Obama, Clinton and the black-brown divide

There was no electioneering allowed at a social justice conference in New Orleans this week, but tough issues were aired anyway.

By Joan Walsh
March 10, 2008 10:47AM (UTC)
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I'd promised to blog from the PolicyLink Summit on Equitable Development, Social Justice and Smart Growth in New Orleans this week, and I am sorry I'm just getting around to it now. Actually, I'm sorry I'm late sharing what I saw, but I'm not sorry I chose talking to great people over writing this week. It was an inspiring event, bringing together more than 1800 community leaders to talk about urban poverty and justice issues in the best case study for how much work still needs to be done: forlorn, depopulated, crime-ridden and yet indomitable, eternal, spectacular New Orleans, two and a half years after Hurricane Katrina.

It was hard not to notice that the optimistic, high-energy multiracial crowd felt a lot like a Barack Obama rally. But the group's non-profit status meant its leaders had to emphatically declare the conference a campaign-free zone this week. It was a little surreal. In private conversations, of course, it was an Obama-friendly crowd, though there were Clinton supporters there, too. But the organization's leaders (full disclosure: I'm on its board) are committed to staying out of anyone's camp, both because of legal restrictions, but also because the group's ultimate goal is elevating the issues of poverty and equitable growth no matter who's the president, including John McCain.


Despite its official neutrality in this historic Democratic presidential race, the summit featured a Friday plenary session on making poverty and racial justice issues central to the presidential race, and it was surprisingly dramatic. Frankly, it could have been a dud: Although the panel included supporters of both Clinton and Obama, they'd pledged to talk issues, not candidates. I was prepared to be bored by careful inoffensive generalities, and even though I know (and support!) the group's legal limits, I worried about a potential missed opportunity for honest conversation about the issues dividing social justice advocates in this campaign season.

But amazingly, some of those issues surfaced nonetheless, most notably the at times exaggerated, at times underplayed "black-brown divide." Moderator Tavis Smiley raised lacerating issues with great skill; he may have been a surgeon in a past life. (Just one example now, more later: When Southwest Voter Education Project director Antonio Gonzalez talked enthusiastically about how adding "new voters," many of them Latino, can change electoral outcomes, Smiley asked "Are you trying to replace me with you?") I winced at some of the exchanges, but the panel was up to the challenge of airing tough issues while also pointing to possibilities for reconciliation.

There were interesting splits having nothing to do with Clinton or Obama; a "hope gap," if you will. Sojourners' Jim Wallis is bullish on a new generation of 20-something evangelicals he compares to the abolitionists of the 19th century; for them, "poverty is the new slavery." The plight of the poor tops the agenda of most religious groups in a whole new way, he said, noting that "the 30,000 children who died today globally [from poverty-related causes] would concern the heart of Jesus more than gay marriage amendments."


Wallis and Antonio Gonzalez both thought the fact that anti-immigrant candidates failed in the presidential race was surprising good news. Many liberal evangelicals back imnmigration reform because "Jesus said 'welcome the stranger,'" Wallis noted, and he added that in this election year, "Jesus won and Lou Dobbs lost." Gonzalez pointed to "the largest growth in black and brown voting in American history, without a doubt," in this presidential election, and argued, "if you change the voters, you change outcomes." The fact that a third of Democratic primary voters in Texas and California were Latinos, he said, forced Clinton and Obama to vie to be the candidate of substantive immigration reform. (I found myself wondering which drove the outcome: Obama and Clinton's fervent attention to immigrant issues, or the historic Latino turnout.)

But on the other side of the hope gap, SEIU 1199's Patrick Gaspard worried that social justice advocates were late organizing for the 2008 race. Gaspard was the national field director for the 2004 group Americans Coming Together, and he said that although many on the left tried to get a jump on this year, "The candidates who are running right now don't have the vocabulary to address these issues. The important work that needed to happen on the ground hasn't happened." SEIU supports Obama, but lest anyone think Gaspard's pessimism was somehow related to the candidate his group backs, the other less happy note was struck by UC-Berkeley's Maria Echeveste, a staunch Clinton supporter. Echeveste focused on issues of class more than race and noted "There is something within the American myth that makes it hard for people to understand they have unity on issues of class, so it's easy to divide us," though she quickly noted race was one of the factors working against class awareness. Echeveste also worried that social equity advocates hadn't settled on budget or policy priorities that could guide the movement no matter which candidate prevailed in November.

Things got fascinating, and a bit tense, when Smiley asked Echeveste and Gonzalez to focus on the so-called black-brown divide. It's worth noting that Smiley has had issues with Obama, most recently when the Illinois senator skipped the media star's annual conference on the state of black America last month, while Clinton made time for it. Smiley suggested that given her Latino support, Clinton might be "the first Latina president," and he told the crowd that Clinton supporter Echeveste is married to UC-Berkeley Law School dean Christopher Edley, who supports Obama, and he asked her point-blank how they do it. Her answer was fascinating:


"We've been having this dialogue, black-brown, from the day we met. We care passionately about finding ways in our own work to try and make America live up to its promise. What I've learned is, the tensions are real, but you can overcome." Echeveste noted that her parents were farmworkers from the fields of Fresno and Ventura, while she wound up working in Bill Clinton's White House, and noted that her experience, like many Latinos, resulted in a fundamental "optimism." But while her husband is the second-generation in his family to go to Harvard Law School, she said, "in so many places he's a black man. It doesn't matter where he went to school. So he sees the glass half-empty, and I see the glass half-full. What we struggle with is how do we both have that optimism, and still understand that there are real reasons poverty has a black face and increasingly a brown face."

Smiley was tougher with Antonio Gonzalez, pointing to Gonzalez's optimism that changing the voters changes outcomes. "Are you trying to move me out of the way and bring in a new electorate? Are you trying to replace me with you?" Gonzalez was just as blunt, and a little bit irritated, as he answered Smiley:


"I spend half of every day on media calls from bonehead reporters: 'Will Latinos vote for blacks?' There can be no more irritating question. We're [the Southwest Voter Education Project], founded based on the [NAACP] Voter Education Project; John Lewis and others, these are our mentors. We've lived through 30 years of building political power that helped elect [black mayors] Tom Bradley, Ron Kirk, Harold Washington, David Dinkins, Lee Brown in Houston and on and on and on. It's really irksome having to answer that question, but here I am answering it again."

Gonzalez then suggested the fifth panelist, California Endowment President Robert Ross, could play a role in healing the black-brown, Obama-Clinton divide once a nominee is picked, by sponsoring a meeting to heal the black-brown divide that's emerged in this race. (Point of personal privilege: I'd ask Ross to invite some white feminist civil rights supporters who've been battered by the Clinton-Obama split to any post-nomination constituency healing session; "black-brown" is not the full spectrum of the infighting). Ross pointed to his own African American and Puerto Rican background, and all but committed to scheduling a "Let's get along" summit.

No, nothing was settled, but I have to say, as a veteran of at least 20 years of meetings like this (although this one was larger, more diverse and better organized than anything I've ever attended): I've never heard such rough stuff voiced in such a large crowd. Smiley and his panel modeled painful honesty, and we're going to need more of it as this election season continues to lurch along. It may turn out that the leaders convened by PolicyLink, with its commitment to nonpartisanship, have a role to play in the post-primary reconciliation discussions that most Democrats know need to happen once a nominee is chosen. I found myself more optimistic in New Orleans that Obama and Clinton supporters can all get along than I've been before -- and also more confident that there are institutions that can help make it happen.


I'll have a few more conference thoughts, and a (brief) interview with New Orleans activist Wendell Pierce, better known as Bunk from "The Wire," tomorrow.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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