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May 14, 2014 4:30 PM Progressive Crackers and African-Americans

By Ed Kilgore

Josh Marshall has an interesting meditation up at TPM about Bill Clinton’s reputation as the “first African-American president,” and what that connotes in terms of the racial or non-racial nature of the intense conservative animus towards Barack Obama. He seems to lean towards Ta-Nehisi Coates’ belief that any president representing the Party of Those People is going to receive a lot of race-based heat, though the worst will inevitably be reserved for One of Those People incarnate.

I tend to agree with all that. But Josh also reminds us that the whole “First African-American People” thing about Clinton, in its original formulation by Toni Morrison, involved a particular affinity between Clinton and black folks, some of it attributable to his own humble and sometimes struggling background, and some to how he was treated by his enemies.

I’d go a step further and suggest that Clinton’s southerness had a lot to do with this affinity as well.

Some of that has to do with the obvious overlaps between white southern and African-American culture, ranging from religion to food to music to sheer collective memories of the region where most African-Americans have fairly recent roots. But some of it as well has to do with an intimate understanding of and experience with southern racism; many African-Americans may well trust a progressive white southerner on crucial issues of race and poverty and discrimination in a way they might not trust a Yankee of similar or even superior progressive credentials.

Old-timers and political junkies may recall that in 1976 Jimmy Carter did very well among African-Americans in presidential primaries against ostensibly more progressive rivals, even outside the South. So, too, did Bill Clinton in 1992. In both cases, the Relatively Progressive Cracker candidates had some suspect behavior in their immediate backgrounds: Clinton’s “Sister Souljah” speech, of course, and also his affiliation with a Democratic Leadership Council often demonized by Jesse Jackson; and Carter’s (or more accurately his campaign’s) alleged race-baiting in his 1970 gubernatorial bid (he also voted for Lester Maddox when the Georgia legislature was forced to choose a governor in 1966). At both the elite and popular levels, African-Americans seemed to forgive both these men for their occasional transgressions, moral or ideological. It’s also interesting that the most recent southern white men to appear on a presidential ticket, Al Gore (not the most southern of southerners, to be sure) and John Edwards (often described as “inauthentic,” with much eventual verification) did not seem to inspire this sort of widespread connection with African-Americans.

In any event, it will be asked if Bill Clinton’s special connection with African-Americans can possibly be transferred to his wife, which did seem to be the case in 2008 up until and in some places a bit beyond Barack Obama’s entry into the contest. HRC, of course, is not a native southerner, and as with Al Gore, “southern” is not the first or second or third word that would pop into your head to describe her, despite her long residency in Arkansas. Perhaps in this era of polarization any nonblack candidate representing the Party of Those People will attract equal hatred and love. But a taste for gospel music and fried food probably wouldn’t hurt.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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