NPR logo James L. Taylor: Before Hillary Clinton Became White

Political Positions

James L. Taylor: Before Hillary Clinton Became White

Political Positions

As divisions between race and gender become increasingly apparent in the Democratic race for the White House, James Lance Taylor breaks down the history of the party's "racial dilemma" and parses the candidates' support among their black and white constituencies.

Taylor is associate professor of politics at the University of San Francisco and president-elect of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists.

Despite John Edwards's endorsement of Barack Obama, the very recent transformation of Hillary Clinton in becoming the voice of dispossessed white working class and populist elements in the United States is not at all a political conversion.

That is, if the Clintons' electoral successes, respectively in Arkansas (1978, 1982), nationally (1992, 1996), and in New York (2002, 2006) are any measure. As the most powerful Democratic Party machine since the New Deal, having inspired the party's ideological shift from traditional liberalism to "centrism" in the 1990s, the Clintons' very skillful balance of the party's disparate ethnic, regional, religious, ideological, racial, and gender constituencies saved the national Democrats from the humiliation of occupying the White House for less than five of the past forty years.

Pardon the numbers, but between 1980 and 2005 their native Arkansas alternated with Mississippi, New Mexico, West Virginia, (and occasionally South Carolina, Alabama, Utah, Indiana, and Montana), as perennial states with the four or five lowest per capita personal incomes.

Its average poverty rate between 2002 and 2004 was 17.6 percent and second in the country only to Mississippi's 17.7 percent. The overall state unemployment rate in 2006 was 7.0 percent. Recent unemployment rates among its various populations respectively were 5.6 percent for whites, 7.5 percent for Latinos, and 14.8 percent among its African American residents. Residents with high school education or less constitute 16.2 percent of its unemployed. In 21 of its 26 Rural Swing counties, more of its 2.8 million residents lived in mobile homes in 1990 than in the rest of the state.

It shares ethnic and religious demographics with Appalachia, which includes southwestern New York, western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, West Virginia, western Maryland, western Virginia, eastern Kentucky, eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, South Carolina, and northern Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi; by one, Obama has won a majority of these states, even where he has not won the counties or regions.

Arkansas is in many ways a microcosm of the Democrats' "racial dilemma" since 1948; it was the Republicans' dilemma from the Civil War until the early New Deal. Political Scientist Diane Blair's seminal study, Arkansas Politics and Government (with Jay Barth), notes how former Governor Homer Adkins pronounced in 1944 after the Smith v. Allwright case eliminated the all "white primary" that "if I cannot be nominated by the white voters of Arkansas, I do not want the office."

Senator Clinton, who clearly wants the office with any support base, has nevertheless emphasized her appeal to white voters in rural and Appalachian America. But this is racial default. Meaning, if Hillary Clinton were running against a traditional, white male candidate such as John Edwards, Sam Nunn, Ed Rendell, or Bill Clinton, without the specter of an Obama, would we expect her to perform any better given the traditional patriarchal and anti-liberal culture among this segment of society?

Is it the case that conservative, rural, and southern white Democrats or Republicans would support a woman hailing now from New York, over a Southern or West Coast white male like Reagan or McCain? Sexism is a kind of racism; in terms of gender, she is truly a marginalized person, in terms of race, she has become unabashedly and "politically white" on the campaign trail.

Arkansas had been the most reluctant and anti-Republican state in the South in terms of voting for Republican Presidential candidates between 1936 and 1968. Governors there run for election every two years. The voters in the vast Rural Swing region supported Bill Clinton in his first election in 1978, turned on him in 1980 because of concrete issues such as its rejection of his cumbersome vehicle inspection policies, a license plate increase, and the charge of him being liberal on crime.

Sen. Hillary Clinton
Sen. Hillary Clinton holds a "Solutions for America" event in Detroit on March 19, 2008.

Bill Pugliano, Getty Images

After a grueling Democratic Primary, where he initially continued to lose their support in 1982, the Clintons subsequently adjusted to the needs of the poor, working-class, white voters in the Rural Swing region until he was elected to the White House in 1992. Since 1972, Arkansas has joined the rest of the South and has voted for Democratic Presidential candidates only three times; once for Jimmy Carter of Georgia and twice for Bill Clinton.

Blair's assessment of the state's populist elements is that they have preferred race over class and other allegiances. They have been poor, they are mostly white, and yes, economically oppressed, nevertheless she notes, "distracted by racism from the true logic of their circumstances, poor whites, the natural economic ally of equally poor African American sharecroppers and workers, were shamed and stampeded into a belief that a secure future for the white race was totally dependent upon solidarity within the Democratic Party and that a vote for populism in any guise constituted racial treason."

This partly explains Senator Clinton's Primary victory in Ohio, despite her husband's signature on NAFTA legislation; this partly explains why Clinton won Pennsylvania despite the revelation during its contest that her chief advisor Mark Penn and husband Bill Clinton combined, earned more than one million dollars in consulting fees for advocating job outsourcing Free Trade with Colombia.

The main point is, poor and working class whites have been the Clintons' base from the outset and Barack Obama does not have a "white working class" problem, that since 1948 all non-Southern white Democrats have not also had. It is not Rev. Jeremiah Wright or Father Michael Pfleger.

Think instead, Humphrey, McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis, Gore (more from D.C. than Tennessee), and Kerry, and it should become clearer why the Republicans have held the White House for all but twelve of the past forty years. What is most troubling is Senator Clinton's sudden abdication of her affinity for African Americans, who in Arkansas and nationally, per capita, are poorer than the dispossessed whites whose cause she now champions.

Obama Family
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, his wife and their daughters join together on stage at a rally in Des Moines, Iowa.

M. Spencer Green, AP

The great betrayal is that the Clintons have taken up an either/or political calculus in which vital issues that specifically and unevenly impact ordinary African Americans, those who suffered Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi, and the poor, less healthy, less educated, and violence-plagued of our urban sectors have been ignored since South Carolina.

There, Barack Obama was given the "gift" of being made into the "Black candidate," vis-a-vis the first "Black" president's Jesse Jackson comments after Obama's landslide where his total percentage bested that of two white Southerners (Clinton and Edwards); after neighboring Mississippi, where he earned 92 percent of the Black vote and an impressive 25 percent of the white vote; and Kentucky, where Senator Clinton linked her default appeal to "hard working Americans, white Americans."

Recall, at the outset of the Democratic Primaries and Caucuses, Hillary Clinton received the highest favorable ratings of any of the presidential candidates with 83 percent of Black likely voters rating her favorably; Black women saw her favorably at 86 percent, while Barack Obama was rated less favorably by likely Black voters with 74.4 percent rating him favorably. Most voting Blacks have since turned their backs on her campaign. Barack Obama has performed better among rural and working class whites in Iowa, Louisiana, Nebraska, Maine, Michigan, Maryland, Virginia, Mississippi, Minnesota, North Carolina, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania than Senator Clinton has among Black Americans, period.

Most revealing is that outside of rural Illinois, Barack Obama has no history with white, working class voters, where many Black Americans viewed the Clintons with great admiration. What has been framed by mainstream news outlets as Barack Obama's "white, lunch-bucket working-class" and women problems does not, in fact, exist apart from John McCain's problem with Republican conservative constituencies (think: ex-Georgia Congressman Bob Barr's Libertarian campaign), and McCain's failure to win more than 50% of his own state Arizona, where Clinton and Obama did in theirs. Or more saliently, Senator Clinton's "Black people" problem. Of the three cases, only Clinton held a decades-long relationship with the group which has since turned to her chief rival.

— James Lance Taylor



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Well stated James Lance Taylor. HRC HAD the Black vote until the runup to South Carolina. Since then it's been all downhill. Ignore it if they want but that was THE turning point of this race in my opinion. The Iowa result was huge but we had to wait until after Nevada and NH to see if it would hold up or not. After SC, oh buddy, it was Game On! One of these days, the media is going to wake up and realize the power of the a fully mobilized and motivated African American constituency and the effect it is bringing to bear. Those are your true swing voters. You can either win them over or split them, HRC chose neither now she is reduced to stunts and make believe. I can't wait to read the books about this historic election. A woman a former First Lady, the charasmatic tall, good looking, biracial freshman Senator, "maverick" war hero supreme, all jockeying to replace the inept dunce in the White House. What can you say but--- Only in America!

Sent by Thomas B | 2:14 AM | 5-31-2008

Interesting perspective. Is it possible that Clinton assmes that Black voters would forgive her since there is no alternative availible for Black voters?

Sent by Kip | 3:02 PM | 5-31-2008

I'd like to differ with that, being a white woman. Also, I'd like to delve into the electoral process of the DNC since there is nowhere else to comment on this.

*Disclaimer: I voted Democrat in the primaries -- for Obama, in fact, which I totally wish I could take back at this point*

In the past few months, the Democrat Party has come under serious scrutiny of its inner workings given the Michigan and Florida defiances and the smoke-filled room accusations surrounding the superdelegates.

The Democrat Party, since the time of FDR, has heralded itself as "the voice of the people" and often sling barbs at the Republican Party as being their presumptuous and aristocratic nemesis. The Dems claim the Republicans' "winner take all" is un-democratic and that the Dem's split state approach is much more fair.

But really, this election has shown just how ridiculously aristocratic and egotistical the Democratic Party really is.

1) The nerve to think that a political PARTY could tell a STATE that their votes don't count.

I'm sorry, but it's just enough to make every libertarian-leaning person howl in disgust, not to mention make Thomas Jefferson roll over in his grave. I mean, but the last time I checked, it was the party who *in theory* should serve the people, not the states bowing a knee to the almighty Democrat Party. Ridiculous. Telling two states that they are not autonomous in their right to vote... insanity. (Not to mention the absolute stupidity of it considering their swing-state status.) There go those Dems and the "how can we lose?" attitude.

2) Superdelegates. Now they've been claiming that there's no smoke-filled rooms, even shoving 20-year-old superdelegates on air to prove it to us - hey guys, they're just like you.

Yeah, but they're not us are they? They're pre-selected second-round voters who, by the way, if Hillary Clinton has the majority of the popular vote with snubbed Michigan and FL, will turn out to be no less foul than the Bush/Gore election. They commit one way, then they turn around and commit the other with ABSOLUTELY NO REGARD FOR THEIR VOTERS. I've heard multiple interviews with delegates saying I don't care if my preccint or county or state went this way, I'm going to vote that way.

So there's no way they can make the argument that superdelegates are in any way representing the people they were elected to serve. The electoral college is one thing, but they at least consistently vote the wishes of their constituents.

The superdelegates are like the worst nightmare of the electoral college coming true. The representatives ignore the people and vote their super-votes and have aristocratic power to elect the new nominee.

All I have to say is this: Alexander Hamilton would be really proud, guys. Moving us closer and closer to his aristocratic dream of only the educated being allowed to vote and away from populistic Jefferson. Why don't the rest of you rent a Frank Capra movie and get back to me then.

When will the press stop their racial wars and realize the thing between Hillary and Barack isn't about race, it's about experience. Maybe then the "cult of Barack" will stop attacking all the people who STILL support Hillary Clinton despite the media telling us who has already won. Buck up and being real democrats. Every vote counts, even if it's not for the people who you want to win.

Sent by Grace | 8:21 PM | 5-31-2008

1. All fifty states agreed to the rules for the primaries--when Florida and Michigan violated those rules, the DNC Rules Committee (including Harold Ickes) voted to strip them of their delegations. When you are a part of a group, you cannot do what you want when you feel like it and expect to just shove it down people's (e.g. the other 48 states that followed the rules) throats. All of the candidates agreed in writing not participate in the elections in FL and MI---leaving her name on the ballot, in my mind, was not acting in good faith. More importantly, how can you lead the Democratic Party (as President) if you don't/won't follow the rules? A leader leads by example.

2. The ultimate purpose of the superdelegates, as I understand it, is to make sure the party has a candidate that can win the election, not one who popular with dems or a wing of the party, but can appeal to independents or some republicans and win states. Electibility is the key issue.

3. What the Clinton hysterics (a woman or nothing) refuse to acknowledge is she comes with some serious baggage, not withstanding her years as the First Lady. How is she suppose to argue in the Fall campaign that she is the best candidate to get the country out of its economic woes, when she makes headlines because her campaign in great debt? It is not a sexist question and the Republicans won't ignore it. How is she suppose to argue that she can be trusted to tell the truth to the American people---when the Bosnia sniping incident can be played and played? ...and nobody has forgotten that she voted to authorize the war in Iraq.

I am an African American woman and I had expected to vote for Hillary in the Fall, in spite of her vote on the war, but her pandering to bigots and racists (white americans are the only ones that are hardworking?) and disrespect to the African American community has totally disillusioned me. By his own admission, Sen. Obama is not a perfect man and he won't be a perfect President, but I much prefer his imperfections to Hillary's.

Sent by Glenda A. | 2:06 PM | 6-2-2008

Bill Clinton, and Harold Ickes were involved in writing and establishing the rules of the Democratic Rules and Bi-Laws Committee. However, Clinton and Ickes never expected to be challenged by anyone more knowledgeable and well versed in the rules than themselves.

Obama beat them at their own game, all while following the rules of the game which were established by Clinton and Harold Ickes. As they say "Don't hate the player hate the game."

Hillary Clinton bragged that she would be the Democratic Nominee by February 5, 2008 and that only DELEGATES COUNTED. The Clintons have continually moved the goal post and attempted to change the rules throughout this campaingn. Normally, this is considered cheating.

Hillary acted as though she were John McCain's running mate. I would not be surprised if she later declares herself an independent and votes with the republicans. Then Hillary and Bill can appear on Rush Limbaugh and Fox noise on an ongoing basis.

The Clintons should take this opportunity to support Obama, with regard to ending the war, improving our economy, education, healthcare, and stopping mortgage foreclosures.

Sent by Wendi | 2:29 PM | 6-2-2008

GRACE, please. Read Wendi's post to jolt you back from the abstract and into reality. CURRENTLY, in real-time her post should inform you.

But a question for your:
You want to take back your vote on the candidate you thought was the better candidate (and he is & has been) because of rules made by the Clinton machine, rules that apparently were ok in 88, 92, 96, 2000. But the irrational is that you'd punish the better candidate & party..doesn't make sense.

More in the nonsense category:

Why blame/punish Obama the candidate you thought was the best, for a 'media racial war'? Black Americans know all about the media's racial game, something that, White Americans conveniently pooh poohed, is a wave the Hillary was willing to ride with her 'hard-working americans, white americans' comment. DOES THAT REGISTER WITH YOU?

And you are WRONG and so were Hillary's million dollar consults too, it isn't about EXPERIENCE, we've had EXPERIENCE the last 8yrs, how'd that work out?

Your 'cult of Barack' comment exposes your disdain, AGAIN, taking it out on the candidate you thought the better candidate WHO HAS DONE NOTHING TO DESERVE YOUR ANGER.

It's AMAZINGLY DERANGED, that the Clinton supports don't see all the 'GUTTER TACTICS' she desperately employed after super Tuesday. Nor do they acknowledge that she planned, budgeted and ran the less effective campaign, then threw mud to get things off track. It's your NEW candidate who dirtied the process so you BUCK UP and face that reality. And stop playing the victim card. If you live in a glass house don't throw stones!

FACT is, when you consider how far back Obama was....30pts, it was an AMAZING BLOW OUT. The biggest upset in political history. EXPERIENCE was not that compelling and when Hillary started campaigning her appeal started to dwindle because outside of her name & the notion of a female president there was no there...there. Nothing they came up with and over-played her experience. Didn't work.

SO BACK AT YOU with your own words.
Buck up and being real democrats. Every vote counts, even if it's not for the people who you want to win.

And your 1st instinct was correct, don't let the gender/race obsessed media hit you below the belt and cloud your judgment. Hillary has high negatives & is divisive..that proved out in the primaries. Obama was the better candidate & ran the better campaign. He deserves the nomination because he played by the rules to get it and appealed to our better instincts.

Sent by Jon J | 3:34 PM | 6-5-2008

Here, here Jon!

Sent by kip | 2:40 PM | 6-13-2008