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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