The Democratic Party's primary race has reached a dangerous stage for black people. It has come to this: Both the Obama and Clinton campaigns are apparently willing to sacrifice black citizenship rights in order to win the Democratic nomination for president.
On one hand, we have Sen. Clinton's supporters being charged with intentionally trying to disenfranchise black voters in North Carolina and elsewhere through voter suppression tactics taken from Karl Rove's playbook.
But Sen. Obama is playing his own brand of risky politics. As he works to maintain white support, he is forgetting his black base. Just a week ago he urged voters to "respect" a New York judge's racist verdict allowing the police killers of Sean Bell to walk. His message was not unlike Booker T. Washington's admonishment to black Atlantans a century ago to respect the law in the face of a deadly pogrom. Black rights were sacrificed in the name of electoral expediency. And Obama is resorting to the same expediency now.
Just pay attention to the words. Here is Obama on April 25, in response to the verdict in the Bell case:
Well, look, obviously there was a tragedy in New York. I said at the time that without benefit of all the facts before me, it looked like a possible case of excessive force. Now, the judge has made his ruling. And, you know, we are a nation of laws. And so we respect the verdict that came down. I think the most important thing for people who are concerned about that shooting is to figure out how do we come together and ensure that those kinds of tragedies don't happen again? And so my understanding is that Mayor Bloomberg, community leaders, they are going to be — the police department — they are going to be getting together to find out what changes and procedures need to take place in preventing these kind of tragic shootings. But certainly, you know, resorting to violence to express displeasure over a verdict is something that is completely unacceptable and is counterproductive.
—Sen. Barack Obama
Here is Booker T. Washington commenting on the anti-black Atlanta Massacre of 1906, a killing spree that started as a result of false accusations against black males who were supposedly attacking white women:
I spoke plainly against the crime of assaulting women and of resorting to lynching and mob law as a remedy for any evil….I would strongly urge that the best white people and the best colored people come together in council and use their united efforts to stop the current disorder. I would especially urge the colored people of Atlanta and elsewhere to exercise self-control and not make the fatal mistake of retaliation.
—Booker T. Washington
The tactics of Senators Clinton and Obama may not seem connected. But they each signal a bankruptcy within the Democratic Party that black voters need to pay attention to.
In North Carolina and other states, an organization with very strong ties to the Clinton campaign has been targeting black communities with automated anonymous calls from a man calling himself "Lamont Williams," suggesting that already registered voters are not registered and need to complete additional steps to vote legally. According to the article at Wired.com, the organization Women's Voices/Women Vote has agreed, in response to North Carolina State Attorney General Roy Cooper's demand, to stop the illegal anonymous phone calls.
North Carolina's black population, which is 22 percent of the state's population, is becoming increasingly critical and what was supposed to be an easy Obama win is becoming uncomfortably close. That Clinton supporters would stoop this low, that they would use the very same tactics that Karl Rove and his gang of thugs used in Florida to steal the 2000 presidential election from the American people, is shameful and puts them in the same category as Republicans who,in states such as Georgia, are trying to bring back Jim Crow-era methods of black disenfranchisement, such as a new version of the poll tax.
In the meantime, Sen. Obama has apparently voluntarily fallen off the tightrope that Marjorie Valbrun brilliantly describes in her article. The Senator's comments on Sean Bell's killing, even more than his comments during the current Rev. Wright debacle, show the degree to which, in a few short weeks, he has abandoned the already dubious racial "even-handedness" of his Philadelphia speech (see my previous article ), in order to reassure white voters that he believes in law and order and is not a "militant" like his former pastor.
The Senator found it necessary to denounce his former minister for making statements that, in the main, are supported by large segments of the black community. (Most blacks' criticism of Rev. Wright has to do with the real harm that Wright's comments had on Obama's campaign, not with the substance of Wright's remarks.). And yet, Obama did not find it necessary to condemn a justice system that still does not punish agents of the state who kill black men and women whose only crime is being black. (In Chicago we have had black women shot down in the same manner as Sean Bell.) I will not respect a verdict that once again demonstrates, all too clearly, the continued lack of full citizenship rights for black people in this country.
Like Booker T. Washington a century earlier, Obama chose to emphasize the need to be "calm" over expressing outrage at yet another deadly taking of black life. He, too, has taken the electorally "safe" road.
Where do we go from here? The more I learn about Sen. McCain's political program, his friends and supporters, and his personality, the more I agree with many astute domestic and international commentators that a McCain presidency could very well be worse than the current one and very, very dangerous for our world. All of the anger I share with other black and progressive voters does not change the basic sobering fact that not only can the world not afford another four years of the current administration's policy, it may not survive another four years. (For example, McCain is advocating kicking Russia out of the G-8, that policy is a short road back to the nuclear nightmares, and the constant armed skirmishes of the Cold War—a Cold War with both China and Russia united against the U.S. again).
Switching to support for McCain at any point between now and November, as some advocate, is not an option. So where does that leave us? As for the Democratic Party's primary, Senator Clinton's supporters, by embracing the tactics and policies of Republican disenfranchisers, have allied themselves with those who would like to roll back the clock on basic black voting rights. And, as a consequence, they should not receive our support.
Tactically, that leaves us one option. The criticism of Senator Obama must continue when he takes positions that are detrimental to progressive causes and the black community. At the same time, to many he remains the best option in a set of bad choices during a dangerous time. Others continue to believe that, despite missteps, he remains a true beacon of hope and transformation.
I do not share that view, but I accept the strategic imperative. We must elect the most viable alternative to the current administration, and then we must vigorously hold the new president accountable. To do that we must build and sustain strong and independent black and progressive movements and we must insist that the dream of hope and transformation becomes a reality.
Marjorie Valbrun is a Washington, D.C. based journalist.