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Disputations: Was '3 A.M.' Racist?

Orlando Patterson responds to Sean Wilentz on race and the '08 campaign.

Sean Wilentz makes no attempt to respond to the points raised in my article beyond his huffing that it is biased. He merely repeats his earlier, quite absurd inversion of the course of events leading up to, and responsibility for, the injection of race in the campaign. He reveals his hand in his failure to find any "bad faith" in Bill Clinton's crude comparison of Obama's win in South Carolina with Jesse Jackson's years earlier. And it is sad that the author of so eloquently written a work as The Rise of American Democracy could resort to crass Republican "flip-flop" language in discussing an easily understood shift in Obama's position on Hillary Clinton. Yes, Obama did say that he took Clinton at her word in their February 26 debate, and he did later say that she was throwing the kitchen sink at him. Where is the problem? He changed his statement when he learned the sordid truth about what the Clinton camp was up to.

Introducing race into this campaign is completely against the interest of Senator Obama: It is simply impossible for a black person to win an election where the electorate is over 74 percent white by raising race as an issue, especially in this country with its racially charged past. Obama and his advisers would be a bunch of fools to do so. The Clintons know this only too well. Their strategy has been to covertly introduce race, while denying it, in the hope that the Obama camp would protest loudly. Then they respond to the protest by claiming that it is Obama's people who are introducing race. Could the Clintons possibly lie like this? Oh, how outrageous of me to even imagine such a thing.


Wilentz is a man of the word. When will he join the age of visual media? There are hundreds of ways Clinton could have advertised, visually and verbally, her message that she is more experienced than Obama and better qualified to meet the challenge of foreign threats than the images chosen. 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. Do you get it, fellow?

Few scholars have written more optimistically than I have been, in this and other journals, about the progress America has made in overcoming its racist past. This is why I too am depressed. About what the Clintons are doing. And about the fact that so otherwise smart a person as Sean Wilentz, with such wide knowledge of the role of race in the rise and long history of American democracy and the perverse use of images in the psychological denigration, terrorization and exclusion of blacks, could be so blind to this crude resurrection of our nation's greatest shame.

Orlando Patterson is a professor of sociology at Harvard and the author of The Ordeal of Integration: Progress and Resentment in America’s ‘Racial’ Crisis.

By Orlando Patterson