The Triumph of Robust Tokenism

Clinton's racial strategy helped mainly those who had already helped themselves

What has William Jefferson Clinton, the master of American electoral politics over the past decade, done to and for race relations? The record, of course, is as mixed as the rest of his legacy.

To his great political benefit, Clinton managed simultaneously to appeal to Reagan Democrat whites who were impatient with ongoing complaints about racial injustice and to Maxine Waters-style blacks who were insistent that more must be done to redress past and present racial inequities. This political balancing act played a large role in enabling him to win the White House in 1992, to outlast the Gingrich Revolution of 1994, to overcome the Bob Dole challenge of 1996, and to weather the Monica Lewinsky embarrassment of 1998.

Clinton's strategy was two-pronged. One prong entailed assuaging fears that "progressive" politicians who attempt to be sensitive to the wrongs of racism will give away too much to racial minorities, particularly blacks. Clinton took this approach in his 1992 campaign when he decided to upstage Jesse Jackson at a forum Jackson had organized—a meeting of the Rainbow Coalition, his personal fiefdom. One of Jackson's guests was a young rap artist, Sister Souljah, who had made remarks to the press suggesting that it would be preferable for black criminals to prey on whites rather than on their racial kin. Clinton seized the opportunity to condemn Sister Souljah. Although he did so before an immediate audience that was mainly black, the audience he plainly had in mind was impressionable whites. He wanted to show them that he could stand up to blacks on their own turf and rebuff black guilt-tripping and mau-mauing. An array of black politicians and commentators assailed Clinton for "disrespecting" his host. But their highly public anger played right into Clinton's strategy: the more vociferous their denunciation, the more credibly Clinton could signal to white Reagan Democrats that he was courageously willing to offend his black allies, even if doing so cost him politically—though, of course, standing up to them was precisely the politic thing to do.

As President, Clinton made sure to insulate himself periodically against the charge that on matters of race he was too soft. This largely explains his sermons in black churches castigating illegitimacy, criminality, and other moral failings (this from the man who would give us the infamous blue dress); his signing of a welfare bill that was overwhelmingly opposed by the Congressional Black Caucus; and his refusal to speak up in favor of relaxing the draconian drug laws that have had an egregiously disproportionate and destructive impact on black communities. This calculation also explains Clinton's continuing support for capital punishment even though it is obvious that racial selectivity plays a major (albeit subtle) role in determining who are the unlucky few the State deems fit to kill.

The second prong of Clinton's strategy involved persuading influential black leaders—the CBC, the NAACP, black preachers—that ultimately he was on their side, that he felt their pain and shared their aspirations, that he sincerely liked them and was willing to display a fond association with them before the white American public. To accomplish this aim Clinton did several important things. He defended affirmative action—the one program that black activists see as indispensable and non-negotiable. He appointed blacks to high office, including positions above those commonly associated with African-Americans. He made it clear to everyone—through attendance at black churches, walks in black neighborhoods, highly public friendships with black people—that he enjoys the presence and ways of black folk. He visited Africa. And he created and hosted occasions aimed at making amends for America's past racial sins. These occasions generated enormously moving (and politically safe) moments, such as the one in which he apologized for the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment and the one in which he awarded Medals of Honor to black veterans whose heroism had previously been ignored. It is because of these measures and because of the paucity of such gestures from political rivals that Clinton has won the enthusiastic loyalty and deep affection of many blacks.

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