The unbearable whiteness of Howard Dean

Posted: Jan 21, 2004 12:00 AM

Howard Dean's got troubles.

Dean's a lily-white guy from a lily-white state. If he can't win in lily-white Iowa (2.1 percent black), how can Dean expect to win in the far more crucial Southern primaries?

What will Dean do in South Carolina, where blacks total 29.5 percent of the population? Lose. Current polls show Dean with 25 percent in South Carolina; Gen. Wesley Clark, meanwhile, is breathing down Dean's neck with 23 percent. Al Sharpton receives 12 percent of the vote, and John Edwards takes 17 percent. With Dean's momentum gone, look for his lead to disappear into oblivion. If he can't get out the white vote, he's as good as cooked.

Howard Dean has a major race problem on his hands. He is from the benevolent white liberal school of thought: Back affirmative action and anti-racism bills, but keep those blacks out of my face.

For Howard Dean, blacks and browns are interesting to watch as a social experiment. Literally. In college, he specifically requested a black roommate, wanting to learn what black people were. His roommate, Don Roman, didn't know about the request. If he had, he says, it "would have been the kiss of death." As Roman put it, he didn't want to be "some white liberal's" social experiment.

As interesting as it was for Dean to room with a black person, he didn't want any black people on his Vermont gubernatorial staff. When Sharpton confronted him with this challenge, Dean acknowledged that he had neglected to put theory into use. Sharpton's analysis: "You ought to talk freely and openly about whether you went out of the box to try to do something about race in your home state and have experience with working with blacks and browns at peer level, not as just friends you might have had in college."

Even if he won't work with them, he'll pander to them. Dean's favorite song? Hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean's "Jaspora." The song's lyrics are in Creole. An excerpt from the translation: "Why do Jamaicans always say they are Jamaicans, but Haitians are afraid to say they are Haitians?" Try to imagine Howard Dean driving around Vermont, listening to this song. Try not to laugh.

Dean's favorite movie? The Warren Beatty-Halle Berry vehicle "Bulworth," about white California Democratic U.S. Sen. Jay Billington Bulworth running for his final Senate term. He decides to stop campaigning on a conservative platform and begins "speaking the truth" on social issues, especially regarding race. Of course, "the truth" is that "we got babies in South Central dyin' as young as they do in Peru. ... The Constitution's supposed to give 'em an equal chance, but that ain't gonna happen for sure. Isn't it time to take a little from the rich motherf---er and just give a little to the poor? ... Rich people have always stayed on top by dividing white people from colored people." He "gets down" with the "brothas," learns to rap, smokes marijuana and makes out with gangsta Halle Berry.

Dean wants to be the real-life Bulworth -- a man who can be, as Halle Berry so tastefully puts it, "my nigga." But he refuses to respect those whom he wants to befriend. At a Martin Luther King Jr. memorial ceremony in Iowa, Dean disrupted the event to get a photo op sitting in the front row. Not satisfied to merely cause a disturbance, Dean then walked onto the stage and began speaking with organizers. After being told he was not scheduled to speak, Dean stormed out of the building and told reporters to "get a new life." Event organizer Donna Graves called Dean's performance "disrespectful."

Dean is still attempting to position himself as champion of the minority cause. After his unimportant primary win in Washington, D.C., Dean bragged that the victory showed strong Dean support in the black community. Wrong. Dean's support in the D.C. primary came primarily from white voters. His victory margin over Sharpton came almost entirely from rich, white Ward 3, where white voters favored Dean 10 to 1 over Sharpton. In Ward 8, which is almost entirely black, Sharpton won 59 percent to 24 percent.

After his Iowa loss, is Dean finished? He's certainly in trouble. Before the primary, Dean's campaign manager, Joe Trippi, said that Dean's strength in Iowa and New Hampshire mattered more than national polls, where Dean was slipping. With Dean's loss in Iowa, and his loss of momentum in New Hampshire, his chances for the nomination seem shockingly weak. Heading down South, where all those un-Vermontian black folk live, might kill his chances once and for all.