- February 3rd, 2007
It had to happen sooner or later. It looks like it’s going to be, “sooner.”
Deep down, I knew that I wasn’t going to get away with simply a 19-month string of snarky observations about the trivial goings-on of a presidential campaign (although I promise to try to stick to THAT worthy agenda as much as possible). At some point, the gloves always come off and the candidates start to take some real swings at each other—sometimes in an inadvertent or backhanded manner. As Daniel mentioned, Senator Joe Biden got things going nicely this week, particularly with his comments about Senator Barack Obama. Just as well I suppose. With this historic campaign, it was unavoidable that the explosive issues of gender and race were going to enter the mix eventually. And quite frankly, I think it’s both healthy and necessary to have a national conversation on these issues before the electorate goes to the polls. Thank goodness for the new protracted campaign season that allows for plenty of time for the dialogue to occur. Whether he intended to or not, Biden has triggered that conversational tripwire.
Perhaps the largest purpose Biden’s comments (calling Obama, “articulate,” and, “clean,”), have served is to highlight the simmering debate within the African American community about what constitutes, “blackness.” Even before the events of this week, some authors and commentators were already discussing this issue. Debra Dickerson wrote an interesting article for Salon.com discussing some of the issues, claiming that, although Obama is black, he isn’t, “black,” in terms of the political and social reality. In the post-Biden-Bomblet, a New York Times piece has also discussed the issue. As if one needs more confirmation of this rift within the black community, I only point to Biden’s, PR apology tour. First he apologized to Obama—the subject of his comments—and then he immediately sought to apologize to the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton (the presumed leaders of the, “black,” African American community).
At this point I think it’s important to note that suspicion of, “outsiders,” (or concern over, “sell-outs”), isn’t unique to the African American community. The embracement of an, “Us vs. Them,” mentality is the hallmark of ALL ghettoized communities. This holds true for communities based on a particular political issue such as labor unions or a pro-life agenda, or even lifestyle interests such as the punk rock or Apple Computer sub-cultures. In some circles of the sub-culture, there is a game of one-upsmanship to see who can out-sub-culture whom. The urge here is to preserve the group identity though selective screening and intimidation (or expulsion) of would-be, “traitors.” However, there is also the issue of critical mass and the desire to expand the appeal of the group through new recruitment and moderation. And thus, the age-old debate of, “shore up the base vs. reach out to others,” is born.
Which brings us back to Obama’s current situation with the black community. Prior to the Biden-Bomb let, the prevailing storyline was that Obama did not necessarily have a lock on the African American vote for the Democratic primary season—at least not at this point. Maybe the hesitation was based on a principled suspicion on behalf of the grassroots African American political community. Maybe it was a blatant power play by the good Revs. Jackson and Sharpton to ensure their own political relevance as minor kingmakers. Regardless of the motivation, it was clear that Obama at some point was going to have to pull a tricky, ”reverse Sister Souljah,” moment to fully solidify official backing from the majority of black political activist leaders. Even after the Biden-Bomblet, the aforementioned New York Times article suggested that the Biden’s comments may have hurt Obama by reminding some African American voters of Obama’s appeal to white voters. In the same article, it’s mentioned that Hillary Clinton currently enjoys a 40-point margin over Obama, which suggests to me that appealing to white voters isn’t necessarily a death-knell for candidates seeking support within the black community. Indeed, in the 2004 South Carolina primary, both John Edwards and John Kerry trounced Al Sharpton amongst African American voters. Of course, black voters could always try to hold a double standard by punishing black candidates that appeal to white voters. But if this were to happen, then it would be utterly impossible to ever elect a black man president with the endorsement of the black community since appealing to white voters is absolutely necessary to win an office higher than highly gerrymandered congressional districts.
Which is why I think that the Biden-Bomblet is actually going to help Obama rather than hurt him. Yes, the Godfathers of African American political clout engage in brinksmanship. But they are not crazy. At some point, they are going to want to break the ultimate glass ceiling, and they understand that any black candidate to do it will necessarily appeal to the white community as well. Obama is a candidate whose positions are also entirely consistent with the civil rights and poverty agenda of the black community. The main reason Hillary has such high numbers in the black community currently is because of some warm & fuzzies left-over from the Bill Clinton Administration, not because of any true passion for Hillary Rodham Clinton. Furthermore, there is also the, “not in my house,” dynamic that Biden’s comments put into play. Yes, there might have been (and still is) some lingering concern about whether Obama is, “black enough,” for some in the African American community. But it isn’t Biden—or any other outsider’s—role to officially opine on the topic. It’s not unlike how a stranger might make a nasty comment about one of your family members. Nobody is allowed to disparage your family member—unless, of course, it’s a fellow family member. On Good Morning America, George Stephanopoulos agrees:
“You know, in an ironic way though, this may have helped Barack Obama. One of the big problems his advisors noted is that a lot of-- He was doing poorly among the African American community because a lot of them didn't know he was black. And this has given a lot of attention to that in these first opening days and it could be a silver lining for him."
In a very real way, Biden’s perceived assault on Obama is going to generate sympathy for Obama among African Americans who were reluctant to support him prior to the external threat that Biden provided. Maybe even to the point that he doesn’t necessarily need a the strong, “reverse Sister Souljah,” moment after-all. If Obama’s camp is smart, they will use this window of opportunity to help solidify commitments within the black community so he can start to chip-away at the lead currently enjoyed by Hillary Clinton.
posted by Larry LaVanway at 6:18 AM