01/30/2008 04:04 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

'Brother' Bill, Barack Obama and the Votes of Black Folk

As the day of the South Carolina primary drew nearer, the Bill-and-Hillary tag team held nothing back, launching into full attack mode against fellow contender Sen. Barack Obama. There was former president Bill Clinton asserting that his wife was at a disadvantage in South Carolina on account of her race. But the strategies of Camp Clinton backfired. Not only did Sen. Obama rise above the fray, trouncing Sen. Clinton in the primary, but Sen. Obama also reinforced his position as a coalition builder with an even broader base of supporters.

In 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected to his first term as president, he received 83 percent of the black vote compared to 39 percent of the white vote. In 1996, when elected to his second term, Bill Clinton received 84 percent of the black vote compared to 43 percent from whites. Ever since he was anointed 'the first black president', much ado has been made about Bill Clinton's soulfulness. See Bill play his saxophone; see Bill in his office in Harlem.

But a closer inspection of Bill Clinton's legacy in the black community paints a less than savory picture. In his book, The Debt, author/attorney Randall Robinson highlights how discernibly little Bill Clinton did for black people. Robinson points to Clinton's first term, when he sponsored the most punitive crime bill in history, which was passed in 1993; signed the most punitive welfare reform bill in history; and thousands of people silently have been sifted out of federal government employment through the "reinventing government program". Clinton, however, "maintained his grip on black voters by praying with them in black churches. Yet, when one examines the impact of the crime bill on the sharply increased criminalization of black youth in particular, the exposure of the poorest blacks to the labor market with sufficient training or family support, and the lack of investment in urban schools or communities, Clinton's positive initiatives may be viewed as largely symbolic."

Given the loyalty and support Bill Clinton has enjoyed from the African-American community over the years, it was rather odd to hear him say recently, "As far as I can tell, neither Senator Obama nor Hillary have lost votes because of their race or gender. They are getting votes, to be sure, because of their race or gender -- that's why people tell me Hillary doesn't have a chance of winning here."

As it turned out, Sen. Clinton did not win the South Carolina primary. Sen. Obama enjoyed a landslide victory, garnering 55.4 percent of the votes, compared to Sen. Clinton's 26.5 percent. black women voters were critical to Sen. Obama' victory in last Saturday's primary. In South Carolina, more than half of the Democratic voters are black, and the majority are women. Therefore, of the 55 percent of votes cast for Sen. Obama last Saturday, Black women cast 27.5 percent of the votes. In a telephone interview this morning, David A. Bositis, of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, pointed out that this was not an issue-driven election. After all, the concerns of black women are no different from the concerns of the general population -- the war in Iraq, health care, and the economy. According to Mr. Bositis, during the October-December time frame, African-American women were evenly split -- one-third for Sen. Obama; one-third for Sen. Clinton; and one-third undecided. But in the final days there was a marked shift by black women from the Clinton camp over to Sen. Obama, due in large part he thinks "to a rejection of the negative campaign on the part of the Clintons".

Sen. Obama emerged with a new base of supporters. According to exit polls conducted by Edison/Mitofsky, about 70 percent of white voters said they would be satisfied if Mr. Obama won the Democratic nomination. Also, about as many South Carolina White men voted for Sen. Obama as for Sen. Clinton.