Despite Hillary Clinton’s stated desire to avoid racial politics in the 2008 Democratic primary campaign, she appears to be slyly nudging the issue to the fore.
In New Hampshire, the Bill and Hillary tag-team worked its subtle racial magic. Now Bob Johnson, America’s first black billionaire and an unlikely spokesman for African-Americans, has been summoned to perform some tricks.
While introducing Clinton at Columbia College on Sunday, Johnson said, “To me, as an African-American, I am frankly insulted the Obama campaign would imply that we are so stupid that we would think Hillary and Bill Clinton, who have been deeply and emotionally involved in black issues — when Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood; I won’t say what he was doing, but he stated in his book — when they [the Clintons] have been involved.”
Johnson’s righteous indignation might not seem so outlandish if it were not for several ironies worth noting here: A glance at the first half of his convoluted remarks reveals that the most glaring contradiction relates to Johnson himself.
Johnson made his fortune as the founder of BET, a cable television network that has long been criticized by many blacks for peddling the television equivalent of crack cocaine. As the owner of BET, Johnson led the way in promoting round-the-clock TV programs and videos that denigrate women and celebrate gangsterism and all manner of black pathology.
Not only does he make no apologies for promoting and profiting from the black exploitation images, Johnson has always seemed to take pains to downplay race. Years ago, when he was asked why he decided to sell such an important black-owned company to Viacom, a white conglomerate, Johnson made clear that his allegiance was, first and foremost, to business, not blackness.
In the mold of Clarence Thomas, O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson, Johnson is presenting himself as an out-front race man now that it conveniently serves his cause.
If the first part of Johnson’s attack on Obama appears contradictory, the second half seems downright disingenuous.
Johnson’s assertion that Obama was “doing something in the neighborhood” is an obvious reference to the man’s memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” in which Obama wrote about his teenage drug use. However, Johnson later insisted that he was referencing Obama’s work as a community organizer in Chicago.
(Unlike Bill, who claimed he smoked pot but didn’t inhale, at least Obama came clean about his youthful indiscretions.) As it relates to Hillary’s own shiftiness, there is one key contradiction worth noting. She expressed hope in a televised interview Sunday that the campaign would not be about race.
Are we to believe, then, that it is a coincidence that her camp called upon Johnson, a prominent black who now owns the Charlotte Bobcats, to lob grenades on her behalf? Clearly, having an African-American do her bidding on the racial front frees Hillary to stake out the moral high ground.
There is an even more sinister element to such pretensions when one considers the recent role of Hillary’s omnipresent co-campaigner, Bill. A master at using racial rhetoric and symbolism without appearing to do so, Bill Clinton put his considerable skills on display during the New Hampshire primary. His characterization of Obama’s ideas as a “fairy tale” no doubt contained a subliminal suggestion that a black man aspiring to the White House is make-believe.
Worse still was Clinton’s reference to Obama as a “kid” who is unprepared for the adult challenges of the White House job. The “kid” comment seems remarkable when one considers that Bill himself was 46 when he was first elected president. If Clinton was man enough to take on the challenge, why is Barack Obama, also 46, a kid?
Sadly, the “kid” reference seemed to hark back to the days of the Jim Crow South, when white people commonly referred to black men as “boys.”
This is not to suggest that the Obama camp, which reportedly circulated internal memos about racial strategies, is blameless on this issue.
But it’s the Clintons who are crying foul while simultaneously engaging in aggressive racial maneuvers.
Such tactics lend to the impression that politicians try to play the public like a fiddle. With the likes of Johnson as their spokesman, the Clintons may find fewer people listening to the tune.
* Nathan McCall is an author and Emory University lecturer.