Does Obama-Paterson Tension Mark the Limits of “Race Loyalty”?

By Michelle Chen Sep 26, 2009

As if there weren’t enough to ridicule already about New York politics, Governor David Paterson and President Obama are reportedly caught in a standoff over Paterson’s potential candidacy in the 2010 governor’s race. Since Paterson was catapulted into the seat following his predecessor Eliot Spitzer’s sex scandal, he has struggled with low popularity, frazzled by fiscal crisis and embarrassing partisan paralysis in Albany. And while his status as New York’s first Black governor invites comparisons to the President, unlike Obama, Paterson has been (awkwardly) outspoken about how race impacts his political image. When he suggested that the media’s condescending portrayal of him reflected racism—he was criticized for being impolitic or “making excuses” for his lackluster performance. And now we have President Obama apparently urging Paterson to step aside and let a much more popular Democrat, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, go up against the Republican challenger (rumored to be none other than the notoriously dictatorial former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani). Is there something troubling about the nation’s first Black President trying to squeeze New York’s first Black Governor out of a pivotal race? Is Obama going to the mat for the Democratic Party when he should instead be standing up for an embattled fellow trailblazer? Amid the convulsive racism that has shadowed Obama’s health care reform initiative, the President is probably feeling more besieged than Paterson by systemic racial tensions. Is Paterson taking a hit for rattling a political third rail? Or is this just an inconvenient crossing of race politics and political self-interest? Dana Goldstein at TAPPED argues that fear of a resurgent Giuliani (well-remembered by Black New Yorkers for presiding over rampant police brutality and "zero tolerance" policies) gives the White House good reason to intervene. But Glen Ford at Black Agenda Report foregrounds race in his reading of the Obama administration’s maneuvers:

BAR has no favorite in this dispute, since Paterson and Obama are ideologically indistinguishable. Rather, the president’s unprecedented bullying of Paterson should represent a challenge to those African Americans that supported Obama because, in the words of crusading New York City councilman Charles Barron, “I just want to give a brother a shot.” Now, the only “shot” that “brother” Paterson will get at election in his own right is the coup de grace to his temple administered by President Obama. When the white people have left the room, most African Americans on the Left, Right and in-between will confess that their support for Obama is rooted in race — a default position that has become dysfunctional with the advent of Obama and a whole crop of corporate-friendly Black politicos. In the past, race-based electoral loyalty served Black people rather well — when it was reciprocal. But Barack Obama harbors no such loyalties; Paterson was deemed a weak candidate, so he had to go.

Yet in Ford’s view, while Obama shrewdly plays a game of “electoral race loyalty,” Paterson can’t exactly claim to be a victim. “Both can be counted on to buttress the Right at critical junctures, and seem to share an antipathy to the Left,” he says. So where does that leave the frustrated constituencies that helped send these figures into the political establishment, whose “loyalty” is buoyed by flagging hopes for true representation? It might have been easier to analyze the Obama-Paterson flap in racial terms had either politician ever firmly and explicitly taken on a racial justice agenda. But of course, neither of them would be where he is now if not for an ability to suppress race issues whenever politically expedient. At the end of the day, both men are beholden to a political structure that tends to invoke race only when it serves the party’s ambitions. The rest of the time, they’re on their own. Image: AP