Adam Mansbach 2008

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The Clintons and the Black Community

The South Carolina concession speech delivered by Bill Clinton on his wife's behalf took a turn for the revealing when the former president evoked – as a way to staunch the wound - the Reverend Jesse Jackson's victories there in the 1984 and '88 caucuses.  Don't worry about this drubbing, he seemed to say, it's just a black thing.  

It was a fittingly unsavory post-mortem for a primary during which the role of race in the Democratic campaign shifted from feel-good narrative ("Obama wins Iowa, Proves U.S. No Longer Racist") to its more familiar place in American life: as a polarizer and a weapon, spoken of dishonestly when it is spoken of at all. 

More importantly, though, Clinton's comments were a reminder of his historical relationship with blacks: not his well-documented popularity in the black community, but his tendency to call on that support when he's in trouble and turn his back on it when convenient.  Look no further than Rev. Jackson, whom Clinton belittled in his attempt to demean Obama's victory.  This is the same man Clinton invited to the White House to provide spiritual counseling during the Lewinsky scandal, knowing – like any good Southern boy – that in the public imagination, no one carried more  moral authority than a black preacher.

Or look a little further, and remember that the rate of incarceration for black males rose by four hundred percent during the Clinton years.  Harken back to his own first presidenial run, and recall the way Bill paired a sax-blowing appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show with a disingenuous attack on the rapper Sistah Souljah -- deftly showing blacks he was down with them while offering whites proof that he was willing and able to put blacks in their place.

After eight years of Bush's world-destroying, Bill's bona fides are still apparently a worthwhile topic of discssion, even during a national debate.  The Toni Morrison quote-that-won't-die (and yet, mystifyingly, has escaped any real analysis) was offered up to Obama: was Clinton, as  Morrison wrote, the 'first black president'? 

In the midst of a campaign in which race has either been studiously avoided – I'm sorry, 'transcended' – or raised by Clinton proxies like former Senator Bob Kerrey as a means of undermining Obama with faux-praise, it was suddenly time to engage in a game of racial relativism. The hour had come to indulge the increasingly acceptable idea that race is a matter of attitude and skill-set and personal choice, rather than a deliberately constructed system of hierarchy and oppression.  Certainly, there are fascinating discussions to be had about the complexities of race and American identity.  But it remains clear that no one has ever been arrested for driving while wanting to be black.   

Obama – confronted not just with a ludicrous and pointless question (shouldn't we be talking about something else here? Education, maybe?) but also with one that would seem to imply that the electorate's excitement about his candidacy might be inappropriate, since we've already had a black president – responded the only way he could.  He made a dumb joke about Bill's dancing chops.

Footwork aside, the Clintons are at least black enough to understand how racism constrains their opponent.  Obama's greatest mistake would be to allow himself to display even half the level of anger any other candidate (or candidate's husband) might be permitted.  If he becomes an Angry Black Man, he risks losing the legions of white voters who are thus far willing to consider voting for him – but who still cross the street when a dark-skinned guy in a hoodie approaches from the opposite direction.  The Clintons know this, and their willingness to exploit racist presumptions for political gain underwrites the shocking aggression – and perhaps the failure - of their South Carolina campaign. 

Adam Mansbach is the author of the novels Angry Black White Boy (Crown, 2005) and The End of the Jews (forthcoming from Spiegel & Gray/Doubleday on March 18.)


Adam Mansbach  books  events  bio  music  interviews  other writing