[Op Ed] Race and Loathing in South Carolina Presidential Primaries

“We view race as an intrusion in politics instead of race being central to it …”
–Taylor Branch

That assertion from the celebrated civil rights movement chronicler aptly characterizes both the GOP and Democratic primaries in South Carolina. Leading up to the March 1 “Super Tuesday” contests–a multistate delegate grabfest–last week’s GOP primary within the state and this Saturday’s Democratic slugfest between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders demonstrate why stakes are so high–and the pivotal role of race.

For instance, Clinton and Sanders have openly wooed the black vote, seeking to prove their racial bona fides while acquiring influential surrogates: Some like Rep. James Clyburn, the powerful dean of the South Carolina Democratic Party, argue that Clinton‘s depth of experience is unsurpassed while others such as controversial director Spike Lee proclaims “my brother Bernie Sanders will do the right thing.”

[Related: B.E. Political Dictionary: Super Tuesday]

Known for its rough-and-tumble politics, the critical GOP and Democratic presidential primaries, respectively, reveal two sides of racial politics. Historically, it has been used in some primaries as a tool to repel white voters and derail campaigns. In other cases, presidential candidates have openly courted black voters to gain political advantage.

Let’s take a GOP case study: During the primary in 2000, a whisper campaign was initiated in which Sen. John McCain was accused of illegitimately fathering a black child, who was, in fact, the daughter he and his wife adopted from Bangladesh. The move siphoned white votes, scuttled McCain’s campaign and left the door open for George W. Bush to seize the nomination. It has been nine months since the horrific shooting that took the lives of nine African American congregants of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church–one of the oldest such institutions known as “Mother Emanuel”–rocked Charleston. The tragedy, in which an avowed white supremacist allegedly pulled the trigger, sent shock waves through the state and eventually led to the removal of the Confederate flag from the statehouse.

Last Saturday when Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio gave his victory speech for his second-place showing in the South Carolina primary, he hailed the GOP’s Benetton ad-style diversity, appearing with Nikki Haley, the state’s Indian-American governor who actively pushed for removal of the Confederate flag months earlier, and Tim Scott, the state’s first black U.S. senator. This political mosaic may have been found on stage but not among the GOP electorate: 96% of the voters were white versus 1% of African Americans.

For all the GOP’s talk about aggressively seeking to attract African American voters, its outreach has been pretty lame. What has given many African Americans pause has been divisive campaigns from the party front-runners that serve as breeding grounds for xenophobia and racial intolerance.

Take Donald Trump, the dominant force in the GOP’s sweepstakes that crushed the competition in last week’s South Carolina contest. Polling data found that a good number of his supporters would like to see a return to the antebellum South. In a recent YouGov/Economist poll, nearly one in five Trump supporters don’t approve of the emancipation of slaves in the Confederacy. And according to Public Policy Polling, 70% of Trump’s South Carolina primary voters advocate for the Confederate battle flag to still fly at the state capitol. This is the prevailing attitude among a phalanx of Trump voters more than 155 years after South Carolina began the Civil War by becoming the first state to cede from the Union.

Another fact of political history: Since 1980, only one GOP candidate who won the South Carolina primary–Newt Gingrich in 2012–has not become the party’s presidential nominee. This is a scary proposition this year for many inside and outside of the party.

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