Is Clinton Getting a Pass on Race?

Civil Rights leaders ought to be more outraged by the race-baiting tactics employed in the presidential campaign.

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After Barack Obama's historic and uplifting call for the nation to "move beyond race," I had hoped the campaign would return to some of the real issues -- the economy, health care, education, and the war. My hopes notwithstanding, race remains an insidious subtext to the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination. Ironically, our civil rights leaders must now begin to shoulder some of blame for this nagging problem.


Because Hillary Clinton has apparently been given a "get-out-of-jail-free" card from America's civil rights leaders. If a Republican candidate had run the campaign that Hillary Rodham Clinton has run thus far, America's civil rights leaders would be up in arms. If Rush Limbaugh had made the remarks that Geraldine Ferraro made, the nation's major civil rights organizations would be up in arms. And it is hard to move on from the issue when the Clinton camp continues to use race-based fear tactics, racial code-words and innuendo at a steady pace.

In the wake of Obama's problems with his former minister, Jeremiah Wright, the other side has started to weigh in as well. Fox News, Karl Rove and other far-right-wing commentators are now doing whatever they can to also keep the Wright issue alive; this despite Obama's clear denunciation of his Wright's remarks and his moving oration on the racial divide in America.

But for civil rights leaders, who have given Bill and Hillary Clinton a pass for the very same behavior, it is too late to accuse the right of playing racial politics; they cannot now try to claim the moral high ground. That would be hypocritical, and transparently so.

To make clear the hypocrisy, it is worth recalling two incidents during which civil rights leaders (and other mainstream figures) weighed-in to loudly denounce the use of race-baiting remarks.

The most obvious is the Willie Horton ad campaign from the 1988 presidential campaign. Those ads never said anything directly about race or black people. Indeed, some versions of the ad never even showed Willie Horton's face. But it was the subtle manipulation of racial cues that showed (Gop strategist) Lee Atwater's true evil genius.

Jesse Jackson denounced the ad campaign as racist and he was right.

Then in to 2003, consider the reaction when ESPN sports commentator Rush Limbaugh said of the black Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb: "I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve. The defense carried this team."

Retired General Wesley Clark, who was planning a run for president, demanded that ESPN fire Limbaugh.