For years, we’ve had a running conversation about how much or whether the often vitriolic, seemingly gut level opposition to President Obama is tied to his race as opposed to simple partisanship, opposition to policies and more. It’s a tangled question since supporters and opponents each bring preconceptions and commitments to it. And it’s a question that is inherently over-determined since the same people who might bear a racial animus toward the President probably also oppose him intensely purely on policy grounds.
But we do have a resounding counter-factual always ready at hand: Bill Clinton.
Perhaps a generation has faded memories. And there is a sizable portion of the electorate – notably, one of President Obama’s key constituencies – which lacks a living memory of just what went down in the ’90s. But suffice it to say that if Republicans have gone batshit crazy on President Obama, it’s pretty hard to distinguish the intensity of the crazy from what happened with President Clinton. Bribery, multiple murders, rapes, defections to Russia, endless would be “-gates” rising and falling like bubbles in the international economy before settling down as penny stock scandals with a permanent home at the American Spectator. There was no end of the Crazy. And much of it was aggrieved and intense in ways that today we’d find very familiar.
But if the intensity is comparable, the character seems different. There’s a dimension of racial animus today lacking in the Clinton days. TPM has reported on the birther crazy in more ways than I can possibly remember. But I hadn’t seen it summed up so perfectly until I read this recent post by Ta-Nehisi Coates, in which he notes how we’ve been forced to witness the spectacle of a black president literally forced to ‘present his papers’ to white people in a way that half tragically, half comically recapitulates a centuries old practice with black men who’ve overachieved or jumped above their station.
But Bill Clinton may not be quite the counterfactual he may seem. Remember Toni Morrison’s line about Bill Clinton being the ‘first black president.’ Morrison wrote it really as an aside or an analogy. But it became literalized in a way that slipped well past the ridiculous. More than a few times in the 2008 cycle reporters actually asked Obama or Hillary about Obama’s status as a viable black contender for president in light of President Clinton having been the ‘first black president’. But peel back this silliness to look at what Morrison really meant.
Morrison wasn’t saying that Bill Clinton was kinda black or that he had some unique rapport with black people, though she hinted at elements of both. She was talking about how Clinton was treated – the way he was stalked, convicted long before any wrongdoing was or even might be found, even having his body figuratively stripped naked and his sexuality put on vivid display before the whole country.
Here’s the nub of what Morrison wrote in that 1998 essay in The New Yorker…
African-American men seemed to understand it right away. Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas. And when virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to disappear, when the President’s body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and bodysearched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof they spoke? The message was clear “No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved. You will be fired from your job, sent away in disgrace, and–who knows?–maybe sentenced and jailed to boot. In short, unless you do as we say (i.e., assimilate at once), your expletives belong to us.”
For a large segment of the population who are not African-Americans or members of other minorities, the elusive story left visible tracks: from target sighted to attack, to criminalization, to lynching, and now, in some quarters, to crucifixion. The always and already guilty “perp” is being hunted down not by a prosecutor’s obsessive application of law but by a different kind of pursuer, one who makes new laws out of the shards of those he breaks.
Here’s where I come back to Coates’ essay. It’s not just that President Obama is black, he’s also a Democratic president. And the Democratic Party is perceived as the institutional protector of the interests of African-Americans. There are nefarious versions of that perception and benign ones. But it’s also a simple reality if in no other way than any political party guards the interests of a major constituency. And the political valence of race isn’t just about individuals it’s about groups and group interests since, after all, “races” (social constructs they may be) are groups. And while President Clinton was ready to pivot off perceptions of the ‘blackness’ of the Democratic Party at key moments, at the end of the day he carried with him to the presidency and through his presidency the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, a fact of political power many in America were not yet ready to accept as a settled thing – a key element in understanding the intensity and identity of his most aggrieved political enemies.
Remember too that Clinton too fell into his own coded race rhetoric in the build up to the South Carolina primary in 2008 as the Democratic nomination was slipping definitively from Hillary’s grasp.
American demography is dramatically different than it was 22 years ago when President Clinton was first elected. The Democratic Party is now demonstrably a multiracial party, with at best a bit more than 50 percent of its votes coming from whites, facing off against a party that is now overwhelmingly white. To whatever extent opposition to President Obama is racial, it’s not only because he’s black himself, it’s because he’s the leader of the party that is the institutional representative of black people. Indeed, in a way that wasn’t nearly so clear 22 years ago, the Democratic Party now disproportionately represents African-Americans, Hispanics, East Asians and South Asians. It’s the most visible force in American political life that stands for an America that looks a lot more like the current Democratic Party than the current Republican Party.
So President Obama is unique in American history (and likely will remain so for some time) in not only having aspects of political ‘blackness’ but also personally being black. It’s a double whammy. But some of the frenzy fixated on President Clinton too – and for reasons not wholly dissimilar. No, it won’t be the same. But we should expect some version of it in future whether it’s Hillary Clinton or some other white Democrat in the White House.
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