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.
DNC chair Howard Dean demanded that ESPN fire Limbaugh.
Al Sharpton also demanded that ESPN fire Limbaugh.
Fast forward to 2008: Clinton campaign finance committee member Ferraro declares: "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman (of any color), he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept."
What's the difference here? Where are the voices of outrage at Clinton's tepid response to the Ferraro episode?
One might say that the difference is that Limbaugh had a bad track record on race. But after the LBJ-versus-King remark; after the fairytale remark; after the 'Jesse-Jackson-won-South-Carolina,' remark; after the fear-mongering red phone ad; after Bill's Clinton's media "mugging" remark, how much more of a track record on race-baiting does the civil rights community need before it speaks up on the Clintons?
I'm sure these tactics trouble many Clinton supporters, regardless of race, but private groans of discomfort and disapproval are not enough in the face of the steady manipulation of racial cues by this campaign.
And it's not over: A recent Clinton fund-raising letter asks for donations in order to "level the playing field" against Obama. It cleverly borrows from anti-affirmative action rhetoric of the past. Can't let that "black" candidate have an "unfair advantage" is the leaden implication.
This is all straight out of the Lee Atwater play book. Politics in this mass-mediated age is decidedly a matter of symbols and signals. The signals sent by the Clinton camp are regularly about race. They scream one thing: "Hey, I'm the white candidate over here, remember? Don't let that slick affirmative action beneficiary over there fool you. "
Consider a few hypotheticals: If John McCain had made Ferraro's remarks we would already have had a press conference from Julian Bond. If Mike Huckabee had run a similar campaign, the civil rights community would be in an up roar. If Mitt Romney had done these things protest organizing would already be underway.
The silence from the civil rights establishment is not doing Democrats any favors. Should Clinton get the nomination, I can already imagine the Republican strategy to suppress black voter turnout.
It will be called the "Remember Obama" ad. The radio announcer would say: "Remember how Obama was building a head of steam and winning over more and more working class white voters, North and South? Remember how the Clinton campaign ran that frightening red phone ad? Remember when Obama was denounced as a beneficiary of 'preferential treatment' by a high ranking member of Clinton's campaign? Can you really trust the Democrats? Can you really trust Hillary Clinton?"
Already, I can envision Republican ads designed to do exactly this. And if things continue as they are, such ads are likely to have great traction among black voters.
Perhaps more concerning is that if Obama wins the nomination and the McCain campaign or some independent group runs ads like the "red phone," civil rights leaders, by their silence now, will have lost the moral credibility to label such an ad as race-baiting.
Civil rights leaders have traditionally stood up, even when it wasn't convenient or easy to do so. Something as deliberate and as poisonous as the systematic Clinton race-baiting strategy should have long ago been addressed by traditional civil rights leadership.
If it is morally repugnant for Republicans to do these things—which it is—then it is morally repugnant for Democrats to do them too. Those, like Rush Limbaugh, who have long charged civil rights leaders with hypocrisy can delight in the present moment. If Obama is the nominee, the free pass extended to the Clinton's on race-baiting will have to be accorded Republicans, as well.
Politics often involves ugly fights, but by passively accepting what has gone on so far, the civil rights establishment has let us all down.
Lawrence Bobo is the W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of Sociology and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.