placed the black community in a "win-win" situation because both candidates were such strong advocates for black interests. It is easy to see why my student would feel this way. After all, the facts that she was born at the beginning of Ronald Reagan's second term and came of age politically in the Bush years means that she has never seen such open and direct competition for the attention of black voters. It also means that she likely grew up hearing stories from other black Americans about the good old days under the Clinton administration.

What I find harder to understand is why the Clinton-Obama duel has stoked such passions among those members of the black electorate who have been able to drive, vote and drink alcohol for longer than five years. This is so because neither candidate has talked thoughtfully about racial inequality or provided any innovative ideas about how to close the racial gap. Moreover, both candidates seem to have settled on a neo-southern strategy, where they push race neutral policy prescriptions in an effort to win the so called "Reagan-Democrats" or "angry white men" back to the party fold. In my view, this behavior suggests that both candidates lack the political courage to effectively represent black interests from the bully pulpit that is the Oval Office.

Beyond the Roll Call Votes...

On first glace, it might seem that I am being a bit hard on Senators Clinton and Obama. After all, both candidates are rated as substantially more "liberal" than the majority of their colleagues in the Senate on several ideological scales. (On the National Journal's index, for example, Senator Obama was rated as more liberal than 83% of his colleagues and Senator Clinton was was more liberal than 79.5% of the Senate.) The senators do even better on the NAACP's legislative score card, which ranks legislators according to their votes on issues that the civil rights group flagged as important for their agenda. Senator Obama was one of 12 senators to earn a 100% score from the NAACP. Though not perfect, Senator Clinton did not lag far behind with a 97%. While black Americans probably should not support candidates with low scores on these measures, high scores do not necessarily mean that these candidates have what it takes to lead on black issues from the White House over the next four years. This is so for several reasons. First, the vast majority of the votes that constitute even the issues that the NAACP scores are race neutral measures that overlap with the partisan goals of the Democratic Party. (Still, not all Democrats score as high as Senators Clinton and Obama on these issues, so they should be commended for their votes.) Second, neither candidate has a strong record of crafting legislation related to black issues in the Senate. Finally, since only two senators have won the White House (Warren Harding in 1920 and John F. Kennedy in 1960), we know very little about how roll call votes in the Senate translate into presidential activism.

What we do know from research in economics and political science is that politicians do sometimes signal their true preferences about what they will do on policy issues when they are elected in their campaign rhetoric (Harrington 1992; Jamieson 1996). These same studies, however, also point to the fact that this truth telling is most common when the issues involved are uncontroversial and or likely to boost the candidate's popularity with the majority of voters. In light of these findings, it is not surprising that neither Senator Clinton nor Senator Obama have demonstrated a willingness to talk in a meaningful way about addressing the burdens that black Americans continue to bear as a result of the legacies of Jim Crow as they troll for black votes in southern primaries. (The New York Times columnist Bob Herbert also points to this disturbing trend in his piece entitled "The Blight that is Still With Us" on 01/22/2008).

What demands explanation is how, at a time when the black electorate reports the highest level of anxiety about their economic status in America since 1983 and continued worries about anti-black racism (Pew Reseach Center 2007:, Clinton and Obama are getting away with running campaigns that are completely devoid of any new ideas about closing the racial gap between blacks and whites. I argue that both candidates have astutely developed a neo-southern strategy where they make no specific promises to black America while simultaneously stressing how their own identities make them empathetic insiders with black voters. Below I sketch a few examples of how both candidates have deployed this strategy successfully in recent weeks. I also point to reasons why black America should demand (but likely will not get) more from the two Democratic front runners.

Hillary Clinton's "front-row seat on history"...

Senator Clinton has argued throughout the campaign that her 8 years in the Senate and "front-row seat on history" during President Bill Clinton's two terms in the White House make her more prepared to promote change than the other Democratic candidates. Although this is the general pitch of her stump speech as she campaigns across the nation, the narrative of experience was deployed by her surrogates in South Carolina as a claim to partnership in Bill Clinton's special relationship with the black electorate. Consider, for example, Ambassador Andrew Young's much dissected endorsement of the Clinton campaign. Young never mentioned any of Senator Clinton's policy positions for black America in his comments; instead, he simply points to the facts that "Bill [Clinton] is every bit as black as Barack Obama" and that he (and his network) would govern with Mrs. Clinton (Chicago Sun-Times, 8 December 2007:,obamayoung120807.article).

It is somewhat surprising that a woman with such strong feminist credentials would stake such a big part of her campaign on her role as a junior partner in her husband's administration. Reacting to the general strategy, some Democratic strategists and pundits have called on Senator Clinton to tell the American people how (if at all) her politics differs from those of former President Clinton. (See, for example, Donna Brazile's piece from November 2007 at Huffington Post: Since Senator Clinton is no shrinking violet, and she has yet to do this on black issues, it is probably safe to say that she is comfortable trying to coast to black votes on her legacy as the wife of the "first black president of America." This was certainly the tactic that she employed in the recent debate in South Carolina when she boasted of how black incomes rose by $2600.00 per household under President Clinton's administration.

Barack Obama as "Change Agent"...

If you know anything about Senator Barack Obama, it is probably that he has run a campaign on the theme of "change." At a campaign rally in Manchester, New Hampshire in 2007, Senator Obama told the crowed that "hope and change are not just the rhetoric of a campaign for me" (Associated Press, 4 September 2007). Despite how much he makes statements like this to the press and his political rallies, Senator Obama's appeals to the black community have lacked any new (or even specific) ideas about closing the racial gap. Instead, a "tough love" rhetorical strategy that urges black voters to improve their own condition is the centerpiece of Senator Obama's appeals.

Let's take, for example, Senator Obama's recent speech to the congregation of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta (, where the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once preached. Senator Obama, who has earned praise from the press and bloggers-- "preaching personal responsiblity" in the black community, was in rare form in Ebenezer's hallowed pulpit. After conceding that "race still sometimes plays a factor" in limiting opportunities for black Americans, Senator Obama spent the remainder of the speech squarely focused on black foibles. In 45 minutes he managed to chastize the black community for "scorning" gays and lesbians, "viewing immigrants as competitors for jobs," and allowing the "scourge of anti-semitism" to sometimes appear in the community. In Obama's view, once blacks conquer these problems, and challenge themselves to be better parents, the black community will finally be able to say that they have achieved King's vision of the beloved community in their own neighborhoods.

Unlike Senator Clinton's decision to try to reach black voters through her husband's legacy, Senator Obama's tactics in the black community are not surprising at all. On the contrary, as many black studies scholars have pointed out in recent years (Gaines 1994; Simpson 1998; Dyson 2006), the black community has embraced "leaders" employing this rhetorical strategy since at least the Federal Period. Moreover, the fact that Bill Cosby, who had largely been out of the media for the past several years, emerged in the Pew Center's recent survey of black public opinion as the second most popular public figure in black America in the wake of his caustic and uninformed rants against poor blacks provides a clear analog for the Obama campaign. Thus, as much as Obama bills himself as a totally new kind of (black) leader, he is really just putting a new face on an old approach to mobilizing the black community. The overwhelming support (80%: that black voters in South Carolina gave to Senator Obama shows that this is a winning approach for him.

Hard Questions...

Since none of the remaining primaries will feature black voters as prominently as South Carolina, it is unlikely that black issues will take center stage as Senators Clinton and Obama shift their attentions to Super Tuesday. This does not mean, however, that black voters should stop pressing both candidates for more substantive engagement. Indeed, black voters in the Super Tuesday states of Alabama, Georgia, and New Jersey (where black voters in large cities like Newark matter for the final delegate count) should demand answers to the following questions before making their final choices.

To Senator Clinton: Do you claim all of your husband's legacy with black voters?

The fact of the matter is that President Clinton has a very mixed record of representing black interests. Indeed, throughout both his terms he approached black issues as if he were still on the campaign trail trying to win back the coveted "Reagan Democrats"--the same folks that Senator Obama is intent on bringing back to the party fold with his message of "unity." Clinton's decision to withdraw his nomination of Lani Guinier to head the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice in the face of conservative opposiiton to her views on affirmative action and minority representation signaled his willing to back track on black issues early in his first term in office ( What exactly was Professor Guinier's transgression? She stated plainly in some of her academic writings that majority rule did not always leave minorities in a good position in American democracy.

President Clinton's decision to abandon Guinier (who had been a classmate at Yale Law School and a close personal friend of the Clinton's) created a firestorm of controversy in the civil rights establishment. As part of his efforts to mend fences with this important constituency, Clinton ordered a comprehensive review of affirmative action programs with an eye toward developing defenses againt conservative legal attacks. The results of the study were striking. Not only did the administration find that white men were not disadvantaged in the business arena as a result of affirmative action, it also showed that blacks actually lagged behind women and other minorities in receiving the benefits of these programs (For an excellent summary of the findings, see Edley 1996). Proponents of affirmative action expected President Clinton to use these findings, and the report of the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission, which found that there was virtually no displacement of white men in the work place as a result of 30 years of affirmative action, to provide a vigorous defense of diversity and redress programs. President Clinton delivered his "Mend It, Don't End It" speech at the National Archives in Washington, DC in July of 1995 (See: The speech was hailed by civil rights leaders and the press as a "unequivocal endorsement of affirmative action" (See:,9171,983257,00.html). One year later, President Clinton softened his support for affirmative action when he stated, during the the 1996 presidential debate, that he had "done more to eliminate programs--affirmative action programs--that I thought were unfair" (See:

Once President Clinton was safely reelected, he moved to repair relations with civil rights leaders by establishing a commission to study the continuing role that racial inequality played in structuring life chances in America. By all accounts, the members of the President's Initiative on Race earnest took up the task of examining racial divisions in America. Unfortunately, President Clinton's staff badgered them throughout the entire 15 month process to return on modest proposals for reform. Governor Thomas Kean (R-NJ), who served as co-chair of the advisory panel, told the press directly that the administration urged them "not to be bold" with their proposals (

Since Senator Clinton has argued that she was a partner in her husand's White House, she needs to account for her role in this mixed legacy. Did she argue that Professor Guinier's views on affirmative action and racial representation deserved a fair hearing? Or did she agree with President Clinton's decision to cower at the first sign of disapproval from Republicans and a few DLC Democrats? Also, did Mrs. Clinton agree with her husband's reckless decision to recast himself as an anti-preference crusader even in the wake of incontrovertable evidence that affirmative action had done no harm to white men between 1965 and 1995?

Senator Obama: Is Your Tough Love only for Black America?

By all accounts Senator Obama's speech at the Ebenezer Baptist Church was an eloquent call for tolerance. Moreover, there is no doubt that homophobia, nativism and anti-semitism are evils that exist in the black community. The fundamental flaw of the speech is that there is just not much evidence to support claims that blacks are disproportionately homophobic and nativist and mixed evidence on the question of anti-semitism. While it is true that the NAACP admitted recently that they were slow to address the impact of HIV/AIDS in the black community (, a comprehensive analysis of black attitudes toward gays and lesbians published by Gregory Lewis in Public Opinion Quarterly in 2003 challenges the view that blacks are uniformly unsympathetic to gays and lesbians. Lewis does find that blacks are more likely than whites to say that homosexuality is "morally wrong." At the same time, however, his research shows that, once religious and educational differences are controlled, blacks are also somewhat "more supportive of gay civil liberties and markedly more opposed to antigay employment discrimination than are whites."

Recent public opinion studies have also demonstrated that blacks are less nativist than their white counterparts on most policy questions (See, for example, Citrin et al. 2007). On the issue of black anti-semitism, we have dueling studies. Tsukashima and Montero (1976) found that black anti-semitism is largely a function of interactions in the economic sphere where there is a power asysmmetry that favors Jews. They also find that black anti-semitism evaporates in contexts where there is economic and social equality between the two groups. Sigelman (1995), by contrast, finds that blacks in all socioeconomic categories are more anti-semitic than their white counterparts. Using a mixed method approach, Jennifer Lee (2006) found that interactions between blacks and Jews in black neighorhoods where there was high contact between the two groups were most often "civil and routine."

The point here is not to suggest that Senator Obama is wrong to challenge the black community to work towards greater tolerance. On the contrary, King's beloved community is a goal that we should struggle to make a reality in all corners of America. Instead, the point is to illustrate that empirical reality suggests we are farther along the road to achieving these goals than Obama and the throngs who celebrate his calls for "personal responsiblity" in the black community seem to realize yet by most indicators the racial gap between blacks and whites along a number of important socioeconomic indicators has grown since 2000 (See, for example: What Senator Obama needs to tell the black community is what he plans to do to close these gaps? In other words, let's say that blacks continue to be more tolerant of immigrants than their white counterparts, bring their views on the "morality" of homosexuality in line with their progressive attitudes towards civil rights laws for gays and lesbians, and continue to build harmonious relations with the Jewish community, what will be the Obama plan for addressing the racial gap once the beloved community is finally complete?

At the same time, Senator Obama should also provide an account of why his tough love has thus far only been targeted towards the black community. Why did he not rail against nativism and homophobia during his stump speeches to the mostly white crowds that he encountered in Iowa and New Hampshire? Perhaps more important to black voters, why has Senator Obama failed to address the scourge of anti-black racism (in the way that Senator Edwards has throughout both his 2004 and present campaigns) when talking to primarily white audiences? After all, if he is a consistent man, souldn't telling the Reagan Democrats the truth--that they were wrong to fall for Reagan's race baiting messages about black Americans--be the first step in his mission to bring those people back to the party fold? (He could even use the same reports that President Clinton commissioned to demonstrate the empirical reality of his claims!) Perhaps Senator Obama fails to make such appeals because, like so many black voters, he thinks that the black community must be morally perfect before its members can press the state for their basic entitlements as citizens and an honest accounting of how we got into this morass that is the racial gap.

A Distinction without a Difference...

In an ideal world, black voters would have the tools to hold both Senator Clinton and Senator Obama accountable for the fact that they have failed to craft substantive appeals to their community. Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world. Instead, as the political scientist Paul Frymer points out in his book Uneasy Alliances: Race and Party Competition in America (Princeton University Press, 1999), black voters are "captured" by the Democrats because Republicans (as they have admitted: have built their electoral coalition (which both President Clinton and Senator Obama covet) on race-baiting over the past 30 years. What this means is that black voters will likely be stuck with either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama by the time the general election comes around.

It is one thing for black voters to acknowledge that they must push the button for one of these two candidates in November. It is quite another thing, however, to become emotionally invested in either one of them. This is so because both lack the courage of conviction of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who changed the world with hope and actual activism, and President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who used the bully pulpit of the Oval Office to announce that "We Shall Overcome" racism, when it comes to advocating for black interests. Thus, when black voters compare these two candidates, they should be honest with themselves and realize that the only distinction between Clinton and Obama is that the latter has not been engaged in politics long enough to have as long a record of running to the right on black issues when his electoral fortunes sag. From his rhetoric on the stump, however, it seems that he is intent on catching up with the Clintons if we give him the chance.


Anonymous said...

Times have certainly changed. The fact that this author could write such a long post and not even mention the symbolic importance of having an African-American president quite frankly astonishes me.

Anonymous said...

What is the symbolic importance of having Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court and Secretary Rice running U.S. foreign policy?

Anonymous said...

Symbolism is not without affect. The affect towards Thomas and Rice, for those who think they have been disasters, is mostly negative. Alternatively, for Obama, assuming Black folk appreciate and approve of what he accomplishes, the affect would be positive and prideful towards the race. Whether you think that is worthy or good doesn't really matter. Affect plays a huge role in the African American experience and motivates and encourages people. I would even argue that is the primary reason for his popularity among so many Black folk combined with the fact they think he really has a chance to win unlike previous Black candidates.

Carla said...

What are the black issues that Clinton and Obama do not address? What are black interests? Admittedly I didn't finish reading the post but I was surprised that my interests are still being lumped in with those of, say, a black multi-millionaire, or even the black upper middle class.

Is universal health care not a black issue? Addressing the growing income divide is not a black issue? The war in Iraq and Afghanistan aren't black issues?