Race in the Presidential Campaign: Transcendent or Still Toxic?
Presented to Central Vermont Anti-Racism Circles
Thursday September 25th, 2008
Montpelier, Vermont
Thank you.
First, I’d like to address a question that may have crossed some of your minds. What does this old white geezer who lived most of his life in foreign countries, know about race and American politics?
That’s a fair question. Let me answer it by admitting at the outset that I do not pretend to be an expert on the subject. I suspect there are numerous people in this room who know a lot more about it than I do. But what I am kind of an expert in, is looking at a complex issue, identifying its major elements, providing a historical context with detail that people may not be aware of, adding current contemporary aspects of the issue, and objectively tying that all together in an way that I hope makes our topic this evening, more comprehensible to all of us.
That is the work that I have done now for nearly fifty years. Most of my life I dealt with complicated world problems such as the Cold War, Nuclear Arms Control and the Middle East. The part of the United States story that I focused on most of the time, dealt with its foreign policy and its relationships with the world. Therefore much of my effort was devoted to an understanding of the history, people and politics of Russia, Eastern and Western Europe, Israel and the Arab countries of the Middle East. Of course I also had to know and understand America’s historical and contemporary interests as they intersected with these countries.
But two unexpected moments early in my retirement, made me realize there was a gap in my understanding of the history of United States - notably on the subject of race.
My first year of retirement, I spent as a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. My main project at Harvard was to conduct a study on the potential consequences of live television coverage of war. As part of that study I did lengthy interviews with all the network anchors and top executives in network news; with senior officials at the White House, State Department and the civilian side of the Pentagon; and with the generals who had commanded and been victorious in the then recent Gulf War.
One of those I talked to at length, and exchanged letters and phone calls with, was former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell. This was early in 1996 and you may remember that at that time, he was considered a very possible presidential candidate for the Republican Party. I kidded him about that several times but I couldn’t tell which way he would jump. It did seem to me that he wanted to run, although I could sense he really was struggling with the decision.
I later learned from someone who knew Powell well, that the principal reason he decided not to seek the nomination was his wife Alma’s fear, that as a black man he would become an assassin’s target.
I am confident that given his combat experience Powell himself did not harbor such fears and I initially thought it was touching that he was not prepared to put his wife through such anguish. But on further reflection, I was troubled because Powell’s decision not to run meant that at least on some level, he was validating his wife’s dread. If this could happen to a brave soldier who had broken most of his country’s color barriers at the highest levels, then it suggested that race remained a more powerful force in American politics than I had realized.
My other unexpected post –retirement moment came after Harvard published my study on war and live television. That got me an invitation from the then Chief of Staff of the Army, General Dennis Reimer, to join him and his senior staff for a meeting with a few other war correspondents at the Army War College in Carlisle Pennsylvania. The purpose of this small conference was to discuss past and future relations between the military and the media. I don’t think anything remarkable came out of that conference. But a side trip we took that weekend left a lasting impression on me.
Our small group of generals and reporters, about a dozen in all, was treated to a day long tour of the nearby Gettysburg battlefields. Our guides were the War College commandant and its historian. After visiting the sites and hearing the stories of the first two days of the fighting, we walked side-by-side, onto the once bloody field of Pickett’s Charge - the decisive engagement of the battle of Gettysburg- and the turning point of the Civil War. Along the way, our guides shouted out to us from either side of our line, telling us what would have been happening at that moment on that July day in 1863 - where Lee’s generals would have been, what barriers we would have to cross and what kind of fire we would have been under. This went on for about an hour as we briskly marched toward what had been the Union lines at the top of Cemetery Ridge. In this setting one could truly visualize the carnage of thousands of soldiers being killed and wounded in such a short time on that very ground. I have to say that of all the world’s famous historical sites I have been privileged to visit, this may have been the most moving.
Until that moment I had never been as interested in the Civil War as the wars of the 20th Century. But for the next decade I would read extensively on the subject as I came to appreciate that you cannot truly understand this country until you recognize just how profound the impact of the Civil War has been on American history and on the American psyche – and how a large portion of the population has never fully stopped fighting or accepted the outcome of that war. The Civil War unfortunately, was probably inevitable after its seeds were sown at the very creation of the Republic. And it is at the creation that the story of race and politics in America does indeed begin.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…..”
So reads one of the best known phrases of the Declaration of Independence. It was inspired by the writings of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, two English political philosophers of the 17th century. They had advocated societies and governments based on the proposition that all men were created equal. Their ideas were incorporated into the Declaration by Thomas Jefferson, who essentially used the British Crown’s failure to treat its American colonists as equals, as justification for those colonies to declare their independence. After some editing of Jefferson’s draft, the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia concurred and approved the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776.
For Americans of color, that phrase that all men are created equal is heavily ironic, especially since by 1776 black slavery was an accepted fact of life throughout all of the thirteen colonies. As David McCullough wrote in his biography of John Adams, “Of a total population in the colonies of nearly 2,500,000 people in 1776, approximately one in five were slaves, some 500,000 men, women and children. In Virginia alone, which had the most slaves by far, they numbered more than 200,000. There was no member of the Virginia delegation who did not own slaves, and of all the members of Congress at least a third owned or had owned slaves. The total of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves in 1776 was about 200, which was also the approximate number owned by George Washington.”
The Founding Fathers were not unaware of that irony embedded in the Declaration. Mostly, they chose to suppress it. In laying out the bill of particulars against King George III in his draft of the Declaration, Jefferson actually blamed the British for bringing the horrors of the slave trade to America. McCullough writes, “As emphatic a passage as any, this on the slave trade was to be the ringing climax of all the charges.” But as we now know, that passage did not make the cut. It was removed in its entirety, according to Jefferson himself, because South Carolina and Georgia objected to any mention of slavery. This was not the first concession made to the slave holding states as the American Republic came into being, and most certainly would not be the last.
Slavery was also a significant factor in the next major event in American history - the Constitutional Convention, presided over by George Washington that took place in Philadelphia between May and September of 1787. The product of this Convention was the United States Constitution., which nearly all Americans know begins with these words:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
As wholly admirable as this sentiment was, history would conclude that this extraordinary document, out of which the United States of America was born, contained the stain Barack Obama and others have described as the “original sin” of racism. Given the political realities of the day, based on the fundamental split between slave holding and non-slave holding states, the result could hardly have been otherwise. Quite simply, if they could not get major concessions on the question of slavery, the slaveholding states would refuse to join the Union.
One of those concessions would be enshrined as Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the Constitution. It is known as the Three Fifth Compromise. The issue was how slaves were to be counted in establishing the official populations of the respective states. This was important for two reasons:
First: Total population would determine the number of members each state would have in the new House of Representatives and how many votes it would get in the Electoral College to choose the president.
Second: If the federal government were to levy taxes on the states, it would be according to their population.
The slave holding states wanted their slaves to be fully counted for political purposes but not at all when it came to taxes. The Compromise reached was that slaves would be counted as three-fifth of a person for both political and tax purposes. As the political question was of much greater importance to the Southern States they accepted the deal.
That paid off very well for them. The three-fifths ratio had a major effect on pre-Civil War political affairs due to the disproportionate representation of slaveholding states. For example, in 1793 slave states would have been apportioned 33 seats in the House of Representatives had the seats been assigned based on the free population; instead they were apportioned 47. In 1812, slaveholding states had 76 instead of 59; in 1833, 98 instead of 73. As a result, Southerners dominated the Presidency, the Speakership of the House, and the Supreme Court in all the years right up to the Civil War. Historian Garry Wills has argued that among other things, without the additional "slave" votes, Jefferson would have lost the presidential election of 1800.
The other compromise reached at the Constitutional Convention concerned the slave trade itself. Ten states had already made it illegal.
Many delegates strongly denounced it. But three states, both Carolinas and Georgia where the slave trade still flourished, threatened to leave the Convention if such trade were banned. Ultimately the delegates to the Convention did not want their efforts to fail because of the conflict over slavery. Therefore a special commission worked out another deal, whereby Congress would have the power to ban the slave trade, but only after at least 20 years had passed – meaning not until at least 1808.
Benjamin Franklin, who had owned one or two household slaves during much of his life, was generally opposed to slavery. He had stated his views publicly and in 1787 accepted the presidency of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. The group tried to get him to present a petition against slavery to the Constitutional Convention, but knowing the delicate compromises then being negotiated between North and South, he kept silent on the issue.
In his 2003 biography, “Benjamin Franklin- An American Life,” author Walter Isaacson says that Franklin considered the compromises on race to have been absolutely essential to the achievement of the new constitution. In what he calls Franklin’s “remarkable closing address” Isaacson writes, “The speech was a testament to the virtue of intellectual tolerance and to the evil of presumed infallibility, and it proclaimed for the ages the enlightened creed that became central to American freedom. They were the most eloquent words Franklin ever wrote.”
These are some of the words Franklin spoke at the end of the Constitutional Convention:
-“I confess that I do not entirely approve this Constitution, but sir, I am not sure I shall never approve it.
-I agree to this Constitution with all its faults-if they are such- because I think a general government necessary for us.
-I doubt too, whether any other convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution; for when you assemble a number of men, to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does.”
Belatedly, on behalf of the abolition society of which he was president, Franklin presented a formal abolition petition to Congress in February 1790. It declared, “Mankind are all formed by the same Almighty Being, alike objects in His care and equally designed for the enjoyment of happiness.” The petition went on to note that it was the duty of Congress to secure “the blessings of liberty to the People of the United States” and that this should be done, “without distinction of color.” Franklin and his petition were ignored by Congress and denounced by those members who remained steadfast defenders of slavery.
Some of you may be gazing at your watches and thinking – nearly half way done and he’s only just through the Revolutionary War.
I promise you this is not going to be a full history of Race in America. My intention is to present fragments of this story - the highlights, or in most cases more properly described as the lowlights. And as much is so often made about the “Imperfect Union” I thought it important to focus on those crucial early political decisions.
The Civil War is of course the next major historical event – but I suspect there may not be much about that subject that most of you don’t already know. But I would like to address what I find intriguing about the Civil War; that in spite of the incredible trauma that was inflicted upon this country by one of the bloodiest civil wars in world history, it actually settled so little of the issue over which it was fought- namely slavery.
I was surprised to learn just this year that more than three thousand African-Americans and their white allies were killed by terrorist organizations in the South in the decade between 1866 and 1876. (As a percentage of the population that would be about 20,000 today or more than six times the death toll of 9/11) That is just one of the disturbing assertions in a book published this past spring, “The Bloody Shirt- Terror after Appomattox” by Stephen Budiansky. Budiansky is a military historian who concludes that while the North won the Civil War, it was the South that ultimately won the peace. The book focuses on five courageous men who tried to stop the violence and to support the dream of freedom.
I was interested to discover that one of those five was General James Longstreet, the man known as General Robert E. Lee’s “most trusted lieutenant.” If Lee had followed Longstreet’s advice on the third day at Gettysburg to turn the Union’s left with a flanking maneuver - instead of the full frontal assault now known as Pickett’s Charge - the Confederate Army might have won the battle of Gettysburg, and the war may well have ended differently.
Longstreet later admitted that the third day at Gettysburg was the saddest day of his life - but he remained loyal to Lee. That was not true of Pickett. According to Budianski, “The romantic haze of Southern chivalry that soon enveloped Pickett’s hopeless charge, left Pickett unmoved” Said Pickett, “That old man (meaning Lee) had my division massacred,”
Longstreet’s story is too complicated to detail here, but basically he ran into trouble by trying to accommodate Reconstruction efforts in the South - and by reminding his fellow Southerners what the surrender at Appomattox meant – namely - an end to the Confederacy and an end to the South’s total domination over its sizeable black population. In Longstreet’s words, “The political questions of the war should have been buried upon the fields that marked their end.”
For this he was vilified and went from being a giant in the pantheon of Confederate war heroes - to something closer to a traitor to the Southern cause.
In “The Bloody Shirt,” we also learn about a state judge in North Carolina who had fearlessly defended the rights of the common man whether white or black, defied the threats of the Ku Klux Klan when he put blacks on juries and fined attorneys for using the “N” word in his courtroom. However by 1879 the judge was exhausted and dispirited and told the New York Tribune, “In all except the actual results of the physical struggle, I consider the South to have been the real victors of the war. I am filled with admiration and amazement at the masterly way in which they have brought about these results. The way in which they have neutralized the results of the war and reversed the verdict of Appomattox is the grandest thing in American politics.”
The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution did ban slavery. The Fourteenth Amendment required states to provide equal protection under the law to all of their citizens and the Fifteenth Amendment banned race-based voting qualifications. These are the Civil War Reconstruction Amendments that as were designed to secure the rights of former slaves.
But the Reconstruction of the South ended with another notorious compromise – the one which followed the contested presidential election of 1876. Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote but his opponent fell one vote short in the Electoral College as four states’ delegations were in dispute. Three of those disputes were in Southern states still occupied by the Union Army. When a committee of Congress was set up to elect the president, a deal was struck whereby Southerners on the committee agreed to vote for Hayes in return for his commitment to withdraw the remnants of the Federal army from their states.
Not only was that the end of Reconstruction, it marked the beginning of the Jim Crow era- the time when state and local laws were enacted in the South and border states to mandate a “separate but equal” status for black Americans. That meant public schools, public places and public transportation became separate, that there would be separate toilets and restaurants and water fountains – and almost always the black’s facilities were inferior. Meantime, the 15th Amendment passed in 1870, which granted the newly freed blacks full voting rights, was negated by a web of insidious laws and regulations that throughout the South, effectively blocked black participation in the political process. That situation would prevail for about another ninety years.
Throughout this long dark period for African Americans, successive Democratic and Republican administrations in Washington, at a minimum, were complicit in allowing this blatant discrimination to continue. I remember feeling great sadness a few years ago when I first read details of how the likes of President Franklin D. Roosevelt had capitulated to racist Southern Democrats who had a strangle-hold in Congress. As they usually faced no political opposition in their home states and therefore were repeatedly re-elected, the seniority system allowed Southern Democrats to rise to the chairmanships of many of the key committees of Congress.
In his biography of the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, author Richard Parker recounts how during Roosevelt’s first term, the newly created Agriculture Adjustment Administration put together a complex system of farm subsidies to try to mitigate the effects of the Depression and successive droughts in the West. But under the original plan, in the South much of the Federal help ended up going to large-scale cotton plantations and not to those who really needed it- the sharecroppers and tenant farmers.
So it was decided to try to get funds directly to this mainly black and particularly vulnerable group. As Parker writes, “One young AAA lawyer recalled what happened when Senator Ellison DuRant Smith of South Carolina discovered the AAA had begun sending allotment checks to the sharecroppers. ‘Cotton Ed’ was chairman of the powerful Agriculture Committee and a major cotton grower himself. (He was) massively rotund, with thinning gray hair and a walrus mustache stained by a lifetime of chewing tobacco. Senator Smith went to the young lawyer’s office when he heard the allotment checks were going out to the tenants……He said, ‘Young fella, you can’t do this to my niggers, paying checks to them. They don’t know what to do with the money. The money should come to me. I’ll take care of them. They’re mine.”’
During that summer, the tensions between the AAA and the plantation owners continued to build. Finally, with his entire legislative agenda suddenly at risk through defections by Southern Democrats who controlled Agriculture, Appropriations and Rules Committees, Roosevelt ordered his Secretary of Agriculture and the AAA to surrender. Direct payments to sharecroppers ended and within the next year more than 700,000 Southern tenant farmers and their families were evicted and left homeless.
For African Americans, some things finally began to change for the better after World War II.
In 1947 when Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers he became the first African American to play major league baseball, which had been segregated for eighty years. This breakthrough transcended baseball and made a major impact on society at all levels.
In 1948 President Harry Truman signed an executive order designed to desegregate the U.S. military by providing for equal treatment and opportunity for African American servicemen. The order had little immediate effect and it would take another six years before all the services were completely integrated. Nevertheless, Truman’s decision was an important milestone.
Truman was rewarded for that decision and for the Civil Rights platform of the Democratic Party at its 1948 convention. It was because of that platform that South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond stormed out of the convention and formed the Dixiecrat Party. At the time, this made many Democrats very nervous and contributed to the fear among them that Truman would lose to Dewey in November.
But as we know, Truman astounded nearly everyone by winning the election, with almost 50% of the popular vote, while the Dixiecrats picked up just over 2%. But very significantly, African Americans in the North and Mid-West voted overwhelmingly for Truman. This was clearly a determining factor in Ohio and Illinois where he won by less than one percent - and without which he would have been defeated.
Finally, the event which marked the beginning of the end of official segregation was the Supreme Court decision of 1954 – Brown versus the Board of Education of Topeka Kansas.
In a unanimous decision, the Court of Chief Justice Earl Warren ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” This decision paved the way for the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s which resulted in the ground-breaking Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 65. For those laws we owe an enormous debt to Martin Luther King and the thousands of brave black and white people who marched with him – but also to Lyndon Johnson who used all of his persuasive skills to get the legislation passed - and to John Kennedy, who not too long before he was assassinated, decided to proceed with significant Civil Rights legislation even though he believed it might cost him the 1964 election.
The new Civil Rights Acts profoundly changed the political and personal situations of millions of African Americans – but did not take race out of politics.
Southern Democrats were fuming that it was their party that had passed the legislation that effectively put an end to the Jim Crow era. Richard Nixon responded with a Southern Strategy that amounted to exploiting racial tensions for political gain.
By appealing to segregationist Democrats, Nixon hastened the transformation from Democratic to Republican of much of the South- where virtually no members of the party of Lincoln had been elected to national office for almost a century.
Because of the Civil Rights laws, racism in American politics is no longer as overt as it once was. But it is evident nonetheless. Forced busing to integrate schools and later, affirmative action were seized upon as wedge issues by Republicans, who just like the Southern Democrats of the Jim Crow era, used working class white’s fear of blacks to gain political advantage – more often than not to the detriment of working class whites.
Fear of blacks was the subliminal message in the infamous television commercial during the 1988 presidential campaign when the Republicans portrayed Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis as soft on crime. They did so by exploiting the fact that a black convict named Willy Horton had committed murder while on a weekend prison furlough, a program approved by Dukakis when he was governor of Massachusetts.
The Willy Horton story wasn’t the sole reason Dukakis was defeated but it certainly contributed to that loss.
As most African American’s vote Democratic, one of the most common examples of the modern Republican’s use of the race card is in suppression of the black vote. There are numerous ways this can be done. One way is the official publishing of lists of convicted felons near election time, that include many common black surnames but often omit full first or middle names, ages or addresses. In a state such as Florida where convicted felons were banned from voting for life, that could mean that every black G. Washington in the state would be challenged when they went to cast their ballots. Considering how close things were in 2000, this was not insignificant.
For their part, Republicans regularly make the claim that there are threats of massive voter fraud throughout the country. And so in recent decades Democratic Party efforts to increase voter registration – are inevitably met by Republican Party counter moves to purge the voter’s lists of people who they claim for one reason or another, are not ineligible.
These struggles are on-going now in several battleground states, most recently including Wisconsin. I can’t speak to the merits of the arguments of either side in these particular disputes. But history suggests that when Southern Democrats in the past or Republicans more recently, have wanted to cull the voter lists because of alleged registration fraud, their real motivation has usually been to keep black people from voting.
Still another recent problem became evident when we learned that the Bush Administration apparently gutted the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. This after all is the division charged, among other things, with enforcing the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. And if violations of these laws aren’t prosecuted, one can only assume that attempts to suppress the black vote will again become more overt. This particular problem remains unresolved while official investigations are underway to look into credible reports about how Bush political appointees interfered with, and in some cases forced out professional civil rights lawyers working in the Justice Department.
McCain campaign officials adamantly deny any suggestion that they might be using the race card, even covertly. I do not know what is in their hearts, but when they run an advertising campaign which depicts a man with such very humble origins as an elitist out of touch with common people– when they suggest he is nothing more than a vapid celebrity and is full of himself with his big speeches, the message I am receiving is that Obama is an uppity black.
I was happy to be joined in that analysis by David Gergen, who has worked at the White House for Bill Clinton but before that for Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior. Gergen said the portrayal of Obama in those McCain campaign ads is indeed code for “uppity black,” And as we know, that is not a term of endearment. It is a phrase used historically by whites to describe blacks who sought to be treated as equals. They were called “uppity’ because they did not know “their place.” – which used to be the back of the bus only - and most certainly cannot possibly be the Oval Office.
A post script to this matter. According to the Capitol Hill newspaper The Hill, during the Republican National Convention, Republican Congressman Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia, publicly let slip that he thought both Obama and his wife Michelle were “uppity.” I guess Westmoreland got the message.
But finally, the question before us now is whether it can be said that the nomination of Barack Obama to be the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate means that we are actually going beyond the issue of race in American politics – that race as a political issue is being or has been transcended? Never before has an African American reached such a lofty position in the political pecking order. In a matter of weeks he might well be elected president. Surely this must indicate a profound change in American attitudes - doesn’t it?
One person who has chosen to argue that there has been a profound change is Barack Obama himself. As a central part of his campaign strategy he has gone out of his way not to be seen as an angry black, or even as the black candidate.
He does not play the victim and he discourages other black people from doing so. Rather than decrying this country’s imperfections, he works at ways to make it a more perfect union. This is a strategy that makes a virtue out of necessity, because the only way a black man can win an election of this magnitude is to persuade a majority of whites that he can be trusted – that they don’t have to be afraid of him.
Here I must be emphatic: In terms of historical accomplishment – that Obama has come so far represents major progress in race relations in this country. This would have been absolutely impossible for the first 200 years of the Republic. It couldn’t have happened even twenty ten years ago. Conceivably Colin Powell “might’ have been nominated by the Republicans in 1996 had he decided to run - there is no real way of knowing.
But it is also a fact that Obama is still having problems attracting support among working class whites, especially in small towns and rural areas – many of whom voted for Hillary Clinton during the primaries and some of whom are now flocking to Sarah Palin.
I would love to believe that Obama’s nomination does mean that the issue of race is no longer determinant in this country’s presidential politics. But I think we cannot make that assertion until we see the results of the election.
Given all the disadvantages the Republicans are facing due to their dismal record of the past eight years; given that eight out of ten Americans believe the country is moving in the wrong direction – logically it would seem that Obama should be way ahead in the polls. He is not. The race remains basically tied.
So what if Obama loses? Was he just a weak candidate who ran a bad campaign – was he too liberal -or is there something else at work here? Throughout the campaign so far, a substantial majority has supported Democratic rather than Republican policies. So, if not issues- what?”
Even through extensive exit polls it may be very hard to determine exactly why he lost. The reality is that very few people who will not vote for a black presidential candidate are willing to admit their prejudices in public or to pollsters – basically because they are ashamed.
If Obama loses in a close election – and very close is what the current polls predict - I for one will find it hard not to conclude that his color was ultimately what kept him from closing the deal with a majority of the American people.
By that I don’t mean to imply that everyone who voted against him is a racist – or to suggest that working class whites are racist – or that Republicans are racist. But if he loses I believe it will be because a small number of whites- I don’t know what percentage – 2 perhaps 3% - voted against him because he was black .I cannot prove it- but that is my considered opinion.
And if that is so, for me it will mean the toxicity of race has not yet been entirely cleansed from the American body politic.
However if Obama should win, it will be possible to argue that the issue of race has been transcended - because the biggest taboo in American politics will have been broken. Race won’t cease to be a factor in presidential politics but it will no longer be a dominant one. And let there be no doubt - that will be a monumental event in the history of this country.

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