Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Race, Obama, and the North Carolina Primary

I posted the item below some time back, but considered it timely for reposting (with an edit) now, given:

1) The North Carolina primary is a week away.

2) Barack Obama took a similar approach to the Sean Bell case as he did to the lacrosse case, calling for people to respect the rule of law and urging the importance of fair procedures. He said, “We’re a nation of laws, so we respect the verdict that came down. Resorting to violence to express displeasure over a verdict is something that is completely unacceptable and is counterproductive.”

For this position, Al Sharpton has criticized him for taking an “opportunity to grandstand in front of white people.”

It’s worth noting that Hillary Clinton responded to the Bell verdict quite differently in both substance and tone than did Obama. She pointedly declined to uphold the verdict, remarking, “This tragedy has deeply saddened New Yorkers - and all Americans. My thoughts are with Nicole and her children and the rest of Sean’s family during this difficult time. The court has given its verdict, and now we await the conclusion of a Department of Justice civil rights investigation. We must also embrace this opportunity to take steps — in our communities, in our law enforcement agencies, and in our government — to make sure this does not happen again.”

And so: in the lacrosse case, an acknowledged injustice involving one of her own constituents, Clinton was silent about a DOJ inquiry. In the Bell case, where few neutral observers are suggesting anything untoward in the authorities’ conduct, Clinton has implied she’s expecting the DOJ to take a look at what happened.

3) Given the efforts of the Clintons (Hillary cares about “people like you,” the former President informed a heavily white audience recently in North Carolina) and surrogates such as Lanny Davis to exploit the Wright affair to appeal to the candidate’s new base—whites without a college-level education—it’s worth pointing out how, on issues, it should be very difficult to play the race card against Obama.]

Not since 1976, when Ronald Reagan’s victory over Gerald Ford revived his then-floundering campaign, has North Carolina’s primary played a significant role in the nominating process. That will change in 2008. The early May primary provides an opportunity for Barack Obama to rebound from the Clinton victory in Pennsylvania, and in the process gain ground in the Clintonslatest measuring stick for success, the popular vote total. The state seems to play to Obama’s strengths: it has a sizable black population, as well as a good number of college-educated whites in the Research Triangle and in Charlotte. Moreover, unlike Pennsylvania and Indiana (and Ohio before them), the state’s political leadership is either supporting Obama or is neutral. That said, Obama’s lead in North Carolina dropped precipitously in the latest poll.

Obama made his first campaign swing to the Tarheel State the day after his Philadelphia speech on race relations, and NBC’s First Read noted the irony:

He will speak less than 24 hours before state legislators come together for a special session to vote on the expulsion of a black [state representative] suspected of fraud; the accused lawmaker alleges that the charges are racially motivated. Obama also will walk into a local news cycle spinning around the death of a beloved UNC student at the hands of a troubled black juvenile, who is widely believed to represent the failures of the state's probationary system.

When he lands in Fayetteville, where he will talk about Iraq, he'll be 100 miles south of Durham, the site of the explosive racial confrontation kindled by the Duke lacrosse case. He'll be 100 miles northwest of the North Carolina house district that will be examined by the U.S. Supreme Court this fall to determine the constitutionality of racially gerrymandered "influence" districts. Just southwest of that is Wilmington, which saw a formal apology from the state's Democratic Party last year for the violent race riots perpetrated there by white supremacist Democrats in 1898.

Shortly after Obama’s Philadelphia speech, Fox News ran a story suggesting the candidate’s inconsistency on high-profile racially charged cases, noting that Obama had recommended Don Imus’ dismissal after Imus’ attack on the Rutgers women’s basketball team. The clear implication: Obama had one standard for whites (Imus) and another for blacks (Rev. Wright), and that he pandered to his African-American base.

The Fox story didn’t mention Obama’s stance on the lacrosse case (perhaps because it undercut the story’s premise). Obama was, of course, the only presidential candidate of either party to support a DOJ investigation of Mike Nifong. (He did so in early 2007, joining only two other Democratic officeholders—New Jersey senator Bob Menendez and Long Island congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy. Eleven Republican members of the House, led by Walter Jones, urged a DOJ inquiry, though neither of North Carolina's two Republican senators did so.) Hillary Clinton remained silent on the issue, even though one of her constituents was among the falsely accused. And the third major Democratic candidate, John Edwards, hired as his official campaign blogger a guilt-presuming ideologue who maintained as late as January 2007 that an attack had occurred. Given that the state NAACP had championed Nifong’s cause, it’s hard to argue that Obama’s position on the lacrosse case represented political pandering on a racially charged question.

Shortly after Obama left North Carolina, the state House of Representatives resolved another of the racially charged matters mentioned by First Read: by a vote of 109-5, the body expelled Wilmington Democrat Thomas Wright. The allegations involved campaign finance improprieties; Wright has been criminally charged with shifting as much as $350,000 from his campaign account to his personal savings. The attorney who claimed that the House vote denied Wright due process was none other than Irving Joyner—one of Nifong’s most aggressive defenders in the lacrosse case. Joyner didn’t explain how he had suddenly discovered the value of due process.

The vote marked only the thirteenth time in history and the first occasion since 1880 that the state House had expelled one of its members. Most of these previous cases had involved some form of financial fraud, though state Representative Josiah Turner met his fate in 1880 for a quite different reason. The House expelled Turner, as the N&O dryly notes, “for calling other legislators names.” Turner, it turns out, had labeled the Speaker, John Moring, a “gander head.”

If this rationale for expulsion from a legislative body still existed, Congress would have no members.