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Race as a state of mind

It’s one apparent step up and one apparent step back in the politics of skin color.

That was demonstrated Tuesday in the primaries from Alabama, where elections often provide interest if sometimes in the way of a wreck on the highway.

Maybe all of this got started when author Toni Morrison called Bill Clinton our first black president and the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame inducted Clinton, who remains today the lightest-skinned person, by far, so enshrined.

Actually, we might go back to the 1980s, when, as governor of Arkansas, Clinton kept a promise to put a black person on every state board by naming Rodney Slater, later to become federal transportation secretary, to the state highway commission.

A leading black civil rights lawyer in Little Rock proclaimed that, by naming Slater, Clinton still had not kept his promise to appoint a black person.

Slater, his dark skin notwithstanding, was white to this civil rights lawyer.

It’s a step up that we look past actual skin color this way. It reminds us — if only a little — of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of an America where one wouldn’t be judged on that bigoted basis.

It’s a step back, though, that some cling to racial definition and identification in our politics, even to the point of stereotyping candidates racially by their political style, essence, philosophy, state of mind and positions on issues.

Confused? Join the crowd.

Here’s what happened in Alabama:

An African-American congressman, Artur Davis, sought the Democratic gubernatorial nomination and was proclaimed the favorite on the assessment that the large African-American contingent in an Alabama Democratic primary would thrust him to victory.

But Davis had voted against health care reform in Congress and pursued a generally moderate political track. He was transcending any stereotype of race, you might say.

So he got flanked on the left by a white Democratic gubernatorial primary opponent who, by being to Davis’ left, and without regard for his whiteness, won the endorsements of state civil rights groups.

Then, at a Congressional Black Caucus event in Washington, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who never seems to go away no matter how much you wish he would, said this: “We even have blacks voting against the health care bill from Alabama. You can’t vote against health care and call yourself a black man.”

Davis also was conspicuous in the black caucus in opposing cap-and-trade legislation. But Jackson didn’t mention that. Apparently one can be non-liberal on climate change and remain a person of color, if one is otherwise of color, that is.

So Davis was defeated soundly Tuesday by the white man flanking his left. It seems evident that a lot of Alabama black people voted against a black-skinned candidate and for a white-skinned one.

It’s good — isn’t it? — that these voters transcended skin color. But it’s bad — isn’t it? — that some people persist in applying stereotypes by race, even if disregarding actual skin color and basing those stereotypes on positions on issues.

But wait: Clinton was, like Davis, a moderate. Yet he’s in the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.

Is that because he tried, at least, on health care?

But Hillary actually is the one who did that. Yet no one called her black in her battle with Barack Obama, who started his presidential campaign amid charges that he wasn’t black enough. But he seemed to rectify the pigmentation deficiency by the time of the South Carolina primary, when Bill Clinton was being called a race-baiter.

Alas, I am now dizzy.

Maybe the appropriate conclusion is simple:

We should celebrate the color-blind voting of black people in Alabama.

We should invite Jesse Jackson to shut up.

We should stop trying to figure out Bill Clinton.

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of “High Wire,” a book about Bill Clinton’s first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.

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