You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Refereeing Wilentz V. Patterson

If you haven't seen it, there's a heated debate going on on our site between Sean Wilentz and Orlando Patterson over Patterson's NYT op-ed on the 3-a.m.-phone-call ad. You should read them yourselves, but, briefly: Wilentz says Patterson was wrong to see racist imagery in the ad and alleges that this is just another instance of Obama supporters playing the race card; Patterson says Wilentz is being obtuse.

Who's right? Now, as one of the evidently few people who actually found Patterson's original op-ed somewhat persuasive, I guess it's not surprising that I think he gets the better of the exchange. But that's mainly because he uses it to put a finer point on the original op-ed--a finer point that Chris made on The Plank yesterday. Here's the key bit from Patterson's response to Wilentz:

This ad was made by Roy Spence, Mrs. Clinton's Texas advertising consultant, the same person who made a similar ad for Walter Mondale in 1984 against Gary Hart in their primary fight. That ad used only a red phone and words of warning and it was extremely effective. So why the bodies this time? Why these bodies? Why a bedroom in the middle of the night? Why only women and children? Where is daddy? Are men not also threatened by terrorist attacks? Aren't black Americans? Come on, Wilentz. Anti-American terrorists wanting to do harm to America do not steal up in the dead of night and attack women and children. Bad local men do. Domestic enemies of law and order, which in a state such as Texas, especially to older, less educated white voters, usually means one kind of men. You don't use, especially in the deep South, images of terrified women and children in darkened bedrooms when a black man is your opponent, in the same way that you don't use images of cliques and moneylenders when a Jewish American is your opponent, or images from The Sopranos if your opponent is an Italian-American, or images of helpless, dumb bimbos if your opponent is a woman, or images of crackers if your opponent is an Appalachian white, or images of five men trying to insert a light bulb if your opponent is a Polish-American, or images of white crosses if your opponent is a Mormon.

I suppose there's an innocent explanation for why Spence felt the need to add the frightened woman and children to the Hillary ad. Maybe he didn't want to completely rip-off the ad he cut for Mondale 24 years ago. But I don't think it takes a tortured reading to see the racial subtext in that addition. Is the subtext as blatant as it was when Bill Clinton noted that Jesse Jackson won the South Carolina primary twice? No. But it's there--and I don't think Patterson is being disingenuous when he sees it.

That said, I don't think Wilentz is being disingenuous when he sees instances of Obama supporters--and Obama himself-- trying to use race to their advantage. While I found his original article on this topic pretty unconvincing, I think, in his response to Patterson, he's come up with some other examples that are stronger. The main one is Obama's use of the terms "hoodwink," "bamboozle," and "okey doke" on the stump. When I first heard someone suggest that Obama was using these words to evoke Malcolm X, I was pretty skeptical. But, it's worth noting that Obama has tended to use these lines while campaigning in states with large African-American populations: namely, South Carolina and Mississippi. I don't think it takes a tortured reading of these lines to see a racial subtext in their use.

But that gets us to a much larger point: which candidate most benefits if this campaign focuses on race? And, frankly, I don't see how anyone can conclude that it's not Clinton. It boils down to simple math: As John Judis pointed out earlier on The Plank today, the fact that Obama is black winds up costing him white votes--and, in most of these primaries and caucuses, there are more white voters than black ones, hence that's a pretty huge disadvantage Obama's facing. So whether it's Geraldine Ferraro's ignorant version or Wilentz's more nuanced and sophisticated one, I just don't buy the argument that Obama's the one who stands to gain from making this campaign about race. 

P.S. And if you want to see a real example of a contemporary black politician playing the race card, just look at embattled Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his remarks last night, which put even Clay Davis to shame. I don't think you'll see many similarities between Kilpatrick and Obama.

--Jason Zengerle