CHARLESTON, S.C. — African-Americans in the South can’t get a break when it comes to voting, as history can’t deny. After all they’ve endured through slavery, Jim Crow and the fight for civil rights, their voices are still treated dismissively by tone-deaf politicians who would ask for their votes.
If you’re thinking Bernie Sanders, you’re partly right. Earlier this month, having lost massively to Hillary Clinton across the Southeast, Sanders commented that the bevy of early Southern primaries “distorts reality.” In other comments soon thereafter, perhaps covering for what was obviously a lapse in political acumen, he clarified that those early states are the most conservative in the country. Not really. And not really.
While some segments of the South are undeniably conservative, Dixie is also home to a large and reliably Democratic cohort — African-Americans. Many of the most liberal people in today’s Congress were elected by Southerners, and especially black Southerners. The reality is that Sanders failed to earn their votes in part by treating the South as a lost cause.
Many took Sanders’ remarks as insinuating that the black vote isn’t all that important. Adding to the insult, actor Tim Robbins, a Sanders surrogate, said that Clinton’s win in South Carolina, where more than half of Democratic voters are African-American, was “about as significant” as winning Guam.
Not cool, Mr. Robbins, but you were great in “The Shawshank Redemption.”
The gentleman from Vermont (black population: 1 percent) and the gentleman from Hollywood failed to charm Southern Democratic leaders, who recently responded with a letter condemning Sanders’ remarks. The signatories, including the Democratic Party chairs of South Carolina (an African-American), Louisiana, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi, expressed concern that Sanders’ characterization of the South minimized “the importance of the voices of a core constituency for our party.”
The letter writers also pointed out that Sanders victories have been in states more conservative than Southern ones, such as Oklahoma, Utah and Idaho. That black voters would prefer a familiar candidate such as Clinton over someone whose personal experience among African-Americans seems to have been relatively limited, notwithstanding his participation in civil rights demonstrations, is hardly surprising. For decades, the Clintons have worked for issues and protections important to the African-American community.
But the Clintons, too, have been dismissive toward black voters when things didn’t go their way. During the 2008 primaries when it was clear that Barack Obama would trounce Hillary Clinton in South Carolina, Bill Clinton remarked that Jesse Jackson also had won the state in both 1984 and 1988. No one needs a translator to get Clinton’s meaning. His next hastily drawn sentence — “Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here” — did little to distract from the implication that Obama would win because he was black.
Not cool, Mr. President.
Hillary Clinton got herself into a hot mess when she asserted that President Lyndon Johnson was responsible for the Civil Rights Act, which many saw as dismissive of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s legacy. She scrambled to explain herself and mitigate the damage, but feelings once hurt are hard to mend.
Then again, time is a miracle worker, and all is apparently forgiven. Hillary Clinton is the new black and has been duly rewarded for her loyalty, patience and sportsmanship. She played nice with Obama, crushing her resentment beneath the heel of her sensible shoes and erasing from memory Obama’s condescending “You’re likable enough, Hillary” during a debate.
On the campaign trail, Clinton now tosses rose petals at Obama’s feats, promising to carry on his policies not because she necessarily agrees with them but because it’s politically savvy. For his part, the president has all but endorsed Clinton, returning the favor of her indulgence and her husband’s vigorous support.
The truth is, only Obama could have defeated Clinton for the 2008 nomination, and he probably did win at least partly because he was African-American. The country felt it was time for a black president and Obama’s message of hope against a purple-colored backdrop of streamlined unity, baby, was intoxicating. He was a dazzling diamond in the rough world of partisan politics.
Clinton shares none of Obama’s sparkle, but she has more than paid her dues and African-American voters have rewarded her loyalty. For his part, Sanders not only confirmed African-Americans’ concerns about his disconnect from their daily lives but was also badly mistaken about the South’s distance from reality.
In the South, black votes matter — a lot — and no one has understood this better than the Clintons.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.