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Disputations: The '3 A.M.' Fight Continues

Sean Wilentz responds to Orlando Patterson's essays on the Clinton campaign's use of race.

Orlando Patterson's reply is as unpersuasive as his original op-ed essay. His op-ed--a fanciful interpretation of Hillary Clinton's 3 A.M. campaign ad as racist--provides no facts to back up its assertions, thereby making refutation literally impossible. Now, in his reply, Patterson offers more groundless speculation. He also fails to concede that his original essay contained a gross falsehood that is now a matter of record--a falsehood that, once revealed, demolishes his basic argument. And his account of my writing about Obama's charges of racism creates a straw man that has absolutely nothing to do with what I have actually written.

Patterson evades the real subject of Clinton’s original ad, national security, in order to accuse the Clinton campaign of being racist. He seems to want to change the obvious subject. Although the tone of his response sounds more reasonable than his inflammatory op-ed--where he likens Hillary Clinton and her campaign to the white supremacist film director D.W. Griffith and his heroic portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan in Birth of a Nation--his reply only compounds his misbegotten attack.

Patterson takes as gospel the Obama campaign’s allegations about Bill Clinton’s supposed race-baiting during the South Carolina primary, without engaging any of the facts that refute this claim. Patterson does not debate or consider the matter; he simply asserts his version of the truth. He also explains away Obama’s flip-flopping about the charge that Clinton and her campaign leaked an allegedly racially charged photograph of Obama. According to Patterson, Obama merely “changed his statement when he learned the sordid truth about what the Clinton campaign was up to.” Yet Patterson does not state what the “sordid truth” is regarding the photo and its dissemination, and he does not provide any evidence that the Clinton campaign did anything “sordid.” Nor does he back up his claim that Obama’s reversal of position stemmed from his learning something. He just recycles dubious charges and invents the rest. (Patterson also ought to know that the term “flip-flop” long antedates the 2004 campaign, and is used by Republicans and Democrats alike--including, judging from the candidate’s official website, followers of Senator Obama.)

Patterson goes on to state flatly, without a shred of evidence, that most older, less educated white Democratic voters of Texas are racists. Is this not racial politics of the crudest kind? Why would he assume that Texas Democrats who have decided to ally themselves in a party with Latinos and blacks are racists? Why doesn’t Patterson level the charge of racism against Texas Latinos, who voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton and not for Obama? Or Catholics generally, who overall vote two to one for Clinton? Why not Jews, who also vote nearly two to one for Clinton? Even stranger: Patterson offers this racialist speculation as hard evidence that Clinton’s ad was racist.

In his op-ed and his reply, Patterson’s entire argument rests on his assertion that the Clinton ad depicted only white children as the endangered ones. “When will he”--meaning me--“join the age of visual media?” writes Patterson. Yet one of the children in the ad is African-American, as the Clinton campaign has pointed out. That child is there in the visual media for any viewer to see. Why can’t Patterson admit his error?

Patterson writes that I have claimed that Obama raised race as an issue:

"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."

But this has never been my point. (Elsewhere at TNR, Jason Zengerle misconstrues my argument the same way.) The issue that the Obama campaign has raised, and is raising, is not race but racism--charging, on the basis of flimsy and sometimes ludicrous assertions, not unlike Patterson’s in The New York Times, that the Clinton campaign is making subtle and not-so-subtle racist appeals.

Introducing the charge of racism in this campaign is a dangerous tactic--but it certainly suits the interest of Senator Obama. Nothing could be calculated to offend black voters more than the idea that one campaign is appealing to white racism. And nothing, perhaps, is more likely to offend young liberal voters, especially in college and university towns. That is precisely what the Obama campaign has been doing, tentatively since before the primaries began, and with a vengeance since Clinton’s surprising win in New Hampshire. It has helped to build and then reinforce its two main pillars of support.

As my original essay shows, the Obama campaign (most conspicuously national co-chair, Jesse Jackson Jr.) has not been above charging purely and simply that Hillary Clinton is a racist. But more often, as my essay also shows, Obama’s strategists and followers have played what I call the “race-baiter” card--ginning up false claims that Hillary Clinton and her campaign (as well as Bill Clinton) have devilishly tried to turn Obama’s color against him and appeal to white prejudice.

That the press has been unable to see through this ruse--a brand new deployment of racial paranoia in our national politics--is not surprising, given that it is so new. But it is surprising that a distinguished scholar such as Orlando Patterson should so badly misread what I wrote. In any event, his account completely misrepresents what I have said--and thereby mocks the really important issues.

Sean Wilentz is a contributing editor at The New Republic, and the author of The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (Norton).

By Sean Wilentz