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Soul Brother? Bill Clinton and Black Americans

“… he [Clinton] has always wanted our love and wanted to share his love with us,” “It is not about the skin. It is about the spirit and the soul of this soul brother.”

Former Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater

I was mildly amused, a bit disgusted but not surprised when former President Bill Clinton was named to the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of gullibility when it comes to the relationship between blacks and the man from Hope. Towards the end of his term, he was viewed favorably by a staggering 83 percent of African Americans. Now Clinton has been named honorary chairman of the planned $37 million national Museum of African American History expected to open in Charleston in 2007.

Besides just having a big name draw to raise money, it should be obvious what’s going on. Clinton is reworking his image by creating a phony civil rights legacy. Forced to resign because of Watergate, Richard Nixon attempted to reshape his image into that of a foreign policy expert before his death. Jimmy Carter left office a failure with hostages in Iran and an economy in crisis. He was still able to remake himself into a statesman and international peace advocate. Should Clinton get his way, memories of his real race record will fade as he transmogrifies himself into a racial healer. And he is getting plenty of help, as always, from black people.

Charles King the hall of fame’s executive director said the former president deserved induction “to show him our appreciation not only for what he did as president but for his lifelong association with us. He came to us. We were responsible for him being governor, and president. He held on to that. And we held on to that.”

Clinton is now the only white person among the hall’s 62 members, who include poet Maya Angelou, John Johnson, founder of Jet and Ebony magazines, and former Clinton administration surgeon general Joycelyn Elders. Remember Elders? Clinton fired her because she said it wasn’t a bad idea to talk about masturbation in sex education classes.

The evening of the induction Clinton shared the dais with soul-turned-gospel singer/preacher Al Green. The two have so much in common that it’s a wonder Clinton hasn’t had a pot of hot grits flung at him. Point being – their commonalty has more to do with them being doggish, busted males than some twisted sense of racial or cultural empathy.

Since leaving office, Clinton’s been working his ‘ghetto pass’ overtime. When complaints arose about the cost of his office space in Midtown Manhattan what did he do? He moved to 125th Street in Harlem, historically, the intellectual capital of black America. And the community that nurtured Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Jessie Fauset, W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, Adam Powell and a host of others ate it up. Harlem was Clinton’s second choice and for that he got a hero’s welcome.

At present, the only national political figure the Democratic Party has ? black or white – that blacks identify with is Clinton. In 1998 the party’s black get out the vote effort consisted of mailing out postcards with Clinton posing beside black families. In the 2002 elections black households once again got their postcards with Clinton’s picture followed up an automated phone message from their good buddy Bill.

No other president in United States history has managed to get so much black support for giving so little. But what makes Clinton’s race act so successful is that black America never asked him to do much to begin with. In the 1980s, Clinton was the first white candidate for governor to reach out to Arkansas’s black voters, to eat on their porches, pray in their churches, invite them into the governor’s office. For 12 years before Clinton, Ronald Reagan and George Bush insulted and ignored black people. Consequently, when Clinton wooed African Americans, most were just happy someone was finally paying attention. To some degree, black support of Clinton is also acknowledgement of the black community’s need for white acceptance.

Some argue that Clinton deserves support because his economic policies were a boon for African Americans. During his administration median income reached an all-time high, and poverty among blacks dipped thanks in large part to his increases in the minimum wage and the Earned Income Tax Credit. But on the other side of the economic coin the black-white wealth disparity remained fixed and the gap between the rich and poor expanded under his administration.

Others point to the record number of African Americans in the Clinton cabinet and the picture of racial diversity it projected. At times Clinton talked the social justice talk generously KillingTrayvons1invoking the name of Martin Luther King. While touring Africa he even gave a half-hearted apology for America’s part in European colonization and enslavement. A black man, Vernon Jordan, was his best friend. A black woman, Betty Currie, was his personal secretary. It’s debatable whether the blacks around Clinton had any real power, but real or not, his mostly symbolic gestures were much more than black people had ever seen from a white person in power. And those gestures have carried Clinton a long way.

The joke that refuses to go away has Clinton as America’s first black president ? a sentiment enthusiastically affirmed by black celebrities, elites and quasi-intellectuals. In his bit, comedian Chris Rock used Clinton’s “persecution over a $300 haircut” to support the claim. Former Southern Christian Leadership Conference head Joseph Lowery said that blacks like Clinton because “he plays the saxophone.” Harvard professor Alvin Poussaint joked, Clinton “must have black ancestry.” Back in1998 during the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, writer Toni Morrison said, “black skin notwithstanding: this is our first black President” citing his dysfunctional upbringing as commonality with black males. But the joke’s an insult. The punchline is that Clinton is decadent and promiscuous, got rhythm, got caught and got over — so he’s black!

The notion of Clinton as a great friend of the black community or defender of civil rights is just as crazy. Clinton co-opted civil rights themes and figures and distorted their meaning for his political advancement and survival. Whether it’s his telling blacks how disappointed “Dr. King would be [in them] if he were alive today,” because of black on black crime or his attorney comparing him to Abraham Lincoln during the impeachment hearings ? Clinton was an expert at playing the race card. All the while, his policies and attitude on due process, equal protection and equal treatment, or civil rights (rights guaranteed to all), were horrible. A couple examples of his racial hypocrisy come to mind. One was his initiative requiring citizens, mostly black, in public housing to surrender their Fourth Amendment or privacy rights. Another was the “one strike and you’re out” policy under which public housing residents convicted of a crime, along with anyone who lives with them, are evicted without consideration of their due process rights. But while the Rehnquest Court upheld these assaults on the rights of the poor, Jeb Bush (via his daughter Nicole) and Clinton (still on the public dole) all remain exempt from the laws they promote.

Southern politician Clinton has always played the race-crime game to perfection. In his first presidential race Governor Clinton ran for office supporting the death penalty at a time when the country was split almost down the middle on the issue. Then for good measure, he rushed back to Arkansas to oversee the execution of convicted killer Ricky Ray Rector, a brain-

damaged black man. For years after his 1st election, I kept a picture of Clinton and then-Georgia Senator Sam Nunn posing in front of a phalanx of black inmates in white prison suits taken at Stone Mountain, Georgia. Historians generally give Pulaski, Tennessee the dubious honor as the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. But Stone Mountain is hailed as the Klan 2nd home. The picture appeared in newspapers all across the south the day of the southern primaries in 1992. That picture is what Clinton has always represented to me.

So, the fact that Clinton left behind a larger — mostly black — prison population than when he took office should come as no surprise. Black incarceration rates during the Clinton years surpassed Ronald Reagan’s eight years. The incarceration rates for blacks increased from around 3,000 per 100,000 to 3,620 per 100,000 people during his administration. That he did nothing about mandatory minimum sentences ? no surprise. That he did nothing to change the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine that disproportionately affects African Americans ? no surprise. That he successfully stumped for “three strikes and you’re out in the crime bill, for restrictions on the right of habeas corpus and expansion of the federal death penalty ? no surprise. When he came into office one in four black men were involved in the criminal justice system in some way; when he left it was one in three. In many states ex-felons are denied the right to vote, a factor that had a direct impact on the 2000 presidential vote in Florida. Again, no surprise.

Shortly after leaving office, Clinton published a piece, “Erasing America’s Color Lines,” in the New York Times. He wrote that “America was now at a point where, we can write a new preamble to the 21st century, in which color differences are not the problem, but the promise, of America.” He outlined a path that would allow the Bush administration to reduce systemic racism. The list included a ban on racial profiling, an examination of mandatory minimum sentencing and a presidential commission on voter reform.

But Clinton’s suggestions were another bit of hypocrisy given that he refused to implement them while he had the chance. And his knowledge that George Bush will never take any of his suggestions made the whole exercise just another piece of grotesque symbolism, typical of his relationship with the black community. The commentary was a perfect postscript to Clinton’s marriage with Black America, a relationship that is characterized by the James Brown song “Talking loud and saying nothing.”

On the night Clinton was inducted into the Arkansas hall of fame, Charles King must have lost his memory. He forgot that, as Governor, his guest of honor refused to sign a civil rights bill. In Charleston, the people behind the civil rights museum forgot that Clinton dumped his friend Lani Guinier from consideration for the Justice Department’s office of civil rights over her advocacy of cumulative voting – the next frontier for civil rights which would break down voting by race and party.

Maybe Clinton’s name and service on the board in Charleston will help lure the money needed to make the project a reality. Maybe now blacks will get to use him and maybe get something in return for a change. But he shouldn’t be allowed simply to fundraise himself into a legacy or assume a legacy he doesn’t deserve. A legacy should be more that just showing up. As for being a soul brother? He’s got a very, very long way to go.

This article originally appeared in the December 2002 edition of CounterPunch.

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Kevin Alexander Gray is a civil rights organizer in South Carolina and author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike! The Fundamentals of Black Politics (CounterPunch/AK Press) and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He is the editor, along with JoAnn Wypijewski and Jeffrey St. Clair, of Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence from CounterPunch Books. He can be reached at kevinagray57@gmail.com

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