The Problem of Politics and Race

(Guest Post by Big Tent Democrat)

Talking about race is always difficult. Talking about race issues in the Democratic Party is paradoxically more difficult as we Democrats have a hard time facing up to the problems in our midst. We're not racists we think. We fight racism. And we do. But we have race issues all the same. How to talk about them? How to do it constructively? The Clinton lunch contretemps gave us examples of good and bad ways to do it. Today, Matt Stoller discusses the Maryland Senate race and I'm not sure if I agree with Matt's approach:

I'm watching Maryland politics with tremendous interest. On the heels of Al Wynn's stolen election, I see Michael Steele attempting to run a campaign entirely based on African-American resentment of Democratic fecklessness and institutional racism. Gregory Kane at BlackAmericaWeb sums up this attitude.

So, once again, black folks in Maryland got chumped by the Democratic Party.
. . . This year, two black Democratic candidates ran for statewide office. Former congressman and NAACP president Kweisi Mfume ran for a U.S. Senate seat. Stuart Simms, a former Baltimore state's attorney who headed both the state departments of juvenile services and correctional services and public safety, ran for attorney general of Maryland.

. . . The rejection of both Mfume and Simms should provide Maryland's black Democrats with some food for thought and prompt some questions. And the first question should be why white Maryland Democrats don't vote for black Democratic candidates for statewide office in the same proportion black Maryland Democrats vote for white candidates for statewide office.

I think the question asked - why white Democrats support black Democrats in smaller proportions than they do white Democrats is a fair one generally. Indeed, the question can be asked for all minority Demcrats. I do think a significant art of it is due to false racial stereotypes - the minority as less intelligent and competent than the white. And yes, Democrats have, in some measure, internalized this stereotype.

But was the Mfume-Cardin race the best example of this?

Cardin -- a 10-term veteran of the House who previously served 20 years in the state House -- was the front-runner to win the primary since he entered the race last year, running up a long list of endorsements from the state and national Democratic establishments and amassing a vast campaign fundraising advantage over nearest rival Mfume. But Cardin had trouble pulling away from his rivals and was unable to make the race a foregone conclusion. Although his campaign avoided serious stumbles, Cardin himself was often characterized as having a bland personality that paled when compared to his competitors.
Mfume's campaign was a contrast to Cardin's in both the positive and negative sense. Emphasizing his dramatic personal story of a rise from a difficult youth on the streets of inner-city Baltimore, Mfume moved audiences with his charismatic personality. He also had the potential to build upon a base among the state's large African-American population, a key component of the Democratic primary vote.

But Mfume's campaign was hobbled by problems from the start. The first candidate to enter the race, Mfume harshly criticized Democratic leaders in Maryland for not supporting his campaign, accusing them of trying to anoint Cardin as the nominee before the primary election was held. Mfume was also dogged by accusations of favoritism during his tenure at the NAACP, and his campaign was never able to launch a fundraising operation to rival Cardin's.

Cardin and Mfume, who were elected to Congress in the same year and worked closely together until Mfume left to lead the NAACP, often talked on the campaign trail about being friends. Although the race was close, it never got nasty, and both candidates hesitated to point out significant differences between each other.

Observers largely expected the primary vote to split along racial lines, even though both are liberals and neither ran an ostensibly race-based campaign. Most polls showed Cardin, who is white, winning the majority of the white vote, while Mfume led among black voters.

Based on this reporting, it appears that Cardin ran a bland, but honorable campaign, never stooping to the race baiting seen in some other Democratic primaries. Mfume lost. Apparently he had some problems with his campaign.

Cardin and Mfume seem to agree on the issues. Why the backlash? Matt says:

I supported Mfume in the primary because I never bought this line, and while I don't expect Steele to win this, it's important to realize that the resentment that Steele is playing on is very real. . . . Cardin's a good guy, and a real progressive, but he's an insider who is tied into the Hoyer machine and isn't the heroic candidate-type that plays well in 2006.

. . . What I expect in Maryland going forward is that Steele will run two campaigns, . . . One campaign will be targeted at African-Americans, and will involve discussions of ethics and independents. It will hinge on the narrative of Democrats taking black voters for granted, but will largely skirt substantive discussion of what Steele would do in the Senate. . . .

I pose the following questions: (1) Did the Democratic Party "take black voters for granted" in Maryland? (2) Did white Democratic voters act racially in the Maryland primary? (3) By the way, did black Democratic voters act racially in Maryland? (4) Is this a legitimate beef?

My answers? 1. Yes. But not more so than in the past. The Party establishment backed Cardin over Mfume. Were there good reasons for this? I dunno, but clearly Mfume was not the perfect candidate. 2. Yes, but not more so than in the past. 3. Yes, and I imagine along the lines of the past in such races. 4. Yes, but . . .

The but here is important - Cardin ran for office. He ran a clean campaign. I don't think it is fair to make him a scapegoat for long term institutional problems in society.

Steele is a Republican who backs an agenda that hurts African-Americans. Will African-Americans in Maryland vote for a Bush supporting Republican and against their own interests? Even now, the answer is no. In the latest polling, fresh off the hurt of the primary loss, blacks support Cardin by 66-33%. The number of African-Americans supporting Steele is too high, and at least 20 points above the support Bush garnered. But that number will go down.

Yes, there is a problem of race, including in the Democratic Party. But Maryland and Ben Cardin seems an odd place to draw a line in the sand. At least to me.

DISCLOSURE - I have worked for African-American political candidates in the past and am a minority.

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    Re: The Problem of Politics and Race (none / 0) (#1)
    by Matt Stoller on Sat Sep 23, 2006 at 03:33:38 PM EST
    I'm not drawing a line in the sand, nor do I agree with Kane. That was a quote. The reason I think the resentment is real is because of Russell Simmons' endorsement of Steele. Once again, I'm not making a judgment that this is the right place to draw a line in the sand. That would have been the primary. I'm just describing Steele's strategy.

    Re: The Problem of Politics and Race (none / 0) (#2)
    by terryhallinan on Sat Sep 23, 2006 at 03:33:38 PM EST
    I haven't seen any blogging on Steve Cohen winning the primary for the designated minority seat Harold Ford abandoned in Tennessee. Should both win their respective races it would be wonderful symbolism. Perhaps a false dawn but most pleasant to contemplate. One might note that, as we have seen by the bind George Allen put himself in by his own hand, Cohen is only a recent and not entirely accepted "white." Such an ethnic category as white or black should have long ago been found repulsive by civilized society but sadly it remains an artifact of prejudice that is undeniable. I am inclined to bet that Michael Steele is going to ride a perverse expression of prejudice to victory in one of the bluest of all blue states in a Democratic year doing most harm to those he utilizes. Such is the nature of the beast. Praise the Lord that Deval Patrick will almost surely make a real statement against prejudice. Best, Terry

    Re: The Problem of Politics and Race (none / 0) (#3)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Sat Sep 23, 2006 at 06:20:17 PM EST
    I don't know a lot about Maryland, or the specifics of this race besides what I've read here and there, but I think you may have answered your question while also answering your questions with this:
    1. Yes. But not more so than in the past.
    I'm not involved in politics much, and am not really part of the Democratic party (although I did try), but I do a lot of listening, and so am hearing a lot of talking (a lot of it quite out in the open, on blogs), not only among Black voters, but Latino, Asian and others, of well... the past just isn't good enough anymore. The past was pre-Katrina, pre-2004 pictures of people standing in the rain for 8 hours to vote (we'll make sure every vote is counted! Psych!), pre-2000, pre-anti-undocument immigrant rhetoric, etc, etc. I think it was Chris Bowers who had a post here about "if we don't get out our base, we will lose"... and I'm not sure what the political powers that be and campaigners and such are hearing, or doing about this, but from what I and others are hearing, there is a lot to worry about. When looking at the reaction to the Mfume/Cardin issue, it might be helpful to think of it not as a separate incident, but more as a topping on a cake. Or a final straw on the camel's back, if you prefer. Although I too doubt there will be any big rush to vote for Steele, or any other Republicans around the country. Just might not be any big rush to vote for anyone at all. *shrug*

    Re: The Problem of Politics and Race (none / 0) (#4)
    by Richard Aubrey on Sat Sep 23, 2006 at 08:41:23 PM EST
    It might be useful for dems to ask black voters who they intend to vote for, and why. It's possible that the emphasis on race trumping all, including incompetence--see Ray Nagin--is actually stronger than the loyalty of blacks to the democratic party. Since it was the dems who pushed the group identity over everything else, I guess they got what they deserved. Or, it could be that black voters think the republican is better for them than the democratic candidate. Black voters are not required to believe democrats about how democrats are good for blacks--see inner city schools--and how republicans are going to lynch them and burn their churches. Blacks are, apparently, deciding they would prefer to believe their lying eyes over the dems' campaign-specific attentions and promises, which have the benefit of never having to be paid for, since the dems don't have the faintest intention of actually trying to implement them. Unfortunately for the dems, more blacks are joining the middle class and seeing things about taxes they never imagined before. They are socially conservative and...well, you know how dems are on that. They want opportunity and dems want them to be amorphous voting blocks. So, I guess it's time for the dems to ask blacks outside of the party professionals what's going on.

    Re: The Problem of Politics and Race (none / 0) (#5)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Sat Sep 23, 2006 at 08:41:23 PM EST
    I sometimes wonder that Dems are like Charlie Brown constantly falling for lucy's entreates to kick the ball. I honestly believe the overwhelming majority of democrats did not vote by race. I think the Demgraphic of attest to that. I think we are just being Race baited by the repigs. This is their race card stratigy. they alway try to devide and conquer the dems. We know who we are and racists we are not. We also know we are not perfect. But I'd take our imperfections any day compared to theirs!

    Re: The Problem of Politics and Race (none / 0) (#6)
    by Ernesto Del Mundo on Sun Sep 24, 2006 at 11:08:10 AM EST
    I absolutely loooove listening to a Republican like Dick Aubrey telling black people what's good for them.

    Re: The Problem of Politics and Race (none / 0) (#7)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Sun Sep 24, 2006 at 11:08:10 AM EST
    So, I guess it's time for the dems to ask blacks outside of the party professionals what's going on. BWAHAHAHAHAHA! Like that's gonna happen. Get with the program. Don't you know that liberal white people know what is best for minorities? They'll let us know what to issues are important, what we should think and do, and if we don't like it, well, we can pour ourselves and nice big steamin' cuppa STFU. Do I sound bitter? I hope I don't sound bitter...

    Re: The Problem of Politics and Race (none / 0) (#8)
    by Ernesto Del Mundo on Sun Sep 24, 2006 at 04:59:23 PM EST
    Don't you know that liberal white people know what is best for minorities?
    I guess you are more comfortable listening to black people that get paid by conservative white people to tell black people what's good for them? (Armstrong Williams). No you don't sound bitter just ignorant, thank you.

    Re: The Problem of Politics and Race (none / 0) (#9)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Sun Sep 24, 2006 at 06:20:50 PM EST
    Ernesto, I don't listen to people who are bought off. There will always be people who will be happy to play a part for the money, or power, or (illusion of) respect. Neither party takes blacks or any other people of color seriously. Which is why you see more and more of them sitting elections out. This should not be happening.

    Re: The Problem of Politics and Race (none / 0) (#10)
    by Ernesto Del Mundo on Sun Sep 24, 2006 at 10:40:24 PM EST
    Donna, I feel your pain, believe me I do, but sitting out elections is not an option. Unless you want things to get even worse.

    Re: The Problem of Politics and Race (none / 0) (#11)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Mon Sep 25, 2006 at 10:45:45 AM EST
    I never sit out elections. I'm politically motivated enough in other areas to continue voting. What I am saying is that large portions of voters are not interested, apolitical. I think that these people could become politically motivated if they felt they had some say in the political process. Somehow choosing between the CORPORATE party, or the corporate party; or choosing between the WAR party, or the war party; or the RACIST party, or doesn't give a damn what you think party...well, it just doesn't feel like very good choices.