Of all the recent race-based attacks on Obama, there are two that strike me as being of vital importance to the Clinton strategy, which has two parts.

The first is Andrew Young’s assertion that, as William Jelani Cobb put it, race can be transferred “like an STD”.

Young also quipped that “Bill is every bit as black as Barack.” “He’s probably gone with more black women than Barack,” Young said of former President Clinton, drawing laughs from a live television audience. Young quickly followed the comment with the disclaimer, “I’m clowning.”

The second is Bob Johnson’s assertion that Obama is like Sidney Poitier as a black doctor being attempting to win over his white fiance’s parents in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner:

Johnson went on: “That kind of campaign behavior does not resonate with me, for a guy who says, ‘I want to be a reasonable, likable, Sidney Poitier ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.’ And I’m thinking, I’m thinking to myself, ‘This ain’t a movie, Sidney. This is real life.’”

I wrote that the point of that insult is that Obama is a House Negro, a sellout. I know that for many of you, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner is before your time, so I’m going to let Baldwin explain why the comparison is unflattering.

The Setting of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is the key. We are on the heights of San Francisco–at a time not too far removed from the moment when the city of San Francisco reclaimed the land at Hunter’s Point and urban-renewalized the niggers out of it. The difficult and terrified city, where the niggers are, lives far beneath these heights. The father is in a perfectly respectable, perhaps even admirable profession, and the mother runs an art gallery. The setting is a brilliant recreation of a certain–and far from unnattractive–level of American life, And the black doctor is saying, among other things, that his presence in this landscape, (this hard-won Eden) will do nothing to threaten or defile it–indeed, since tin the event that he marries the girl, they are immediately going to the Far East, or some such place, and he will not be present.

See? This is a character who has been written from the perspective of being as inoffensive to white viewers as possible–so much so that he is willing to leave the hemisphere in order to prevent white people from feeling uncomfortable about his marriage to a white woman.

But both of these are more than just accusations that Obama, on some level is a sellout, both Young and Johnson are calling Obama an Oreo; for the uninitiated, the epithet means that Obama is black on the outside and white on the inside. I wrote while guest blogging at Carpetbagger that:

In my experience, people are called ‘white’ not for being intelligent, articulate, or for getting good grades, but for expressing a set of priorities contrary to black advancement.

This it the framework in which Johnson and Young are attacking Obama.

What this sets up of course, is the idea that Obama doesn’t have the “best interests of his people in mind”. This is a criticism white people, especially white conservatives, like to level at black activists like Al Sharpton. The reason is that it allows the speaker to retain a certain rhetorical advantage: On the one hand, it allows him to make racialized critiques of a black figure, on the other, it allows the speaker to lend the impression that he is making the critique because he actually cares about what happens to black people.

While it is currently black Clinton surrogates who are doing the heavy lifting, eventually the “Obama is a sellout” meme will become so common that white people will have no problem making the same kind of assertions. Obama’s run for president in itself will become a kind of selling out; a metaphor for his ambition trumping his commitment to the community. If he really cared, they’ll say, he’d still be a community organizer in Chicago.

All of which has the “unintended” side effect of keeping the nigger in his place, which is with other niggers, not in the White House. White people, you will notice, never have obligations not to “sell-out” their people, because they see themselves as individuals. We don’t have that freedom yet.

The other side advantage to the Oreo/House Negro assault is that there is no easy rhetorical comeback. What is Obama supposed to say, that he’s not white? For white people, it will beg the question, “What’s wrong with being white?” Suddenly, Barack Obama, the word of American racial redemption made flesh, becomes Barack Obama, black man running for president.

The second part of the Clinton attack is making it seem like these racialized comments, to which the Obama campaign has barely responded, come from the Obama camp and not the Clinton camp.

First there was Clinton herself:

“I’m particularly offended at the way some have taken out of context and apparently deliberately tried to mislead others about what was said,” said Clinton inside a local Mexican restaurant in Reno. Clinton called the attacks “baseless and divisive.” She went on to say that she was “personally offended at the apporach taken that was not only misleading but unecessarily hurtful.”

“It clearly came from Senator Obama’s campaign and I don’t think it is the kind of debate that we should be having in our campaign.”

Of course, as should be obvious from Bob Johnson’s recent statement, this is exactly the kind of debate that the Clinton Campaign wants to have.

Still, we have Geraldine Ferraro telling white folks that shiftless, hustling Negro from Chicago is trying to bamboozle you!

“As soon anybody from the Clinton campaign opens their mouth in a way that could make it seem as if they were talking about race, it will be distorted,” Mrs. Ferraro said. “The spin will be put on it that they are talking about race. The Obama campaign is appealing to their base and their base is the African-American community. What they are trying to do is move voters from Clinton by distorting things. What have they got to lose?”

Ferraro, by stating that Obama’s base is “the African-American community” rather than the healthy cross section of Democratic voters whom he has to win over to get the nomination, helps to further establish Obama as a polarizing black figure in the vein of Al Sharpton.

The intended irony is that the Obama campaign has everything to lose from this conversation, and the Clinton campaign has everything to gain. The idea behind the racialized attacks is not to mobilize black voters against Obama. They know that we get it. The idea is to convince white voters that Obama is the kind of person who will play the race card at the first opportunity, and to demoralize black voters who question whether Obama can win. Once white people start turning on Obama, black people may give up hope and either not vote or vote for their second choice, who is probably Hillary Clinton.

This is 2008. This is the America we are living in.

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