By Cheo Tyehimba


There’s a showdown a-coming and it’s so much bigger than an election to determine the next democratic nominee for president of the United States. It could very well provide a good barometer of complex social issues revolving around race and gender in the United States. To really understand it, we have to go back. More than a decade ago, before anyone had heard the name Barack Obama, a shrewd governor from Arkansas named Bill Clinton appeared on the national scene. He immediately realized he had something uniquely different than the other candidates vying to be the democratic nominee for president in 1992. Bill liked black people.

So when was the precise moment Clinton launched his unofficial “I Love Black People” campaign? Travel back with me to the evening of June 3, 1992. A young Clinton wearing black “Blues Brothers-style” shades, walked onto the stage on The Arsenio Hall Show and did his best Clarence Clemons (from Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band)-channeling-Elvis-impersonation. And yes, he even played Elvis’ Heartbreak Hotel.

Thinking back, the question arises: Why an Elvis song? The song selection was no accident (nothing ever is in politics). Perhaps, it was because “The King” was, and still remains the unofficial ambassador for every Caucasian with a hidden (or public) desire to be like a Black man.

Here was a white candidate for president who appealed to African Americans as much for his political views as for his cultural tastes. Like Elvis, he was a good old boy from the South who grew up exposed to black culture and life. Was he really a friend of blackfolk? Proabably less than most black people realize. But judging by some of his actions during his presidency — namely, the appointing of African Americans to positions in his cabinet, he did more than some of his predessors. But when Toni Morrison facectiously donned him America’s “First Black President” he undoubtedly beleived he hit pay dirt. Here was one of the greatest Black writers of our time endorsing Clinton’s figurative “blackface” presidency. Whether or not Morrison’s blasphemous comment was to be taken seriously (it shouldn’t have been), it gained currency in the Black community. Clinton’s credibility as a friend of people of African descent went through the roof and he suddenly got “a pass,” beguiling black voters and others with his charm while taking the Black vote for granted during his second term.

Enter Hilary Rodham Clinton. As First Lady she definitely got involved with presidential politics, working to no avail to try to get her plan for universal health care on the congressional agenda. And of course, she stood by her husband during his adultry scandals and perjury impeachment. But was she, herself, a “friend of black people?” Did any of her planned policies directly benefit African Americans? Or does she too get a “pass” because of her husband? Do either of them really know what it feels like to be a person of African descent, in even the smallest of degrees where it matters to their constituients? You don’t have to be a Beltway Insider to be familiar with the Clintons’ adeptness at racial politics. As advocates to issues important to people of color, this election has them putting a whole new spin on “playing the race card.”

Now as Hilary goes head-to-head with Senator Barack Obama, America faces a historical political litmus test: Will the Black vote go to a white woman candidate who “likes black people” or to a candidate who is actually “Black” and judging by his life and track-record (read his first book), someone who is obviously committed to social and economic policies that benefit people of African descent?

Or to put it in the vernacular of the now-passe Sixties-era Black Power Movement: Are blackfolks content to stay on the “Clinton Plantation” or take a chance and runaway to the “land of freedom?” Despite the out-datedness of this oversimplified thinking for these post-Civil Rights, Black upper middle-class capitalist times, odds are this is still the unspoken question on the minds of many.

So don’t blink. More than any other time in history, the concept of “Black unity” is being tested right now. After looking under the hood and kicking the tires of both candidates and finding everything else about them is pretty much equal (intelligence, experience, ethics, etc.) will we vote for someone who is a friend or someone who is family?


Note: This over-simplified, metaphorical query should be regarded lightly. It in no way, reduces the candidate’s serious stances on the important 2008 political issues (even though as democrats, they pretty much share the same views); it only represents ONE question from the many that will be on the minds of Black voters come Super Tuesday.