Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Clinton Family Fun-Time Minstrel Show

This is my fawning response to a great Slate article here by Melissa Harris-Lacewell, associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton. The title is "The Clinton Fallacy: Black Americans' love for Bill Clinton is built on a fallacy -- Did blacks really make big economic gains during the '90s?" (The answer is not really.)

A money quote:
In many ways, the scandal-marred, deeply partisan years of the Clinton administration proved disappointing in the face of such early optimism. Welfare reform, the growth of black imprisonment, and the public abandonment of progressive African-Americans like Lani Guinier are some of the most memorable racial disappointments of those years... But there is evidence that Clinton's unmatched popularity among blacks confused many about the true economic impact of his presidency. In a 2005 article I co-authored in the Journal of Black Studies, I analyzed five national surveys from 1984 through 2000. The data show that nearly a third of black Americans held false understandings of black economic conditions during the Clinton years. By the time Clinton left office, many African-Americans incorrectly believed that blacks were doing better economically than whites. In the '80s, barely 5 percent of blacks believed blacks were economically better off than whites. By 2000, nearly 30 percent of African-American respondents believed that blacks were doing better economically than whites. This belief is simply wrong. There is no evidence to suggest that African-Americans were in a better economic position than whites at any time in American history, including during Clinton's presidency.

Damn straight. I was young during the Clinton presidency -- but even when I liked him, I never got why he was "the first black president" -- other than that he possibly did the best job of pretending/showing that he cared about black people than any other president. JFK's "Boston Brahminism" was never the personal touch that Clinton brought, plus his sax-playing and modest beginnings showed a president a little less... Upper-class white (despite that being what he is now) than we'd seen in a while.

Said another way: Clinton was probably the President least like Richard Pryor's impersonations of white people, which can't but have helped his popularity.

This is my slightly less informal response to the article on Slate's Fray:

It was over-time to start discussing Clinton's honorary "blackness" and what he did to deserve it. Identity politics are misunderstood, misused, and unjustly maligned in today's United States, where there are real and profound racial disparities stemming from past and present circumstances. Beyond the inherited disadvantages of lesser wealth and savings from the African-American slave and then underclass, blacks in the US suffer from a system that's convinced itself it's fair when Jim Crow is still in living memory. Many people are alive today who lived under segregation, yet we pretend that it's a past and best-forgotten phase in the US at that.

All this is to say that there are real disparities between races, and adoration of Clinton, who did nothing real to change this, and abandoned black progressives like Gunier and Elders, is as misplaced as the belief that blacks are equal to or better off than whites -- a perception too common among whites, as well, breeding some of the dissatisfaction with affirmative action and related programs. (After all, if black people are equal or better off, why should they get the breaks?) Eric Alterman rightly pointed this out as, in part, a failing of the media to accurately portray reality in the US, dividing blacks on TV news into criminals and stars. Clinton's stardom is part of this syndrome, and he of course has done nothing to correct it.

One can argue about Clinton v. Obama v. abstention or a third party, but one must do it from the knowledge that neither Clinton can lay claim to honorary blackness outside a bubble of hype and misperception -- they stood for business as usual. Indeed, sadly, these misperceptions are what led people like JFK to be revered, when Nixon and Ford did more substantively for civil rights. They were forced to do it politically, but did it all the same -- while people like the Clintons and JFK and perhaps even Obama get a free pass.

Clinton wasn't the first black president. He was the first BLACKFACE president.

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