Page last updated at 10:00 GMT, Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Washington diary: Tussling over race

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

This week I went to see my friend Kannon Shanmugam argue a case on maximum prison sentences in front of the nine Justices of the US Supreme Court.

Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice in 2004
The US government has been more multi-racial than most in Europe

His performance on behalf of the government was heroic under the persistent grilling of America's finest legal minds.

Kannon is a Sri Lankan-American. Like Barack Obama, he studied law at Harvard. Like Bill Clinton he is a former Rhodes Scholar. Clarence Thomas, one of the justices on the bench, is African-American.

Back in the office, Condoleezza Rice was explaining the president's Middle East policy on TV. The fact that she is an African-American who witnessed the racial hatred of whites against blacks first-hand as a young girl is barely mentioned.

Her predecessor Colin Powell was America's first black secretary of state. It stopped being news as soon as he was appointed.

At every level of government, the US has been more multi-racial than any European country I can think of.

Some 5% of Germany's population is Turkish-German and yet the number of Turks in public life is almost invisible. The same can generally be said for French Algerians.

Australia has done a pitiful job at integrating aboriginal Australians into the mainstream.

The US has fared much better. African-Americans regularly clock into work at the West Wing. President George W Bush has included more minority members in his cabinet than any previous incumbent.

And yet, in the campaign for who gets to sit in the Oval Office, race has reared its ugly head in the strangest of ways in the least likely of quarters.

Damage control

Hillary Clinton, whose husband has often been described as America's first black president, has been slugging it out with Barack Obama, the man who actually hopes to fulfil that role for real one day.

Former President Bill Clinton on the campaign trail
The Clintons have sought to minimise the impact of the row

The row has been conducted like a fist fight with velvet gloves. The blows are mean but leave no traces. They are delivered entirely in code.

First Bill Clinton, who tends to get a bigger cheer from African-Americans than Jesse Jackson or Andrew Young, called Barack Obama a "kid", which makes many older blacks cringe with memories of being called "boy" in the dark days of segregation. Then he appeared to call Mr Obama's campaign "a fairy tale".

To many blacks it sounded like condescension and it was compounded by Mrs Clinton's comments that Martin Luther King's dream of desegregation only became a reality when a president signed it into law: Lyndon Johnson, a white president. Of course this is true. But it was widely interpreted as denigrating the dream of MLK.

The Clintons immediately rowed back and went into damage control mode on just about every African-American media outlet that would have them.

Bill Clinton appeared on the radio show of the gatekeeper of black American consciousness Al Sharpton, explaining that the only fairy tale was Obama's original opposition to the Iraq war.

Hillary went on the Sunday shows to plead that she meant no offence. She is due to appear on the TV talk show hosted by black super model Tyra Banks on Friday.

Hillary 'humanised'

Barack himself has been careful not to get dragged into the quagmire and to maintain his Harvard halo of aloofness from the grubbier aspects of the campaign. But that didn't stop his wife, Michelle, from hurling a fistful of mud at the Clintons.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton after the Democratic debate on 5 Jan 2008
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton sparred verbally in the last debate

Firstly, it is possible that Hillary's spin on civil rights may have done for Obama what his spiel on her as a woman did for Hillary.

In one of the debates before the New Hampshire primary, she was attacked for not being likeable. Barack turned to her with all the condescension of the class favourite and conceded: "You're likeable enough." It did not come across as a compliment.

Combined with the protester who asked her to iron his shirts, the broadsides from John Edwards and her own widely publicised teary moment, Hillary achieved that something that had so far eluded her.

She became humanised. She turned into a woman scorned. The Queen of Narnia was recast as Cinderella and the women of New Hampshire came out in droves to save her candidacy.

Now it's Obama's turn. Black voters in South Carolina, who will flock to the polls on 26 January in the Democrats' first southern primary, may do the same for him.

Yes, many have fond memories of Bill Clinton's presidency. Many used to find Obama's post-racial language too sanguine and highbrow, even though Oprah, the patron saint of aspirational America, gave him the nod.

The latest opinion polls in South Carolina indicate that Barack has drawn level with or overtaken Hillary. The Clintons' velvety blows have brought out the blackness in Obama.

Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton may have kept their distance from a candidate who wasn't old enough to participate in the civil rights campaign and hasn't inherited its emotive language.

But the black voters of South Carolina, the people who will actually matter on Saturday, may well warm to him.

Grubby tussle

The second point is this. There is a soul-searching discussion to be had in white and black America about race, racism and lack of aspiration.

Young African-American men are still more likely to go to jail than college. Hurricane Katrina delivered heart-rending images of neglect and despair.

As I heard over and over again in New Orleans in September 2005: "Why should we scream and demand something better? No one cares about us anyway."

Even allowing for the epidemic of self-pity that accompanies a natural calamity, no group should be allowed to feel this disempowered.

So, yes, race is a subject that needs addressing - but this week's debate is no more than a grubby tussle over votes.

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News America, airing at 2300 GMT (1900 ET / 1600 PT) every weekday

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