WASHINGTON -- In the acrid aftermath of the South Carolina primary, I think it is safe to say that novelist Toni Morrison was dealing in fiction when she pronounced Bill Clinton our first black president. After watching him huff and puff up the issue of race in a way that Americans have not seen since the presidential campaigns of the late George Wallace, the former Boy President, rather than being our first black president, is our second redneck president.
I say Clinton is our second redneck president because first came Jimmy Carter. Jimmy did not play the role of the bigot while in the White House, not exactly. Rather, as the historian Betty Glad demonstrated in her fine biography of him, "Jimmy Carter: In Search of the Great White House," Jimmy played the racial politics at the beginning of his political career, in Georgia while seeking the governorship. That is not to say that as president he did not use race divisively. He frequently was given to transforming policy disagreements into a matter of white voters repressing black voters, that is to say Republicans repressing blacks. He was forever presuming himself to be the champion of black people and Republicans to be anti-black. Any disagreement on domestic issues he was apt to present as part of a Republican "Southern strategy" to win Southern white votes.
Now, after the Clintons' treacherous campaign against Sen. Barack Obama, we see that some Democrats will practice a Southern strategy, too. Yet they do it within their own party, dividing Democrats along racial and even ethnic lines. This is the repellent absurdity to which identity politics has sunk. Why two Southern politicians would play the racial politics -- each in his different way -- is mystifying. Southern politicians, more than any other politicians in this country, should be aware of the racial antagonisms of the past and the potential for racial violence even today. It is especially mystifying to see Clinton play the race card. I do not credit him with many virtues, but the one virtue I thought he had was racial tolerance. Nowhere on his record is there any evidence that he ever sought to benefit from bigotry against blacks. That is no longer the case.
Race is the cruel burden this country has borne since its inception. We fought a bloody civil war over it. The evil of Jim Crow followed after that war, featuring widespread injustices against blacks and violence between the races. From North to South, race riots have broken out in this country for generations. After the heroism and idealism of the civil rights movement, the country has moved steadily toward racial tolerance and an improvement of the material condition of all minorities. Admittedly, there remain instances of unspeakable cruelty, hate crimes committed by brutes on both sides. Yet with a growing sense of tolerance and a growing economy offering jobs and other opportunities, we have reason to believe that racial harmony is replacing the racial strife of the past.