Did Race Win the Race for Hillary?

Did Race Win the Race for Hillary?

Does living in mixed communities make people less or more vulnerable to campaigning that plays on ethnic and racial divisions?


In her victory speech last night, Hillary Clinton continued to cast herself as a Rocky figure in Pennsylvania. She told the television cameras that her win in the state was one “for everyone who’s ever been counted out.” Cue the movie’s theme song “Gonna Fly Now,” and cut to the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum.

Clinton did, in fact, do quite well on the home turf of Rocky: the rowhouses of white, working-class South Philadelphia. The Obama campaign office responsible for South Philadelphia covers five wards: two of them predominantly African-American, and three of them historically white, blue-collar strongholds. Obama won by 4-1 in the former, and Clinton won by 3-1 in the latter. The results, there and statewide where Clinton won white voters roughly 60-40 and Obama won black voters nearly 90-10, seem to indicate that balloting by identity politics prevailed. “There was a strong correlation along racial lines,” said Joe Barbiero, an Obama field organizer in South Philadelphia.

The turnout at the polls was mostly white, mostly female and mostly over the age of 45: Clinton’s demographic. The politics of identity seemed to work in her favor, while they hurt Obama. According to exit polls, an equal number of voters–20 percent–said that race or gender helped decide the primary for them. But Clinton’s gender was a positive factor for both men and women who said it contributed to their vote, while Obama’s race was a negative factor among white voters who said it was important to them. They include people like Antoinette, a pharmacy technician and Catholic churchgoer born and raised in South Philadelphia who was undecided but ultimately cast her vote for Hillary. “One thing that I didn’t like was that Obama said ‘typical white people,’ ” she told me.

So race matters. But diversity–white voters living alongside African-American and Asian and Latino voters–also matters. Before last night, Obama had won overwhelmingly white states and those with African-American populations large enough to tilt the race. Meanwhile, Hillary had scored victories in places black enough for race to be injected regularly into the language of politics but not black enough for that group to be decisive. The trend continued in Pennsylvania on Tuesday.

Largely minority Philadelphia voted as a whole for Obama, but he was clobbered in the vast stretch of the state populated by once-upon-a-time coal and steel communities. Obama last night maintained that “we rallied people of every age and race and background to the cause,” soon after giving a shout-out to supporter John “I was born in a small town” Mellencamp. That may have been the case in some instances, but he performed worse in only one county than he did in Luzerne County, anchored by the town of Hazleton. The town has seen both diversity and its backlash in recent years, with an infamously polarizing immigration ordinance that set Dominican and Puerto Rican newcomers against the white descendants of the Irish, Italian and German coal miners who built the town. Does living in mixed communities make people less or more vulnerable to campaigning that plays on ethnic and racial divisions? The South Philly ward that’s home to Geno’s Steaks–the cheesesteak joint that posted signs at its takeout window reading, “This is AMERICA. WHEN ORDERING, please ‘SPEAK ENGLISH’ “–is its most diverse and divided. Obama won 36 percent of the vote there–only slightly better than he did in South Philly’s other majority white ethnic neighborhoods. The numbers from Luzerne County are even harder to ignore: Obama won only 25 percent of the vote, his second-worst showing statewide.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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