by Josh Frank
November 3, 2003
"I saw cotton and I saw black
Tall white mansions and little shacks
Southern man when will you pay them back?
I heard screamin' and bullwhips cracking
How long? How long?"
-- Neil Young, Southern Man
On most college campuses across America, presidential hopeful Howard Dean has strong followings. His campaign calls it “grassroots,” where the Internet and college communities continue to play a central role in garnering money and volunteers for his upbeat campaign. But how diverse is Dean’s following? And how grassroots is his campaign? If you’ve ever been to a Dean rally, you probably noticed how disproportionately young and white his patrons are. It is a sign that not all Democrats have access or time to surf Dean's popular “BlogForAmerica” website, let alone attend his little nationwide hootenannies or Meet-Up events.
Just references have been made between Howard Dean and Eugene McCarthy -- who in 1968 lost the Democratic Primaries because his predominately “white” anti-war following couldn’t reach out to black voters in the South. And Howard Dean may be on the same crash course as old Gene.
Dean’s home state of Vermont is one of the least diverse states in America, with a black population of only 0.5%. In attempts (or non-attempts) to reach out to black voters, Dean has failed miserably. Most of his campaign's time and money has been spent in Iowa and New Hampshire, where Dean has spoken little about black or minority concerns.
In a Democratic Primary debate held on September 9th, Ed Gordon of Black Entertainment Television (BET) asked Dean directly, “Frankly, there's been some concern that because of the racial makeup of Vermont … that you'll have a difficult time connecting and really understanding the concerns of minorities, in particular, African-Americans. Is this valid? “
Dean’s reaction was long and muddled, but he ended by saying, "I'm the only white politician that ever talks about race in front of white audiences. Black folks have heard lectures from politicians for a long time. We always talk about race. White folks need to talk to white people in America about race."
Then Dean should start chatting with folks he hopes to bring to his camp.
On October 30th, in a phone interview with the Des Moines Register, Dean said he “want[s] to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.” Maybe Dean is the one that needs a little lesson in race relations. Tossing around such hurtful and loaded symbolism is hardly the way to “talk to white people in America about race.” Then again, since “black folks have heard lectures” from white politicians for a long time -- Dean won't be including them in any upcoming "racial" discussion.
His comment in the Des Moines Register came only two days after Rev. Al Sharpton called Dean’s platform, “anti-black.” Sharpton said he was very “disturbed” by Dean’s remarks dealing with the Confederate flag. "If I said I wanted to be the candidate for people that ride around with helmets and swastikas,” Sharpton said, “I would be asked to leave [the Democratic Party].”
This may truly be the turning point in Dean's bid for the White House. Not that he’ll be asked to leave his Party, but if Dean’s campaign is unable to secure black votes, he will end up losing key Primary states like South Carolina and Virginia. Black Democrats in these states are essential “swing voters” in the Primaries, and no half-witted Democrat would ever ignore them. In Bill Clinton’s first Presidential bid, he craftily gained ground in these very states by pandering to the black vote. It was a decisive moment in Clinton's campaign.
Dean has a tough case to prove that “Confederate flag” waving Southerners are even registered to vote Democrat in the upcoming Primaries.
Some may also view Dean’s comment as blatant racism; it surely lends credence to Sharpton’s “anti-black” label. But instead of apologizing after fellow Democrats criticized his ludicrous statement, Dean dug himself deeper by defending his off cuffed remark: “For my Democratic opponents to sink to this level is really tragic," he said.
However, the only thing "tragic," seems to be Dean himself. A small group of black citizens in Vermont is starting to speak out against the governor’s old policies. Many are noting Dean’s administration supported excess police force toward blacks, and disregarded many black defendant rights by overly supporting prosecutors instead. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has yet to release their official scorecard on Dean’s Vermont record, but rumor has it that the ACLU handled a disproportionate number of “race” cases in Vermont while Dean was governor.
“Although this state is very socially accepting of us,” one black Vermont resident told me, “the police force and the judicial system is outright racist. I’ve lived in many Southern states and I’ve never experienced anything like this. I’m not at all surprised at his (Dean’s) recent comments.”
Indeed if Dean plans to win his Party’s nomination, he better learn how to keep his mouth shut before he starts churning out what some claim to be, his “real agenda.” Now that Dean is in the lead, white college kids and Internet savvy "liberals" across the United States are not going to make much of a difference in his bid for the White House. Instead that difference will be measured by the marginal minority groups Dean has proudly turned his back on. And If Dean continues to mirror his campaign after Eugene McCarthy’s run back in 1968 -- he is setting himself up for sure failure. Somebody should tell Dean that hopping in the back of a redneck's truck ain't the best way to hitch a ride to DC.
Josh Frank is a writer and activist living in New York City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.