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Commentary: Voters not swayed by racial politics

  • Story Highlights
  • Bill Clinton's comments on race backfired in South Carolina, Martin says
  • Former president has used race in the past when it suited him, Martin says
  • Martin: Voters told Clintons that political games of the past should remain there
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By Roland S. Martin
CNN Contributor
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(CNN) -- Even as voters in South Carolina headed to the polls Saturday to deliver a beat down to Sen. Hillary Clinton for Sen. Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton continued to stoke the racial fire, hoping an ember would ignite his wife's campaign and lead it to victory.

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Roland S. Martin: Former President Bill Clinton's race-baiting failed in South Carolina.

As reported on Jake Tapper's ABCNews.com blog, at a stop in Columbia, South Carolina, the former president was asked to respond to Obama's comment that it "took two people to beat him."

Instead of answering the question, he said, "Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in '84 and '88. Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here."

Tapper said no one asked about Jackson. His name never came up. Yet Clinton had no problem invoking it.

Isn't the reason obvious?

The ridiculously called first black president didn't mention his win in 1992. Or that of Vice President Al Gore in 2000, or even then-Sen. John Edwards' win in 2004. He decided to bypass all of these gents and link Obama with Jackson, who is beloved in black America but stirs hatred among many whites.

I'm sure some of you are saying, "Oh, Roland. Stop reading race into everything!"

But what we've all learned over the years is that race is a hot commodity, and has been used effectively by all kinds of candidates to stir people up along racial lines. Since Richard Nixon implemented the "Southern strategy" in 1968, which was intended to get Southern whites to side with the GOP due to their anger at the Democrats for passing civil rights legislation, it has been a staple of American politics, especially down South.

It has largely been used by the Republicans over the years, and Democrats have always blasted it as race-baiting.

So the idea that a former president -- a beloved Democrat, especially among African-Americans -- would do such a thing to help his wife was considered nonsense. During CNN's coverage Saturday night of the South Carolina Democratic primary, commentator Carl Bernstein called it "unthinkable."

But it really isn't. Clinton has used race when it suited him over the years. (Check out Rep. Jesse Jackson's book, "A More Perfect Union," where it's covered over six pages.) And a top adviser to the campaign of Sen. Hillary Clinton admitted to Ron Fournier of The Associated Press in a report published Friday that it was the campaign's intent to turn Obama, who has deftly avoided the race issue, into "the black candidate."

Based on the results in South Carolina, it backfired badly.

The jury is still out as to whether it hurts him in the nearly two dozen-state February 5 contest, but what the voters in South Carolina made clear is that they won't reward candidates who play the race card.

And basking in the glow of a 28-point win, and winning more votes than Clinton and Edwards combined, Obama stressed his inclusive campaign during his victory speech.

"What we've seen in these last weeks is that we're also up against forces that are not the fault of any one campaign, but feed the habits that prevent us from being who we want to be as a nation," he said.

"It's the politics that uses religion as a wedge, and patriotism as a bludgeon. A politics that tells us that we have to think, act, and even vote within the confines of the categories that supposedly define us. The assumption that young people are apathetic. The assumption that Republicans won't cross over. The assumption that the wealthy care nothing for the poor, and that the poor don't vote. The assumption that African-Americans can't support the white candidate; whites can't support the African-American candidate; blacks and Latinos can't come together.

"But we are here tonight to say that this is not the America we believe in. I did not travel around this state over the last year and see a white South Carolina or a black South Carolina. I saw South Carolina. I saw crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children. I saw shuttered mills and homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from all walks of life, and men and women of every color and creed who serve together, and fight together, and bleed together under the same proud flag. I saw what America is, and I believe in what this country can be."

Sure, Obama received one-fourth of the white vote, and won an overwhelming percentage of the black vote. But when you look at those white voters, he really scored well among those 18-29. This is the generation that grew up with hip-hop, who are less likely to be hung up about race.

They don't respond to racial appeals because they didn't know Jim Crow. They don't have any understanding of busing. If you say white flight they'll look at you with a quizzical look. Bottom line: America has tired of playing the race game, and is increasingly looking for people who see others for who they are, and not their little niche. Obama isn't even nave to believe that racism will dissipate if he's president. He told me that after his win in Iowa.

But at least last night, in the state where the first shot was fired nearly 150 years to kick off the Civil War, the voters of South Carolina told their fellow southerner, Bill Clinton, and his wife, Sen. Clinton, that the tired political games of the past should remain there. Then, and only then, can we recognize one another as what we truly are: Americans.

Roland S. Martin is a national award-winning journalist and CNN contributor. Martin is studying for his master's degree in Christian communications at Louisiana Baptist University, and he's the author of "Listening to the Spirit Within: 50 Perspectives on Faith." You can read more of his columns at www.rolandsmartin.com/.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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