(Barack Obama, speaking of race, in Philadelphia, March 18, 2008)
In the midst of his first campaign for president, Barack Obama was forced to explain his long association with a pastor spotlighted for racially incendiary remarks from the pulpit of an African American church in Chicago.
“The anger is real,” Obama said then, speaking not only of the “memories of humiliation and doubt and fear” that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s generation raised amid racial segregation still bear. He addressed “a similar anger” among white Americans who’ve worked hard yet “feel their dreams slipping away” only to see “an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed…
“Opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense,” candidate Obama said in Philadelphia, in March 2008, with words that still apply near the close of his second term. “This is where we are right now. It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy – particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.”
The president, his public job approval riding above 50 percent in his final year, will return to Philadelphia in September, this time campaigning for his intra-party rival in that 2008 campaign, Hillary Clinton, immersed now in countervailing accusations of bigotry and racism in a contest with Republican Donald Trump.
“From the start, Donald Trump has built his campaign on prejudice and paranoia,” Clinton said in a multi-faceted assault on Trump’s lack of character or qualification for the nation’s highest office delivered this week in Reno. “He’s taking hate groups mainstream and helping a radical fringe take over one of America’s two major political parties,” she said of “a man with a long history of racial discrimination, who traffics in dark conspiracy theories drawn from the pages of supermarket tabloids and the far reaches of the Internet.”
And with the hiring of campaign CEO Stephen Bannon, publisher of the breitbart.com site favored by the “Alt-Right” – which the Wall Street Journal describes as a mostly online movement that “rejects mainstream conservatism, promotes nationalism and views immigration and multiculturalism as threats to white identity” – Clinton suggested that “the de facto merger between Breitbart and the Trump campaign represents a landmark achievement for the Alt-Right. A fringe element has effectively taken over the Republican Party.”
“It’s the oldest play in the Democratic playbook,” Trump complained in his own attempt at a prebuttal in Manchester, N.H., before Clinton’s address in Nevada. “When Democratic policies fail, they are left with only this one tired argument: ‘You’re racist, you’re racist, you’re racist.’ It’s a tired disgusting argument.”
For a couple of weeks now, in an attempt to convince moderate swing voters that he is not a racist, Trump has made an odd appeal to African American voters who tend to vote 9-1 Democratic in presidential contests: “What the Hell have you got to lose?” It’s Clinton, he contends, who views black Americans simply as votes to be won, and he argues that for generations “millions of African-American and Hispanic-American citizens… have been betrayed by Democratic policies.”
Yet this war of words is not merely another manifestation of the “racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years,” as Obama put it. Some contend that the reporting of the week’s cross-fire between the candidates – which continues on Twitter and will loom large in the Sunday morning talk shows – is actually purveying a “false equivalency.” The idea here is that Clinton actually possesses far more ammunition in her case against Trump than he holds in his claim that she’s “a bigot.”
And it’s no coincidence that Trump is launching his first appeal to minorities at a juncture in which Clinton has gained a double-digit lead in some national polls.
“I think Trump is fairly desperate at this point and to a certain extent has painted himself into a corner,” says Carl Tobias, professor of law at the University of Richmond. “His outreach to African Americans seems to ring hollow, and once Obama is out there talking, that is sure to help Clinton in a lot of ways, certainly with that constituency.”
In a contest dominated by two of the most unpopular nominees in the history of modern opinion polling, there may be little gain for either in a debate on racism.
“I think everybody all the way around is going to hold their noses and vote, which is unfortunate,” Tobias says. “I think people almost stop listening at this point. I don’t know where the high ground is, but nobody seems to be on it.”
Trump arrived at this fight with a history of questionable acts and remarks. In November 2014, the Twitter aficionado tweeted this about the president: “Sadly, because president Obama has done such a poor job as president, you won’t see another black president for generations!” Asked by ABC News’ Jonathan Karl at the time what he meant by that, Trump said: “He has set a very poor standard. I think that he has set a very low bar and I think it’s a shame for the African American people… And by the way, he has done nothing for African Americans.”
Before that, Trump was among the highest-profile and most vocal proponents of the rumor that Obama is not a naturally born American citizen. Clinton running mate Tim Kaine, campaigning on the campus of historically black Florida A&M University the day after the Trump-Clinton exchange over racism, said: “Donald Trump was a main guy behind the scurrilous, and I would say bigoted, notion that President Obama wasn’t even born in this country.”
The actual accusation of racism reached its highest volume in the campaign underway after Trump accused the federal judge handling a lawsuit alleging fraud at Trump University of bias because he’s “a Mexican” and Trump wants to build a border wall against illegal immigration. It was the Republican Party’s own House Speaker Paul Ryan who delivered the strongest rebuke of Trump’s remark about Judge Gonzalo Curiel, a Mexican-American born in Indiana who has fought Mexican drug cartels as a prosecutor. Ryan said: “Claiming a person can’t do their job is sort of the like the textbook definition of a racist comment.”
Trump also has seized upon some stray Clinton comments to make his case for bigotry. “Hillary Clinton needs to address the racist undertones of her 2008 campaign,” he tweeted to his 11 million followers on Friday, offering a video montage of news clippings. In one, Clinton is pictured on an old episode of NBC News’ “Meet the Press” delivering a speech in which she said: “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act.” In that clip, it’s the late host Tim Russert who suggests to Clinton: “It’s as if you are minimizing, ‘I have a dream.’ It’s a nice sentiment, but it took a white president to get blacks to the mountaintop.” The comment goes unanswered by Clinton.
It was during her contest against Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries that Clinton suggested that Obama is an eloquent speaker lacking a record of action and it’s proven political leaders who’ve brought about real change. “I would point to the fact that that Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do, the president before had not even tried, but it took a president to get it done,” she said. “That dream became a reality, the power of that dream became real in people’s lives because we had a president who said we are going to do it and actually got it accomplished.”
Obama was forced to deny that his campaign was circulating the remark to rally black voters. “Senator Clinton made an unfortunate remark, an ill-advised remark, about King and Lyndon Johnson. I didn’t make the statement,” Obama told reporters. “I haven’t remarked on it, and she, I think, offended some folks who felt that somehow diminished King’s role in bringing about the Civil Rights Act. She is free to explain that, but the notion that somehow this is our doing is ludicrous.”
Trump is playing another remark attributed third-hand and without direct quotation to Bill Clinton. Two years after that 2008 campaign, in their book Game Change, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin reported about the former president attempting to convince Sen. Ted Kennedy to support Hillary Clinton. “Bill then went on, belittling Obama in a manner that deeply offended Kennedy. Recounting the conversation later to a friend, Teddy fumed that Clinton had said, A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee.” In the years since, the unattributed comment has been repeated in news accounts as an alleged direct quote.
Then there is the business of the “super predators,” which Trump is replaying online. “How quickly people forget that Crooked Hillary called African-American youth SUPER PREDATORS’ – has she apologized?” Trump tweeted this week. In the 1990s, after President Clinton won passage of the Violent Crime Control Act, the first lady warned in a 1996 speech of “the kinds of kids that are called ‘super predators…’ no conscience, no empathy, we can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.” In this year’s Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders took issue with the remark: “It was a racist term,” he said in their final debate, “and everybody knew it was a racist term.” Clinton later allowed: “I shouldn’t have used those words, and I wouldn’t use them today.”
“The Clinton’s are the real predators,” Trump has tweeted.
For her part, Clinton claims Trump has demeaned the African American community with his portrayal of black neighborhoods as “war zones.”
“He doesn’t see the success of black leaders in every field… the vibrancy of black-owned businesses… or the strength of the black church,” she said in Reno. “He doesn’t see the excellence of historically black colleges and universities or the pride of black parents watching their children thrive…And he certainly doesn’t have any solutions to take on the reality of systemic racism and create more equity and opportunity in communities of color.”
She has reached far back into the billionaire’s own business career to portray a record of racism. “When Trump was getting his start in business, he was sued by the Justice Department for refusing to rent apartments to black and Latino tenants,” she said. “Their applications would be marked with a “C” – ”C” for “colored” – and then rejected.”
The New York Times reports that the legacy of discrimination in Trump housing developments started with the developer’s father. In the 1960s, as Civil Rights legislation was advancing in Washington, the Times reports: “Over the next decade, as Donald Trump assumed an increasingly prominent role in the business, the company’s practice of turning away potential black tenants was painstakingly documented by activists and organizations that viewed equal housing as the next frontier in the civil rights struggle. The Justice Department undertook its own investigation and, in 1973, sued Trump Management for discriminating against blacks. Both Fred Trump, the company’s chairman, and Donald Trump, its president, were named as defendants. “Absolutely ridiculous,” the son said.
“When it was over,” The Times reports today, “Mr. Trump declared victory, emphasizing that the consent decree he ultimately signed did not include an admission of guilt.” But the paper’s investigation – ”drawing on decades-old files from the New York City Commission on Human Rights, internal Justice Department records, court documents and interviews with tenants, civil rights activists and prosecutors – uncovered a long history of racial bias at his family’s properties, in New York and beyond.”
“It takes a lot of nerve to ask people he’s ignored and mistreated for decades, ‘What do you have to lose?'” Clinton said this week. “The answer is everything!”
Clinton went on to enumerate the support Trump has attracted from white nationalists such as David Duke, whose backing Trump took some time to disavow. She spoke of Trump’s plans for a religious test for Muslims entering the United States – a requirement to disavow Sharia law. “Under Donald Trump, America would distinguish itself as the only country in the world to impose a religious test at the border,” she said. “Come to think of it, there actually may be one place that does that. It’s the so-called Islamic State.”
And finally, Clinton says, Trump’s campaign is being run by the publisher of a platform, Breitbart, which the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as embracing “ideas on the extremist fringe of the conservative right. Racist ideas. Race-baiting ideas. Anti-Muslim and anti-Immigrant ideas – all key tenets making up an emerging racist ideology known as the ‘Alt-Right.'”
“There’s an old Mexican proverb that says, ‘Tell me with whom you walk, and I will tell you who you are,” Clinton said. “We know who Trump is. A few words on a teleprompter won’t change that. He says he wants to ‘make America great again,’ but his real message remains ‘Make America hate again.”‘
Obama, who plans to campaign for Clinton in Philadelphia on Sept. 13, went there in March 2008 to disavow the comments of a pastor he’d known for years – while standing by the man himself and offering a social context for his sentiments.
This time, Obama plans to speak of Clinton’s ideas for improving the economy. But his words from 2008 still resonate today.
“Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now,” he said then. “We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America – to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.”
Ironically, Obama in 2008 took a turn at describing the very electorate to whom Trump has appealed in his own campaign for president this year:
“Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race,” Obama said then. “Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one handed them anything. They built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pensions dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and they feel their dreams slipping away…
“Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many,” Obama said in Philadelphia. “And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide and blocks the path to understanding.”
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