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December 14, 2007

Bill Moyers talks with Dr. Ronald Walters

BILL MOYERS: You've been talking all week, you and just about everyone else, about Oprah and Obama and the impact on the presidential race. That's our subject now with a man who's been there, done that. Ron Walters was a key figure in the two campaigns Jesse Jackson ran for the Democratic nomination back in the 1980s. He's a scholar as well as an activist. And he's written eight books including these: Black Presidential Politics in America and Freedom Is Not Enough: Black Voters, Black Candidates, and American Presidential Politics. Right now he directs the African American Leadership Center at the University of Maryland, where, as a distinguished scholar himself, he teaches government and politics. Good to have you.

RONALD WALTERS: Good to be with you.

BILL MOYERS: Here we are with the first campaign ever between a woman and a black man who has a chance of victory. Did you ever imagine that?

RONALD WALTERS: No. As a matter of fact I had that question a lot since the Jackson campaign. Would we ever have a black person for the president of United States? And I didn't quite see how, almost-- when Colin Powell in the 1990s, you remember that was widely touted to be a person that-- of color who could be president of the United States. But it's hard for a black person, I think, really to get there.

BILL MOYERS: Obama's running, you know, ahead of Hillary Clinton in Iowa and neck and neck in New Hampshire. Did you ever imagine that when the first black man did get a real shot at it, he'd be up against the first woman?

RONALD WALTERS: No. And I think he's really gone beyond the public opinion polls because he's built a very significant presidential infrastructure. So when you begin to make evaluations about whether or not a person can go all the way, go beyond the polls and see what's on the ground, he has a lot on the ground in terms of money, organizations, and so forth and so on. And yet he's running against a woman, which is also very improbable. You never thought that you would have both of these improbabilities on the scene at the same time.

BILL MOYERS: You know, there's an old saying in politics that if you want to know how an administration will look, you look at the people who-- with whom the candidate has surrounded himself or herself in the campaign. And what's interesting to me is that Hillary Clinton has, by far, the most racial diversity on her staff. About 20 percent African American, 15 percent Latino, and about 25 percent Asian. Bill Richardson is second. Obama is third with about 58 percent white, 35 percent black, and seven percent Latino. What do you make of those numbers?

RONALD WALTERS: Well, I think Hillary Clinton really benefits from her relationship with the people who came out of the Jackson campaign. One of the things the Jackson campaign did was to provide training at the presidential level, experience, for a whole generation of young people who went on into the Clinton administration who became active in his second campaign and then his second White House. And Hillary, therefore, inherits some of those people.

RONALD WALTERS: But I think what Obama wanted to do was to build a new team. He's been talking a lot about generation, generational issues. And he does have a very close relationship with Jesse Jackson, Jr. So to that extent, I think in some ways he has severed his ties with the old politicians. But in another way, I think what he's trying to do is to neutralize the issues of race.

BILL MOYERS: Neutralize? How do you neutralize race in America?

RONALD WALTERS: Well, I think he has tried to not draw attention to it. Maybe that's a better way of putting it. Because when you look at where his campaign came from-- in the middle of the electorate-- predominantly white in terms of his base. Jesse Jackson, his campaign came middle of the black community, at the margins of the electorate. So Jesse Jackson starts out with a very different politic than Barack Obama. Barack Obama has to maintain that middle. And, therefore, he has to marginalize, to a great extent, very hot button racial issues.

BILL MOYERS: How so? Give me some examples.

RONALD WALTERS: Well-- when we first had the Katrina explosion, Barack Obama said that, well, this is not really a question of the president not responding because of race. It's incompetence. The response of his to the question of the Jena Six in Louisiana was that this is not a question of race. You know, this is a question of the criminal justice system gone awry. And when he announced-- he did not ask his own minister to come to the announcement. This is one of the most powerful black ministers and churches in the country.

BILL MOYERS: Dr. Wright?

RONALD WALTERS: That's right. Reverand Jeremiah Wright.




RONALD WALTERS: Well, I think his campaign has said that we have to continue to develop our base in the white community. We have, therefore, to continue to make them comfortable with the idea of your candidacy. We can't do that if we're going to bring up these hot button racial issues. And that's one of the reasons why you have not seen him in any of the Jena demonstrations. You didn't see him in the one that Reverend Sharpton had at the Justice Department. You've not seen him at any of these venues where African Americans have been raising these tremendous questions about treatment in the middle of this campaign season.

BILL MOYERS: But that's the burden, isn't it? I mean, if he wants to move beyond and get a large middle-class vote, he also has to bring the black vote with him because no Democrat can win without a heavy turnout among the black community. So he's sort of caught, isn't he, between the whiplash of new politics and old constituency politics.

RONALD WALTERS: You have described it exactly. He has this dance, I call it-- between, on the one hand his powerful constituency with whites in this country, and on the other blacks that he has to have-- he has to be credible in both communities. He even has to be credible with blacks for some whites to think that he is an appropriate candidate.


RONALD WALTERS: Because we have a lot of liberal whites in this country who would be suspicious of a black person who didn't have any credibility in his own community.

BILL MOYERS: Well, I noticed that a lot of progressives are unhappy that Oprah's endorsement has taken the spotlight off of Edwards, who has been the white candidate speaking the most consistently to issues that concern the inner city and other black issues, right?

RONALD WALTERS: And that's interesting because John Edwards has really posed a very stark contrast. Because you would think that the African American candidate ought to be raising these issues. And yet the person who's raising them is John Edwards.

BILL MOYERS: Help me to understand this. Hillary Clinton has had a strong traditional support in the black constituency. Just recently, a number of black ministers in South Carolina have endorsed her. And the surprising thing to me is, that given Obama's in the race, that the Black Congressional Caucus recently divided 15 to 12 in support of Hillary Clinton. What's going on there?

RONALD WALTERS: Well, what's going on really is the fact that it's kind of-- we're going to dance with the devil we know. And-- and-- and-

BILL MOYERS: I'm not sure she would appreciate that.

RONALD WALTERS: Well, this devil's been on the scene for 15 years. The Clintons have been in the lives of African Americans. And here is the first black president, of course, you know, who has maintained ties. That's ridiculous proposition but I cite it anyway to make the point that there is a confidence in the kind of administration that the Clintons will run. Because there is-- blacks have benefited from that before. You can't sort of throw that experience out. So blacks are challenged with either going with something that they think they know or going with something that's totally new that they're not quite sure about yet. And they're not quite sure about it because they're not quite sure about Barack Obama. And they don't hear sort of a call of their issues frequently enough in his campaign.

BILL MOYERS: What’s he not talking about that concerns them?

RONALD WALTERS: Some of the very hot button issues. For example, he has issued statements on the Jena Six, but he's not been there. Housing foreclosures going on all across the country-- hitting blacks the hardest, we don't hear that in this campaign. We don't hear a lot of things about the fact that what we've got now is half of everybody who is locked up in America is black. We ought to hear something about the fact that a million blacks are in jail right now.

BILL MOYERS: In fact, I read this the other day, Dr. Walters, that in Iowa, which is we think of as an essentially white state, blacks are arrested about13 1/2 times more frequently than whites.

RONALD WALTERS: And you don't hear that.

BILL MOYERS: He's not talking about that out there?

RONALD WALTERS: No, he's not talking about that. That's what I meant by sort of- --marginalizing and neutralizing racial issues.

BILL MOYERS: You know, I saw an NPR Pew poll that said the black community's really more fractured than it's ever been. That only 53 percent, that's just a slim majority, only 53 percent of blacks identify themselves as members of a single race. Thirty-seven percent said they were not members of a single race. And ten percent were confused about it. In other words, blacks are saying we are not a homogenous community, not in values, not in politics, not in anything else.

RONALD WALTERS: We have never been homogenous. I stand here as somebody who looks black but has an Irish great-great-grandmother. And that's in the-- I would imagine the life of most African Americans. So this is simply a way of being honest about sort of the biological makeup of most people. It doesn't say very much about values. I disagree with that. Because when you look at how people behave and you ask questions about what they believe in, a recent Joint Center poll indicated very high consensus among black community on major issues. And so black people not only think in terms of their perspective on many of these issues very much alike, but when it comes to how they mobilize themselves politically. Look at the period between 1960 and 2004. And 85 percent of them voted for one party. How much more consensus could you have than that?

BILL MOYERS: And yet before that, you know, I grew up in the South where most of the blacks I knew, they leaned toward the Republicans because the Republicans had historically been on the right side of-

RONALD WALTERS: That's right.

BILL MOYERS: --of racial issues in the South. And the Democrats had been the party of segregation. And then all of a sudden, with Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement suddenly the whole field transformed. Are we going through another period of transformation like that now with, say, Oprah's endorsement of Barack Obama, which some people say is transforming the metaphor?

RONALD WALTERS: It's hard to know because lurking in the background of all of this is a very emotional issue of the war. The war-


RONALD WALTERS: Yeah. We don't know what will happen when that war goes away because you could argue that the war really has fueled a great deal of the emergence of Barack Obama. His story was compelling. You look at his first book, The Audacity of Hope. And his second one equally compelling. But what-- really I think thrusts him into the glare of politics was his anti-war position and the mood of Americans which says, "We want it over and we don't have a candidate." And when you look at the Democrats who have presented themselves, they were relatively moderate on that issue. He stood out because he says it never should have happened in the first place-- "And I've got a way to bring it to a close." That galvanized not only whites but blacks around him. And I think that it-- we might make a mistake to read too much into the fact that he is black and forget about these very highly-charged, emotional issues which we are dealing with right now, which is this war.

BILL MOYERS: You know, Oprah had come-- had said some strong things last weekend about the war. RON WALTERS: The American people are sick of this war. And they're trying to look for a politician that has the guts actually to try to bring it to a close. So that I-- that's why I was saying we have to be careful about how we look at this. Because once that goes away, I think that we might just go back to looking at issues of race and politics as we have in the past.

BILL MOYERS: Conservative pundits are saying this week that Oprah is a woman who doesn't constantly put her race ahead of her gender. She's, in fact, an icon, I think you would say, to women of all races. What message does it send that this very powerful woman is not endorsing the first woman running for president?

RONALD WALTERS: I think it's very significant because Oprah really emerged as someone who could talk to white women and deal with the issues that face them in terms of their pain and their family problems and other kinds of issues. You go to her website and it's very clear, you know, what she has been able to do.

BILL MOYERS: And she's an icon to white women as well as others.

RONALD WALTERS: No question. It's really marvelous. More so than I think anybody else. But in this case what she's saying is that "I have an opportunity here because this guys sort of lines up with me in many ways. His constituency is the same as mine."


RONALD WALTERS: I looked at this spectacle the other day of Michelle and Oprah and Barack-- three black people in front of this sea of white faces in Iowa. I said, "That's amazing." But when you look at who they are they don't, for example, take very strong issues having to do with race. They have made part of the professional and their political life dealing with the problems of whites. They are trusted in those communities. And, therefore, they have a right to be there. That's historically important.

BILL MOYERS: You know, I was struck by something. I haven't seen much comment on this. But I was struck-- I heard Oprah tell that very audience, a mostly white audience, as you say, that, quote, "I voted for as many Republicans as I have Democrats."

RONALD WALTERS: That's right.

BILL MOYERS: What do you make of that?

RONALD WALTERS: She is a businesswoman at the end of the day. And in that culture I'm not surprised at all that she has voted for a number of Republicans. I think that like many people who are in that culture, she has had to be politically conservative in order to do what she's done.

BILL MOYERS: There's a black progressive site. It's called And I went to it this morning. And the editor of that site took both Obama and Oprah to task and I'm quoting for a three-state weekend extravaganza of vapid, substance-devoid entertaining posing as presidential politics. I mean, he goes on to say political theater has devolved to theater without politics. Do you agree with that?

RONALD WALTERS: Yes. I agree with that.


RONALD WALTERS: I do because the presidential election is seen as an opportunity-- for African Americans to insert other issues into the political system. And there is this pain of not being able to do so directly. And that's one of the reasons why black presidential candidates have arisen, to talk to the American people directly. But when you don't have one-- that does that-- then what people are asking you to do is to take what they're giving you on faith, that they will then insert your issues into public policy. That is the dance of black politics this time, to try to turn the candidates around so that they can pay attention to the pain, the suffering, the desires of the black community. And to the extent that they're able to do so, they're-- effective. But they have not been able, I think in this election season, to do it yet.

BILL MOYERS: If you were poor and living in the inner city, what message would you have taken away from the Obama-Oprah weekend?

RONALD WALTERS: Not very much. Because you-- again, you don't hear much discussion about poverty. John Edwards-

BILL MOYERS: He's the only one.

RONALD WALTERS: The only one who's called-

BILL MOYERS: Well, Kucinich and-


RONALD WALTERS: Yeah, but of the major candidates, he's the only one who's talking about alleviating poverty. He's the only one, even though Barack Obama has issued an urban policy, he doesn't really talk about it. And that's what I mean by inserting those issues into the political dialogue so that you're educating the American people about what's happening at the same time. So, yes, if I were in that situation and looked at what people were saying, I would come away disappointed.

BILL MOYERS: What's behind the question is Obama black enough? And before you answer, let me say that I haven't heard white people ask that. I've heard black people ask it but not white people. What's behind that question?

RONALD WALTERS: Well, black people I think have the authority to ask that question because blackness is very important in terms of their evaluation of this person. When you look at the cues that blacks have heard about him-- Kenyan father, Caucasian mother, Indonesia, Hawaii, everything but Alabama, Mississippi, ghetto, grits. You know, things that people actually understand if you're trying to define blackness. Blackness is the route to trust.

BILL MOYERS: Blackness is?

RONALD WALTERS: Is the route to trust. If you trust a candidate, then you will give them your political support. That's not just for blacks. It's true for evangelicals. It's true for any culturally coherent group. What they do is they size up a candidate according to their culture. And if that person passes muster, then that builds trust. And if they can trust them, then they will give them their political support.

BILL MOYERS: Can Obama win?

RONALD WALTERS: I think that that's a tremendous question. And I think that there's a possibility that he can win. There are many people who think that he can't because of their experience with American racism. There could be a storm here, coming out of the first four or so primaries. Because the way the polls are going now, it looks as though he has a really very competitive chance in nearly all of them. He could build the political momentum to come out of those-- into some of the larger states. And unless Hillary stops him in Florida, he might just go all the way. So mathematically and analytically there's the chance, yes, that he could win. When you look at the history of this country and the history of racism and race in particular there is a huge, huge doubt that he will eventually become president of the United States.

BILL MOYERS: Will you come back and let's take stock of it two or three months from now?

RONALD WALTERS: I will. BILL MOYERS Okay. Dr. Ron Walters, thank you for joining me on the Journal. That's it for this week. We’ll be back next week. I’m Bill Moyers.

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